Dangerous Liaisons

How Hollywood seduced the world, then ate it.

creature with hooves carrying alice
Illustration by Jillian Tamaki

At the beginning of the last century, church leaders denounced film as the devil’s instrument. This new entertainment drew people out of the light and into the darkness, a perfect metaphor for damnation. That refrain has been repeated often since then by various groups: the Moral Majority, Congress, and Henry Ford (his anti-Semitic newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, noted that the majority of studios were owned by Jews: “We [have] a movie problem”). Usually the battle is fought on moral grounds—the violence, sex, profanity, and cigarette smoking will corrupt a new generation. And perhaps it will. As summer passes and we continue to digest its blockbusters, the question must be raised once again: how dangerous is Hollywood?

In novels about Hollywood, it is the individual who is at risk. We know that the town is unkind to aspiring starlets from the Midwest, slumming novelists, and middle age, that it rewards venality and beauty. People arrive daily to have their dreams vivisected. But in the growing body of cautionary non-fiction, it is the world that is at risk. Hollywood is emerging as a global menace.

The traditional fictional starting point is Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust (1939), followed by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon (begun in 1939 and unfinished at his death), and on through Budd Schulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? (1941), Robert Stone’s Children of Light (1985), Michael Tolkin’s The Player (1989), and finally to Hollywood’s most effective modern chronicler, Bruce Wagner: I’m Losing You (1996), I’ll Let You Go (2001), and Still Holding (2003 ).

The Chrysanthemum Palace is Wagner’s latest warning. His Hollywood is an imaginatively cruel place where your vindictive, ice-queen mother belittles the size of your trailer (“Awfully small, this trailer, no?”), where your successful novelist father leaves you $10 million in his will with the proviso that you write a book that makes the New York Times bestseller list. Like Wagner’s other novels, real personalities drift in and out of the pages: coffee with Sharon Stone, spotting Nick Nolte at a bookstore or Rob Reiner at a funeral. There is a slight blurring, a documentary feel to his work. It is the perfect segue to the growing canon of non-fiction books in which the recurring theme is that Hollywood is no longer content to eat its young; it wants to eat the world. We have all become Hollywood offspring.

In 1998, David Puttnam, a former head of Columbia Pictures, sounded the alarm in his book Movies and Money. “It is frankly dangerous to allow Hollywood’s extraordinary dominance in the field of filmed entertainment to go on intensifying,” he wrote. “To do so presents the very real prospect of a fundamental dislocation between the world of the imagination created by the moving image and the everyday lives of people around the globe.”

Neal Gabler took that idea further in his book Life the Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality, arguing that reality is being supplanted by film. We are becoming the stars of our own films, borrowing gestures, catchphrases, and attitudes from the movies we watch; we are becoming Homo scaenicus—man the entertainer. That entertainment has triumphed over culture isn’t a surprise, but Gabler warns that it is now prevailing over life itself. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin was probably the first to sound the warning in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo Events in America. “We risk being the first people in history to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.”

Manufacturing drama has become part of modern life, a staple of advertising and retail. When you enter a Gap store, the employees are equipped with headsets. Why? The clothes are heroically static, almost unchanged over the last decade. It’s unlikely that an emergency restocking of khakis will have to take place. The headsets are props to communicate the idea that something exciting is going on, that the generic clothes, the anonymous employees and shoppers are somehow all part of a larger, unstated drama, in which the consumer is playing the lead.

Entertainment is about power, Gabler says, “the power to replace the sublime with fun.” The American brand of fun has helped displace many national cinemas and has evolved into the equivalent of cultural (or anti-cultural) shock troops that land on foreign shores. The US government immediately grasped the power of the medium as a vehicle for propaganda. In 1915, President Woodrow Wilson drafted an agreement with the studios to disseminate American values to other countries. Under the deal, any film intended for export had to be approved by the government Committee on Public Information. Since all films were intended for export, it meant the government had a voice in shaping domestic cinema as well. During World War II, President Roosevelt established the Bureau of the Office of War Information and used film to influence American public opinion on the war. Now you don’t need a war (though it doesn’t hurt). The films are their own cultural ambassador, not for a wholesome America, which is a tough sell, but for a badass, righteous, wisecracking, big-breasted America.

