Edward Jay Epstein's detailed exposition of today's movie industry, The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood, will cast the scales from the eyes of even the most romantic of film fans. It's all about the money, honey -- and in that regard, Epstein's book is a fascinating, easy-to-digest outline of this ever-evolving business, a work that is certainly timely, albeit alarming.
Though the industry and its machinations are complex, Epstein, who's also written books about the Warren Commission and television news, does a fine job parsing them in layman's terms. Most illuminating are the first 100 pages, which depict clearly and specifically how just six global corporations -- Sony, Time Warner, NBC Universal, Viacom, Disney and News Corporation -- grew to control virtually all entertainment media, and exactly how these six make their money. The so-so film you see in a theater on Saturday night is ultimately just a necessary key to unlock a torrent of other money -- overseas distribution, cable, video rentals, DVD sales, video games, cross-promotional tie-in with books, magazines, TV shows and fast-food restaurants, toys and other licensed products, and so on.
The remainder of the book is divided into sections that describe the process of deal-making, film production and the necessary illusions required to keep us buying tickets. Much of this is easily discerned or is obvious (shockingly, it turns out that most entertainment news is planted PR) but even a well-informed fan may glean a fascinating nugget about this most curious industry. Certainly the disbursement of monies after a "hit" movie is an eye-opening exercise in bizarre accounting, and the industry's brilliant solutions to the perceived threats of VHS rentals and DVD sales can only win a consumer's grudging respect, even as he's fleeced yet again.
And some of book's minutiae are perversely entertaining. For example, a screenplay credit that reads "Joe Blow & Freddie Fish" means they wrote as a team on one draft, while "Joe Blow and Freddie Fish" denotes that Blow and Fish turned in separate drafts. Presumably only a good lawyer can turn a contested "&" into an "and."
Later, Epstein attempts to toss a rope around less-quantifiable aspects of the film business: producing smaller, less profitable films for prestige, for example, and the dance of accommodating stars, whose visibility and "connection" with consumers matters as much as the $100 million production bankroll. Here, I wish that Epstein had been more colorful. The material becomes repetitive, and its bloodlessness more noticeable. It's not that Epstein treats Hollywood players with kid gloves necessarily, but reading this book you'd miss that astonishingly bad behavior -- from boardroom megalomania to on-set drugs -- is also part of the industry's operating success. I found it curious that when he chose to illuminate problem stars, he described the plot of America's Sweetheart rather than just supplying a real-world example.
He favors one film -- Terminator 3 -- as a behind-the-scenes example, and while it's useful for understanding how a $187 million piece of crap gets made on the wings of a franchise and a mega-star like Arnold Schwarzenegger, a wider selection of films might have been more illustrative of the industry as a whole.
To condense Epstein's argument to its most basic terms, it would seem that a handful of bottom-liners seek to produce whatever a couple over-caffeinated 15-year-olds in a suburban multiplex want to watch. That would be car chases and explosions (with breaks for buying more popcorn), and a set of characters who can sustain a lucrative after-market of video games, T-shirts, cell-phone wallpaper, special-edition DVDs, etc., etc. in perpetuity. And in a global market that can generate the bulk of a film's profit, nothing is easier to sell than a simplistic action hero.
As a movie fan and film critic who sees a lot of Hollywood product, I ultimately found The Big Picture quite depressing -- could films actually get worse? -- though I warrant we all deserve the wake-up call. Sure, there are fantastic films out there -- even great films that tumble from the Big Six machine -- but the hard reality may be that increasingly, the audiences are just suckers, the first set of cogs in a great multinational scheme to generate untold sums years later in Asia. See you at Star Wars.