February 7, 2005
Is the blockbuster the end of cinema?
The people who make the popcorn basically
know what they're doing. The people who
make the movies basically don't, at least not until the product is out there,
and then it's too late. Movie- making is
a business almost in spite of itself. No
film company was willing to invest in "The Birth of a Nation." Everyone said that David O. Selznick would lose his shirt on "Gone with the
Wind." When he didn't, various
parties determined to repeat the formula, and made "Mutiny on the
Bounty," "Cleopatra," "The Greatest Story Ever Told," "Waterloo,"
and “The Bible." They lost their
shirts. Universal and United Artists
turned down "Star Wars"; Twentieth Century Fox, the studio that
distributed it, gave George Lucas the rights to the sequels for nothing. After Steven Spielberg finished shooting
"Jaws," he believed that his career was over. Almost the entire industry was certain that
"Titanic" would be a financial black hole; it took in $1.85 billion
at the box office, more than six hundred million dollars ahead of the
next-highest-grossing picture of all time.
The history of Hollywood
is a comic routine of bad guesses, unintended outcomes, and pure luck. Half of the failures were well-intentioned,
and half of the successes were, by ordinary standards of fairness and decency,
undeserved. People do get rich making
movies; more often than not, they're the wrong people. That's why moviemaking is so much fun to read
about. Unless, of
course, it's your money.
The cinema, like the novel, is
always dying. The movies were killed by
sequels; they were killed by conglomerates; they were killed by special
effects. "Heaven's Gate" was
the end; "Star Wars" was the end; "Jaws" did it. It was the ratings system, profit
participation, television, the blacklist, the collapse of the studio system,
the Production Code. The movies should
never have gone to color; they should never have gone to sound. The movies have been declared dead so many
times that it is almost surprising that they were born, and, as every history
of the cinema makes a point of noting, the first announcement of their demise
practically coincided with the announcement of their birth. "The cinema is an invention without any
commercial future," said Louis Lumiere, the man
who opened the world's first movie theatre, in Paris in 1895. He thought that motion pictures were a
novelty item, and, in 1900, after successfully exhibiting his company's films
around the world, he got out of the business. It seemed the prudent move.
Of course, "death," in
this context, does not mean "extinction." What it means depends on the speaker. If the speaker is the president of the Motion
Picture Association of America, the condition of the movies is a function of
the variable that drives all consumer culture (including the publication of
novels), which is the return on investment.
If the speaker is the film critic of the Times, on the other hand, it's
a function of the return on critical attention.
What is good news on one method of accounting is not necessarily good
news on the other. Since 1992, the entertainment
industry has been America’s
second-largest export business, after aerospace; the television audience for
the Academy Awards ceremony is said to be a billion people. It is still perfectly possible that, from any
creative point of view, rigor mortis has set in.
David Thomson's The Whole Equation: A
History of Hollywood (Knopf; $27.95) is a coroner's report. The title is misleading. The book gives roughly two hundred and ninety
pages to the first fifty years of Hollywood
and about eighty pages to the last fifty, and the true scope of its interest is
even narrower. Thomson thinks that Hollywood had only two phases of first-class product: from
1927 to 1948, "The Jazz Singer" to the Paramount
decision (the Supreme Court case that broke the studio system by forcing the
studios to divest themselves of the theatre chains they owned); and from 1967
to 1975, "Bonnie and Clyde" to
"Jaws. “He considers silent film to
be, essentially, pre-cinematic, because, in his opinion, the full movie
experience re-quires sound; and he considers the contemporary blockbuster to be
beneath critical regard. "I have
nothing to say," he says, "about 'Star Wars.' "In any normal history of Hollywood, "Star Wars" is kind of
important, and if you are someone who believes that "history" means a
maximum of information presented with a minimum of opinion, then The Whole Equation is not the book for you.
