TheWorld According To Hollywood?

October 31, 2005

by Edward Jay Epstein

The Hollywood Economist

The numbers behind the industry.

Pushing The Reality Envelope

On September 4, 2005, the New York Times printed the following intriguing correction:

An article last Sunday about film piracy included incorrect revenue data supplied by the Motion Picture Association of America. Hollywood’s global revenue in 2004 was $44.8 billion, not $84 billion. Of the total, $21 billion, not $55.6 billion, came from sales of DVDs and Videos.

The correction was the result of a Times reporter, Timothy L. O’Brien, asking the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to furnish the combined global take of the major studios in 2004. The MPAA receives the revenue reports from the six majors and compiles the total profits received from theatrical distribution, video sales (now mainly DVD), and television licensing. This data is then circulated among top executives in the “2005 All Media Revenue Report.” But instead of supplying the New York Times with the actual numbers, the MPAA sent it bogus figures. Hollywood’s DVD revenue alone was inflated by over $33 billion, possibly to make the MPAA’s war against unauthorized copying appear more urgent. Of course, the reporter had no way of knowing these impressive-sounding numbers were inaccurate and published them in an otherwise accurate story on film piracy. Such are the perils of Hollywood reporting. Since Hollywood is an industry dedicated to perpetrating illusion, its leaders often assume they have license to take liberties with the factual elements that support the movies they make. This practice is euphemistically described by marketing executives as “pushing the reality envelope.”

Consider, for example, Twentieth Century Fox’s creation of an “Extraterrestrial Highway” in Nevada. In 1996, in preparation for a publicity campaign for the movie Independence Day, Fox executives persuaded Nevada Governor Bob Miller to officially dedicate Nevada’s Highway 375 as a safe haven for extraterrestrials who landed their space ships on it. Fox then placed a beacon on the highway near the town of Rachel, Nevada, pointing to “Area 51”—which it described in a news release (sent via Fox news) as the place where the U.S. military operates “a top secret alien study project.”

To make sure that the story received wider circulation than just on Fox, the studio arranged for busloads of reporters to see the putative periphery of “Area 51.” Even though there is no such military base or “Area 51,” the “Extraterrestrial Highway” resulted in hundreds of news stories about alien visitors. Not only did this help publicize Independence Day, but it fed into the long-standing paranoid fantasy about government machination to conceal space invaders from the public. (A fantasy that Steven Spielberg, for one, has brilliantly mined in such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Men in Black, and the alien-abduction miniseries Taken.)

The way in which Hollywood crosses the boundary between the make-believe and the real world takes myriad forms. It can range from a studio creating a fake corporate web site, as Paramount did with the Manchurian Global Corporation for its remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to counterfeiting a film critic, as Sony Pictures did with the non-existent “David Manning.” It’s a given that studios will alter the off-screen lives of stars, as in the case of the unmarried actor Raymond Burr, whose official biography included two imaginary dead wives and a dead child. There’s also the common practice of scripting fake anecdotes for stars to recite on talk show, as, for example, Lucy Liu’s vivid description of her co-actress Drew Barrymore clinging to the hood of a speeding car going about 35 miles an hour without a safety cord during the making of Charlie’s’ Angels: Full Throttle.

Nor is it surprising that the culture of deception is so deeply entrenched in Hollywood. The industry, after all, derives much of its wealth and power from its ability to get audiences to suspend their disbelief in movies and television programs—even so-called “reality” shows. Further, to realize their full profitability, these illusions must be convincing enough to be sustained in other products—such as videos, theme park rides, games, and toys—for years, if not decades. So pushing the reality envelope is seen by the entertainment press and the players themselves as just part of show biz. It’s second nature, so to speak.


[back to archive]

if you have any comments please reply below:
your email:

Questions? Email me at
This website is still (heavily) under construction. The webmistress can be reached at