Review: The Hollywood Economist

There is a tendency in meta-industry books about Hollywood to promise that the author will reveal hidden truths about how the studio system (or multimedia conglomerates) operate, one that promises to take us beneath the artificial sheen and airbrushed glamor of the star system or the breathless accounts of box office records found in trade publications such as Variety and The Hollywood Reporter.  Given that Hollywood entertainment is predicated on spectacle, such approaches are tempting.  They have pervaded the ideological criticism found in academic journals for decades.  And events such as the Oscars do little to obviate the perception of Hollywood as a space where celebrity images are carefully crafted.  Within that arena gossip blogs, whether about celebrities or the industry itself, seem to promise access to a “real” Hollywood that is carefully hidden from view like the back of a movie set (or an orchestra playing non-diegetic music), while other press accounts promise “unfiltered” accounts of how Hollywood really works.

Stepping into that realm, once again, is Edward Jay Epstein, whose latest book, The Hollywood Economist, promises to provide us with “the hidden financial reality behind the movies,” a book that picks up where Epstein’s previous work, The Big Picture, leaves off, with Hollywood studios increasingly focused on DVD profits, rather than theatrical box office.  It’s an intriguing premise, especially for those of us who are interested in the film industry and are concerned about how Hollywood economics might drive decisions about what kinds of movies are made and how they are released.  But like the hype that accompanies so many Hollywood movies, the book offers little that is terribly new, especially in its engagement with some of the recent trends in digital distribution.

Part of the problem with the book is that it consists primarily of recycled columns and blog posts written for Slate Magazine and a few other online publications, a complaint shared by the Entertainment Weekly critic, who also faults the book for not anticipating the trend toward 3-D projection.  Although it is somewhat unfair to fault Epstein for failing to predict the rise of 3-D (he does address it in a recent blog post on Avatar and in this interview with The Wrap), the complaint does illustrate the challenge of documenting in book form an industry that seems to be undergoing rapid, almost incessant, change.  Still, without providing a much needed frame for explaining such phenomena as the collapse of the indie financing model and the changes in DVD purchasing habits, Epstein’s account reads like a series of discrete events rather than offering an underlying logic (or illogic) to the system.

The book does begin to offer a brief glimpse of the challenges introduced by digital downloads and the movie piracy that is threatening to undermine the sell-through model associated with DVDs for much of the last decade.  As Epstein asks at one point, “Does any barrier, no less a fragile window, make sense in the quest for the couch potato in an increasingly digital age” (185)?  The answer, it seems, is essentially “no.”  To combat widespread piracy–note the recent articles about the “culture of piracy” in Spain–Epstein speculates that studios may move even closer to releasing movies simultaneously to theaters, on DVD, on download services, and on cable (217), a trend that might be reflected in the narrower DVD window for Alice in Wonderland.  Epstein also (I think correctly) argues that the piracy battle will not be fought only through legal and technological means but also through ideological ones, through “a global campaign to change the values of users” (217), a trend that seems to be reflected in Spain’s attempt to deal with piracy.

Although there are moments of keen insight, much of the material seems to be rehashed “insider knowledge” that most industry observers (even casual ones) will probably already know: Theaters are quite often more concerned about selling popcorn than movie tickets. Sex and nudity can often hurt box office and DVD sales through more restrictive ratings.  The Oscars are designed to persuade us that movies are more about art than profit.  Tom Cruise was cut from Paramount not because he was a weirdo but because he was getting too big of a cut from DVD and movie ticket sales.  Many of these claims are hardly new, and in places, they begin to feel a bit like padding.

Ultimately, despite the promise of taking us beneath the glossy surface of Hollywood culture, Epstein cannot resist turning the history of the entertainment industry itself into a cinematic narrative, one that romanticizes the early moguls and faces a second act crisis produced by television before facing a third act characterized by uncertainty.  Although the book has moments of insight about digital distribution and indie financing, the use of recycled blog posts often reinforces the felt perception that the reality of the entertainment industry is racing past any attempts to document it in a book format.

1 Comment »

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