But if you think that our interest in
movies has everything to do with our feelings about them, and if you have a tolerance
for repetition, digression, first-person indulgence, and general narrative
shagginess, then you are not likely to find a more affecting and intellectually
absorbing book on film as a popular art. Thomson's subject is not, strictly speaking,
the history of the movies; its subject is the history of caring about the
movies. That calls for something more
than just the facts. Tom Shone's Blockbuster:
How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer (Free Press;
$26) is also a history of caring, though few readers would call it affecting. Shone's book is an
anti-valedictory for Thomson's Hollywood,
written by someone for whom the movies began not in 1927 or in 1967 but in
1977, the year of "Star Wars." Shone mentions Thomson, but his prime specimen
of the reactionary taste he disdains is Peter Biskind's
history of Hollywood
in the nineteen-seventies, Easy Riders, Raging
Bulls. Like Thomson, Biskind thinks that around 1967 American filmmaking caught
fire and grew up, and then Spielberg and Lucas came along and put out the
flames with great deluges of cash generated by junk food for
fourteen-year-olds. Shone (who was born
in 1967) thinks that if you can't enjoy what Lucas and Spielberg created--"Jaws,"
Wars" and its first two sequels, the Indiana Jones
movies, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," "E. T. the Extra-Terrestrial,
" and the pictures their example made possible, movies like
"Alien" and "Back to the Future"—then you just don't enjoy
movies. What is death to Thomson was
life to him.
Still, even Shone has his limit—specifically,
"Independence Day," which came out in 1996 and marks, in his view, the
start of Hollywood's
decline into obscenely expensive bombast. "Independence Day" takes us to
"Godzilla," a movie that even its makers did not like but which
became the third-highest-grossing film of 1998; "Pearl Harbor," a dud
universally acknowledged that made more than four hundred and fifty million
dollars; and the second and third "Matrix" movies, roundly panned, whose
box-office total exceeds a billion. Giants
like these continue to stalk through the multiplexes, shaking gold from the
heavens with their thunderous, THX Certified footsteps; but inside their
high-definition, digitized craniums their tiny brains are dead.
The authors of Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office
Became a National Obsession (Miramax; $23.95) do not,
especially, care. Dade Hayes and Jonathan
Bing are editors at Variety. They arranged to observe the marketing machinations
for three big-budget movies that opened on July 4, 2003: the third
"Terminator," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger who worked tirelessly to
promote the film, and who, shortly after it came out, announced his candidacy
for governor of California;
die second "Legally Blonde" and "Sinbad," an animated
picture from Dream Works SKG. "Terminator
3" and "Legally Blonde 2" were "disappointments,"
which does not mean that they did not gross millions more than they cost. (Virtually no movie makes, officially, a net
profit, but that's a separate, adventures-in-accounting story.) "Sinbad" was a bomb. Hayes and Bing believe that Dream Works lost a
hundred million dollars on it.
In 1950, M-G-M allowed Lillian Ross
to observe the making of "The Red Badge of Courage"; in 1967, Twentieth
Century Fox allowed John Gregory Dunne to cover the production of "Doctor Dolittle." Big mistakes. We have all got a little smarter since then,
but those who work in movie publicity have got a lot smarter. They are certainly not about to give reporters
the kind of access that enabled Ross to write Picture and Dunne to write The
Studio, withering accounts of Hollywood vanity and folly. Although Hayes and Bing talked to many people
about movie distribution, which is the main business the studios are in today,
and although they have a lot of interesting information about the industry in
their book, they did not produce a true inside look. They did not talk, for instance, to Jeffrey
Katzenberg, who was the man behind "Sinbad.” Still, the process and the product that they describe—admittedly,
from the crassest possible perspective, which is the perspective of publicity
and marketing--do seem soulless.
The contemporary Hollywood
movie is what Harold Rosenberg once called an "anxious object." Rosenberg
was referring to art after Pop, to a time when, suddenly; a painting of a soup
can, or a pile of stones, or a wall of Polaroids was
worth a lot of money. But were these
works of art, or were they commodities?
The distinction had become blurry.
