In his study of "the new logic of money and power in
Hollywood," Edward Jay Epstein offers the reader a
goodly array of facts, some of them charming and others
of them snooze-making. I can't easily suppress my indifference
to the fact that Sony employed seven thousand people in
2003, but I'm mildly charmed to learn that Walt Disney's
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
was the first movie to gross $100 million, and, also, was
the first film to boast a score that became a hit record.
Walt Disney, as Mr. Epstein observes, was perhaps the first
person to recognize that the way to control actors was to
draw them. The never-easy-to-please Ezra Pound could not
get enough of Disney's early masterpiece Perri: sheer genius,
he called it.
Of more relevance to power and money was Disney the marketing
wizard, who quickly began to license his characters, thereby
making the whole world his store, as it still is. Double-barreled
geniuses such as Walt
Disney are rare in any line of work. Of more relevance to
today's Hollywood are the legions who pursue what Mr. Epstein
rather grandly calls "The Learning Imperative":
Studios are finely tuned learning networks. Faced with a
constant stream of reports on how relevant audiences in
different markets are reacting to their films and other
products, they analyze the various
elements—including marketing, stars, and music—and,
along this learning curve, adjust their subsequent decisions
Which is to say that, like sorcerers of old, they read entrails,
with mixed results of course. The cruel truth is that only
the public knows what it loves, and then not until it sees
it. Giant, hugely expensive
flops continue to thud into the theaters season after season;
why they were made no man can explain.
Some of these flops are made by the biggest names in the
Spielberg, Scorsese, anyone. Directors and actors who work
going to have flops; the process of making a film is just
too complicated to click every time. Great directors control
better than do mediocre directors, but no one—whether
producer, director, or star—achieves total control.
And the business is slippery in other ways. DVDs now account
amounts of income flow, but consider how complicated that
can be if the
DVDs are being sold through Wal-Mart, as billions of dollars'
worth are ($5 billion in 2003, for example): Wal-Mart makes
it a policy to vet DVDs, videos, and CDs according to its
own standards with regard to profanity, sexual imagery,
else it deems potentially offensive to "family values."
If the studios want the premium shelf space...they have
to take into account its standards.
So the vast retail chains, each of which gets its say, have
replaced the wacky old Hays Office, the self-censoring board
which accounted for many ridiculous movies in which husbands
and wives had to sleep in all those chaste-making twin beds.
When Mr. Epstein talks about "logic" in his analyses
of shifting methodologies in the half-dozen big media conglomerates,
it seems to me what he's tracing are shift in confidence
in the vital matter of pulling in audiences for their product.
He points out that in 1947 the most Americans customarily
went to the movies was once or twice a week. The theaters
sold nearly five billion tickets in 1947, as opposed to
about one and a half billion in 2003. Where did three billion
people go? Well, home to become couch potatoes as they
surf through the now nearly infinite choices cable TV provides.
When the miniseries of my novel Lonesome Dove aired
on CBS in 1989 it got eight hours over four
nights; few there are in the networks who now think they
can keep an
audience for four nights to watch a western. (The last miniseries
writing partner, Diana Ossana, and I wrote, Johnson
County War, got
four hours on one night.)
Bringing people in is one thing, bringing them back quite
In his adroit charting of the confidence flow between the
various entities and eras Mr. Epstein kicks up lots of little
studios had huge confidence when they still were allowed
to own theaters and control almost every aspect of distribution,
but when the 1948 Justice Department antitrust decree went
against them, nixing
ownership of or collusion with the theaters, there was a
sharp and long-lasting decrease in confidence which has
lasted more or less to this day. When, for example, the
first of the Pink Panther movies came along MGM was initially
reluctant to license the cartoon character, but did anyway
and was surprised to find that the famous pink panther made
them more money than the movies he introduced.
Any book that sets out to analyze power in Hollywood has
constantly to reckon with the fact that there are two kinds
of power: ownership or executive power, and Star Power!
Mr. Epstein does an excellent crisp
job of describing ownership power, but star power is considerably
more nebulous. The entertainment business is in itself no
more interesting than the oil business, which it in some
way resembles (lots of dry holes, an occasional well). The
moguls make the money but the stars make the magic—a
judgment I doubt Mr. Epstein would disagree with.
I enjoyed Mr. Epstein's book, but I read it, I confess,
with a certain nervousness. book like that might well contain
bad news for
screenwriters, a craft I've worked at fo forty-three years,
during which time I've done at least one draft of something
like seventy scripts, the last fifteen with Diana Ossana.
The only project I've ever
turne down was a remake of Rin-Tin-Tin, a lapse of judgment
I've regretted ever since. There's absolutely nothing wrong
Rin-Tin-Tin! Does the new logic of power and money—if
it is new and if it's logic—mean that screenwriters
will have a harder time getting work? Well, not that I can
find in The Big Picture, mainly because the Grand
Acquisitors who collectively own the entertainment business
operate so far above us lowly scribes as to scarcely be
in the same solar system.