A similar thing seems to have happened at the same time to the movies. The legacy of the so-called New Hollywood,
the period, in the late nineteen-sixties and early nineteen-seventies, from
"Bonnie and Clyde" and "The
Graduate" through the first two “Godfather’s,” was the belief that critical
worthiness and high returns on investment symmetrical goods: They rise and fall
together. With “Jaws" and
"Star Wars," good-natured but cheesy adventure stories whose grosses
put even the "Godfather" movies in the shade, that faith began to founder. Not that people haven't
tried, God knows, but this just nothing serious to say about the larger
implications of "Star Wars."
This turn wouldn't have mattered so
much at the time if the movies had never gone through their New Hollywood
phase, and it wouldn't matter so much now if the industry didn't care. But the industry does care. The people who make movies need to be able to
take themselves more seriously than the people who make popcorn do. The situation would be simpler if everyone
was certain that the movies making money today have no more creative integrity
or cultural significance than a beer commercial. But no one is certain. People fear that they've lost the key to the
distinction. Hence the anxiety; and
hence these three books, because that, basically, is what all of them are
Most autopsies of the cinema tend to
be "It all started to go wrong when. . ." narratives. They're appealing in the same way those
"wise old person who knows the secret" stories that turn up in many
fantasy-adventure movies today are appealing, and they have the same shortcoming,
which is that in life there never is just one secret, and there never is just one
cause. In the case of a collaborative,
worldwide, mass-market entertainment like a Hollywood
movie, identifying causes is like predicting next year's weather. A butterfly flutters its wings in Culver City, and a decade
later you get "The Terminator.”
One of the merits of The Whole Equation is that it avoids
isolating a cause of death. It maintains
a kind of analytic deep focus; it tries to take in everything. Thomson thinks that some of the explanation
for what happened to the movies has to do with the movies and the people who
make them, but some of it has to do with the audience. "It's not so much that movies are
dead," he suggests at one point, ''as that history has already passed them
Many readers besides Tom Shone will
find all this snows-of-yesteryear stuff exasperating. Thomson is particular about the movies he
loves most: they are the movies of the nineteen-forties, “an exquisite mixture
of a lifelike dream world explored through the most refined and elaborate
camera styles-with vast sets, insinuating tracking shots, and lighting that
throbs with inner life with the fabrication of music in the air, day-dreamy
situations and indulged fantasy. "There
was nothing very admirable about the industry that produced these films; it was
an oligopoly designed for the enrichment of the oligarchs. But the greed and the philistinism didn't
matter, because something about the medium, and the talents it attracted, put
the movies, Thomson says, "on the cusp of feeling for an entire
This may seem a lime like saying
that music was never the same after swing—a matter of taste, and when you were
born. One of Thomson's favorite movies
(he wrote a book about it for the British Film Institute) is Howard Hawk's
"The Big Sleep," with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall,
which came out in 1946. In The Whole Equation, he calls it
"sublime." What's mainly
noticeable now about "The Big Sleep" is the cynical incoherence of
the plot—during the filming, Hawks called Raymond Chandler, from whose novel
the movie was adapted, to ask him to explain who killed one of the characters;
Chandler didn't know—and a lot of double entendres that seem on the verge of
camp. But you don't have to love "The
Big Sleep" to take Thomson's point, which is only that people no longer respond
to movies the way they once responded to "The Big Sleep." This is not simply an argument from nostalgia;
it has an empirical corollary. In 1946,
weekly movie attendance was a hundred million.
That was out of a population of a hundred and forty-one million, who had
nineteen thousand movie screens available to them. Today, there are thirty-six thousand screens
in the United States
and two hundred and ninety-five million people, and weekly attendance is twenty-five
And what is the main cinematic experience? The tickets, including the surcharge for
ordering online, cost about the same as the monthly cable bill. A medium popcorn is
five dollars; the smallest bottled water is three. The show begins with twenty minutes of
commercials, spots promoting the theatre chain, and previews for movies coming
out next Memorial Day; sometimes a year from next Memorial Day. The feature includes any combination of the
following: wizards; slinky women of few words; men of few words who can
expertly drive anything, spectacularly wreck anything, and leap safely from the
top of anything; characters from comic books, sixth-grade world-history textbooks,
or Bullfinch's Mythology; explosions;
phenomena unknown to science; a computer whiz with attitude; a brand-name soft
drink, running shoe, or candy bar; an incarnation of pure evil; more
explosions; and the voice of Robin Williams. The movie feels about twenty minutes too long;
the reviews are mixed; nobody really loves it; and it grosses several hundred
The standard explanation for this is
economics. About ten or fifteen years
ago, it became dogma in the movie industry that you could make a movie for ten
million dollars or for a hundred million dollars, but there was no profit in anything
with a budget in between. One reason for
the Hollywood budget gap is above-the-line
expenses—that is, the cost of crew, sets, travel, promotion, and so on. There are famous
exceptions--"Independence Day" is one--but safe thinking is that only
a handful of stars can open a movie worldwide.
These stars command a healthy portion of the budget, and they usually
take their money in the form of an advance against a percentage of the
gross. If the movie doesn't "make
back," the star gets to keep the advance; if the movie is profitable (and
the star has a deal based on "first-dollar gross," rather than on a
figure reached after other profit participants have been paid off: which is
often never), then the star's income can continue to grow, and at the expense
of everyone else waiting in line for a slice.
The risk of opening without a name is too great to take. The actors who provided the voices for the
animated characters in "Shrek2"--Mike Myers, Eddie Murphy; and
Cameron Diaz-were paid ten million dollars each for a few days' work in the
No prosthetic attachments; no early calls. Stars are
brands. So, of course, are names
pop-culture universe-Hulk, Spider-Man, King Kong—and sequels, such as "Die
Hard,” the fourth of which is scheduled to shoot this summer. These are all ways of preselling
the picture, before the reviews can unsell it.
The key to
the system is marketing. In 1975, the
average cost of marketing for a movie distributed by a major studio was two
million dollars. In 2003, it was thirty-
nine million dollars. The aim of
promotion is "unaided awareness"—in other words, "buzz," a
diffused sense in the public that the movie is on the way. Those previews are one means of buzz
development; another is the "coverage" of forthcoming movies on
television news programs, on entertainment-news shows, and in newspapers, media
outlets that often are owned by the same conglomerate that owns the
all-consuming desire is to get as many ticket buyers as possible into the
theatre on the first weekend, and, amazingly, people oblige. The crowds at the opening of a blockbuster
are a fascinating window on mass psychology: If people just wait a couple of
weeks, they can have their pick of seats.
But when they get back to school or to the office no one will want to
hear what they thought of the picture. That was last week's conversation. This is why the primary target for the
blockbuster is people with an underdeveloped capacity for deferred
gratification; that is, kids. Kids need
to see things right away. Deals are
therefore made with the theatre chains which give the studio a large
percentage, sometimes ninety percent, of ticket sales in the first week, with a
rapidly declining percentage in subsequent weeks. The theatre gets to deduct the "house
nut," the cost of keeping the theatre running; more important, it gets to
keep a hundred percent of the income from sales of popcorn, soda, candy, video
games, and anything else it can cram into the lobby. Concessions account for thirty-five per cent
of the revenue in the major theatre circuits.
This explains the three-dollar water.
When the studios
could enforce the practice of "block booking," which required theatres
to agree to exhibit less desirable titles in order to get the big features,
movies opened in a small number of major urban areas and then spread across the
country. Gradually, as the
studios started negotiating with competing chains, this method of platform release
was abandoned. The big features now open
on three thousand-plus screens, in order to maximize the benefit of their promotion.
Before the word of mouth has made it
around the block, the movie has already taken in, from the opening weekend,
typically somewhere between two million dollars. twenty-five and forty
per cent of its total gross. "Hulk"
set a record with a seventy-per-cent decline in ticket sales between its opening
and the second weekend, but the average drop-off for all movies is fifty
percent, and it is almost the definition of a blockbuster that the first
weekend is a make-or-break proposition.
Marketing costs for the “Matrix” sequels exceeded a hundred million
dollars. The reason that those movies
had such enormous grosses, despite terrible reviews is that opened on eighteen
thousand screens simultaneously worldwide.