The top of the entertainment food chain is an increasingly
toxic landscape peopled only by a tiny handful of Grand
Acquisitors, all of
them present in The Big Picture: Rupert Murdoch
(News Corp), Sumner Redstone (Viacom), John Malone (Liberty
Media), Michael Eisner (Disney), Barry Diller (various companies),
plus a sprinkling of
relative youngsters whose mettle has not yet been fully
tested, and the occasional renegade such as the financier
Kirk Kerkorian, who, for years, has used MGM as his personal
I don't suppose any of these gents possesses any more native
than John Jacob Astor or John D. Rockefeller or H.L. Hunt
or John Paul
Getty, but technologically they live in a far more complex
world, a world in which they acquire and acquire and acquire,
in hopes of
capturing that elusive beast, "synergy." If they
can only catch synergy there will be harmony between the
various parts of each empire, and Amazons of money will
Probably AOL and Time Warner thought they had synergy safely
in the paddock when the former acquired the latter in 2000—but
they were wrong. The mighty merger proved an embarrassing
failure, knocking the various executives involved off the
Edward Jay Epstein is quite good at describing the complex
systems through which revenue flows in these vast entertainment-business
conglomerates, which, besides movie studios, publishing
houses, and TV stations, also link cable, pay TV, licensing
arms, overseas sales, and the like, assuring, in most cases,
that even films which do poorly in domestic box office still
make plenty of
money. The six nearly all-powerful conglomerates are Viacom,
Warner, NBC/Universal, Fox, Sony, and Disney. They are,
needless to say, run by highly—some would say insanely—
competitive men, struggling to place their bets on emerging
technologies before anyone else can.
As for the theaters themselves, the invention that did more
them into profit than any other was the addition of a simple
cup holder to every seat in the house. And how to encourage
theatergoers to drink more soda pop: just add a little more
salt to the popcorn, which will make them thirsty, so off
they go back to the concession stand for more soda and perhaps
a giant candy bar or two.[*]
Theaters like to pull in paying customers and don't object
if these customers enjoy the movie, just so they don't enjoy
it so much that they neglect the concession stand, which
has provided the real source
of profit to the theaters for, as Mr. Epstein notes, a very
Even as I write, a corporate melodrama of intense interest
to students of Hollywood is being played out in a Delaware
courtroom: it pits Michael Eisner, th present CEO of Disney,
against Michael Ovitz, the
former el supremo of CAA, the talent agency he founded with
a couple of
other escapees from William Morris. What has highly placed
Hollywooders rolling in the aisles is the demonstration,
shameless on both their parts, of how perfectly Michael
Eisner and Michael Ovitz deserved each
other—not that that had really been much of a secret.
This story starts in 1994, when the revered Disney executive
Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash. He had been
Disney, under Eisner. The able head of production Jeffrey
Katzenberg had hoped to succeed Frank Wells, but Eisner
shrugged him off. Katzenberg sued Disney, collected $280
million in back pay, and became
a partner in DreamWorks, where he still abides.
Michael Eisner is probably not the kind of executive who
finds it lonely at the top—or at least he didn't until
he had coronary bypass surgery. I had had the same surgery
some years earlier, and discovered
that, for several years, there was darkness and void in
the chambers of the self, with only a faint echo now and
then to suggest that my old self was there somewhere, calling
out. I wrote Michael Eisner,
describing this void, and he wrote me back, cautiously,
as was only fair. I was just a writer, with no reason to
conceal my troubles; but he was the CEO of a twenty-billion-dollar
company. The slightest
suggestion that anything was wrong and the wolves would
have been on him in a second. But he did put some of my
letter in his autobiography, and even gave me a free copy.
He also hired Michael Ovitz to be president of Disney, perhaps
hoping to secure the help that his wife, Jane Eisner, felt
he badly needed. Michael Ovitz didn't provide it. He stayed
fourteen months, annoyed
everyone in the company, and collected $140 million in severance
pay when he left. It is this payment that a group of Disney
shareholders have been contesting in Delaware.
Even allowing for the heart surgery, it is still inexplicable
to me why these two highly able men took this particular
leap. They were not strangers to each other, or to Disney.
Michael Eisner must have known
that Michael Ovitz was not going to be the new Frank Wells.
And, for his part, Michael Ovitz must have realized that
being president of Disney, under Eisner, would be about
as much fun as being president of
Albania. And yet they did it.
It makes me wonder whether "logic" really belongs
in the subtitle of Edward Jay Epstein's book. It's a good
book, but what I wonder is, who will want all these facts?
Not the Grand Acquisitors, surely; nor the
players in the studios and the agencies, who are too busy
being players to read it. And not the actors and actresses
who actually carry, on their often frail shoulders, the
whole glorious myth of Hollywood.
As for the general public: forget it. The general public
far prefers the tabloid view of Hollywood. Which stars are
sleeping with or not sleeping with which other stars: that's
what most people want to know about Hollywood—it's
an honest standard. I pretty much rely on it myself.
Personally I'm just waiting, with my partner, for Rin-Tin-Tin
around again, as possibly it will. This time we mean to
[*]One marketer thinks the cup holder the greatest movie
invention since sound.