As Shone says about the typical blockbuster, "By the time we've all
seen that it sucked, it's a hit."
studios distribute two hundred movies a year (down from between five and seven
hundred a year in the studio ear), and only a handful are blockbusters. But the blockbuster is where the money is. Every once in a while, there is talk about the
return of the midsize film-the picture that costs twenty million or so to make,
and that attracts interest and attention on its own merits. "Sideways" is this season's poster
child. "Sideways" is reported
to have cost around sixteen million dollars to make (exclusive of marketing costs).
After ten weeks, it had grossed twenty-two
million dollars. You might be able to
get Tom Cruise to walk across the street for twenty-two million dollars, but that's
about it. "Elektra," a widely
panned fantasy adventure which opened in the middle of January, the deadest
month in the business, grossed twenty-two million dollars in two weeks. "Sideways" was unbranded by stars
or title (and was not, in marketing parlance, "toyetic,"
susceptible to merchandising deals). In
those first ten weeks, it was shown on three-hundred and seventy screens. "Elektra" was based on a comic-book
character, and it opened on thirty-two hundred screens. To put both pictures in true blockbuster perspective:
which is considered a failure, has grossed just under half a billion dollars. The poor reviews for "Troy" didn't matter, because seventy-three
per cent of its box-office revenue came from overseas.
Foreign box-office income started
exceeding domestic box-office income for Hollywood
movies in 1993. For the typical top-ten
box-office hit, sixty per cent of exhibition revenue comes from overseas. This is a reason that the women don't have
much dialogue, and the men are too occupied with driving, wrecking, and leaping
to utter more than an occasional mal mot. In the first "Terminator," Schwarzenegger
had seventeen lines. Foreign audiences
aren't paying to hear an interesting conversation. That's not what domestic audiences are paying
for, either. The ideal product to market
is a "four-quadrant" picture, a movie that appeals to men and women
in both the over- and the under-twenty-five age groups. That's one reason performers with high adult recognition-Robin
Williams, Eddie Murphy, Billy Crystal, Robert De Niro-are
paid so much for cartoon voice-overs.
All the emphasis on box-office
distorts the real financial profile of a movie, because theatrical distribution
is just the first of many revenue streams. These include sales to pay television, sales
to broadcast television, DVDs, and merchandising licenses. Blockbusters today aspire to be
"tent-pole franchises"—centerpieces for multiple spin-off products,
from lunch-boxes to soundtracks, comic books, children's books, arcade games,
and computer games. "Batman"
earned three times as much from merchandise as it did from ticket sales; the
makers of "Jurassic
Park" sold a hundred
licenses for a thousand dinosaur products.
Blockbusters today are commercials: they're commercials for
themselves. They also include
commercials, in the form of product placement.
The all-time record for product placement appears to be owned by the
Bond film "Tomorrow Never Dies," which sold screen time to Visa,
Avis, BMW Smirnoff vodka, Heineken, Omega watches, Ericsson cell phones, and
L'Oreal. This explains the brand names.
So what else is new? This is Thomson's question in The Whole Equation: it can't be that
commercialism is what's wrong with the movies, because Hollywood has always tried to sell its
product in any way that it could, and to the largest possible audience. As Thomson says, "The urge to tell these
stories is inseparable from the urge to make money." Techniques are more sophisticated, but very
little about contemporary blockbuster economics is new. Hayes and Bing point out that the term
"blockbuster" dates from 1957, when Variety appropriated it from real-estate jargon and ordnance talk
to describe "Quo Vadis?," a movie with an
unprecedented budget (seven million dollars), which was promoted with
department-store ,window displays. As
Hayes and Bing also explain, the methods used to market "Jaws," in
1975, were basically the same as the ones Warner Bros. used to market "The
Beast from 20,000 Fathoms," in 1953—a summer movie that begins with an
atomic blast in Antarctica and follows the
logic that such an event implies (that is, the release from the ice of a
dinosaur the size of a football field).
Hollywood has always had the foreign market
on its mind. The United States has the highest per-capita movie
attendance in the world, and one of the ways that Hollywood has competed with foreign film
industries is by putting more money into its productions. The money goes right up on the screen, in the
costumes, the sets, the special effects—a degree of spectacle
that foreign moviemakers, with a smaller domestic market in which to recover
their costs, cannot compete with. The
extravagance of a Busby Berkeley musical, or of "Gone with the Wind,"
was the studio-era equivalent of blowing up the White House, in "Independence
Day," or wrecking all those cars. It
was something that everyone wanted to see but that only Hollywood could afford.
The profit participation that
drives the growth of above-the-line costs dates from 1950, the year Lew Wasserman, then the head of the talent agency M. C.A.,
negotiated a deal for Jimmy Stewart to play in two movies, "Harvey" and "Winchester 73." The studio, Universal, didn't have the cash
to pay the four hundred thousand dollars Stewart was asking, so Wasserman arranged
for him to get half the movies' profits. (M.C.A. eventually bought Universal, and
Wasserman found himself forced to accept the type of deal, disadvantageous to
the studios, that he had created.) Thomson
believes that profit participation has done the movies a lot of damage, because
it allows people to profit from the success of an investment with no risk to themselves on the downside. He also thinks, more provocatively, that
"creative control" is another source of trouble. When United Artists gave Michael Cimino the right of final cut on "Heaven's Gate,"
in 1980, it meant, Thomson says, that Cimino
"owned a thing he had not paid for."
He could indulge himself with other people's money. "Heaven's Gate" is, canonically,
"the movie that killed the New Hollywood." It almost killed United Artists, too.
But where did United Artists come from?
As Thomson reminds us, me company was
formed, in 1919, by Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford, and D. W. Griffith-four above-the-line people-in
order to enjoy the profits of the films they were providing the talent for. Their inspiration was the first blockbuster
ever, "The Birth of a Nation," which cost around a hundred and ten
thousand dollars to produce (a budget that no film company was willing to take
on) and eventually grossed sixty million. The movie had state-of-the-science promotional
and marketing support, including the famous blurb attributed to the President
of the United States,
Woodrow Wilson: "This is history written in lightning." Wilson's interest
in the film was the work of the author of the novels and stage play from which
it was adapted, Thomas Dixon, who had been a classmate of Wilson's at Johns Hopkins. Dixon
knew the movie business. When his offer
to sell the story to the filmmakers for twenty-five thousand dollars was
refused (since twenty-five thousand dollars was a quarter of the movie's total
budget), he accepted points instead. It
made him a millionaire. Griffith made money; too,
but, he felt, not enough, and that was why he was why he was happy to join in
the creation of United Artists. Lucas
and Spielberg are the descendants of Griffith
and, even more directly, of Chaplin, who made millions from the movies he starred
in: they are artist-businessmen. The
type is as old as Hollywood.
The drop in movie attendance after
1946 was sickeningly steep. Average
weekly attendance in the United
States in 1947 was ninety million, down by about
ten per cent. In 1950, it was sixty million;
in 1957, it was forty million. It bottomed
out in the early nineteen-seventies, at fifteen million, but it has not climbed
much since. (This is not only an American
phenomenon. David Puttnam
points out, in Movies and Money; an
excellent history of the business, that British movie attendance in 1946 was
1.6 billion, the highest in the world. In
1984, it was fifty-four million.) Almost
no one had a television set in 1947, and the studio system was still intact. There was no reason internal to the
entertainment business for the movies to lose their audience. They just did.
The blockbuster is a Hollywood tradition, but blockbuster dependence is a disease.
It sucks the talent and the resources
out of every other part of the industry.
A contemporary blockbuster could almost be defined as a movie in which
production value is in inverse proportion to content. "Troy"
is a comic strip, but what a lavish, loving, costly comic strip it is. The talent, knowledge, and ingenuity required to make just one of the battle scenes in that film, or one
mindless James Bond chase sequence, interchangeable in memory with almost any
other Bond chase sequence, would drain the resources of many universities. But why doesn't anyone put more than two
second’s thought into the story? The
attention to detail in movies today is fantastic.
There is nothing cheap or tacky about Hollywood's product, but there is something
empty. Or maybe the emptiness is in us.