In The Big Picture, Edward Jay Epstein provides a comprehensive schematic of the film business, its structure and implications for the future of entertainment. The industry is controlled by six studios (Viacom, Time Warner, nbc Universal, Sony, Fox, and Disney). All are part of large multinationals for which film provides between 2 and 21 percent of revenues. They own most of the independent studios (New Line, Miramax, etc.), most of the television networks (cbs, nbc, abc, Fox, upn), more than 100 cable networks (cnn, espn, Bravo, mtv), pay TV (hbo, Showtime), radio stations, print media (Time, People, Entertainment Weekly, TV Guide), and control 96 percent of the video and dvd rentals in the United States. While there is competition among the studios for stars, release dates, and audience share, the studios often work together in a complex network of alliances. It is, effectively, a multi-pronged juggernaut.

The business is important because the evolution of film has followed, to a degree, the evolution of the business. In 1947, the seven major studios made nearly 500 films and sold 4.7 billion tickets. (By contrast, in 2003, with twice the population, the six majors made eighty films and sold only 1.57 billion tickets.) Most theatres showed a new film every week, and more than a third of America went to see whatever was playing. Westerns, dramas, and comedies were cranked out cheaply and quickly. Labour costs were low because actors were committed to seven-year contracts that paid them relatively modest salaries, and almost everything was shot on sound stages. Still, the films were a wholesale operation, and the biggest profits were in retail—ticket sales in theatres, which, at the time, were owned by the studios.

The advent of television introduced competition, so movies had to be better, or at least more popular. And antitrust legislation forced the studios to sell their profitable theatre operations. The studio system began to crumble, and a new, equally frightening system took over.

The model for the modern studio was already in place in the 1930s. Walt Disney was the first to exploit revenue streams other than ticket sales from his cartoon creations; Mickey Mouse was first licensed to watch manufacturers in 1932. Disney also was the first to realize the size and potential of children as an audience; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1938) was the first film to make $100 million (US). He repeated this successful formula over the years: take a story in the public domain, sanitize it, and give it a happy ending. When television arrived, the other studios banded together to fight it, but Disney made an alliance with abc. The result was Disneyland, a one-hour prime-time advertisement for his product, which later became The Wonderful World of Disney.

Given the predominance of Disney as a cultural force, it is instructive to see how the company operates. In Disneywar, James B. Stewart capably documents the arbitrariness of the studio world. For more than two decades, Disney has been run by former Paramount executive Michael Eisner, who emerges in the book as a blend of ego and wrath, a man who tried to accommodate both his business and artistic instincts. “We have no obligation to make art,” Eisner announced in a mission statement to employees while he was ceo at Paramount. “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement.”

On the back-cover blurb, Eisner’s rise and fall is framed in Shakespearean terms, his Disney tenure compared to Lear, Henry iv, Richards ii and iii, and Macbeth. But his actual battles more closely resemble a five-year-old fighting over a toy. Some of the bitterest fights were with Jeffrey Katzenberg, his one-time protege. When Katzenberg left Disney, the company had to pay him a $280-million settlement after a lengthy court battle. Eisner then hired his close friend, agent Michael Ovitz. Within months, they were no longer friends, and Ovitz left the company with a $140-million payout. At the time, Eisner’s own compensation was topping $50 million annually in salary and options.

Katzenberg, who hadn’t endeared himself to Disney’s animators, was the subject of an unflattering in-house cartoon that serves as a central metaphor for the whole town. In the drawing, Katzenberg and the animators are depicted standing around a conference table, their penises presented on the table. Katzenberg’s is microscopic. “Who has the biggest?” Katzenberg asks. “You do, sir,” the animators chorus.

Disney’s dream of a world created in its own image extends to the realish-life town of Celebration, Florida, near Disney World. It is the fulfillment of Walt’s unbuilt city of Epcot (Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow). Disney reserves the right to veto decisions made by local political groups at Celebration, it runs its own utilities, and, under the terms of its deal with the state, it can build its own airport and nuclear plant. Celebration’s Leave It To Beaver planning ethic evokes the nostalgic America that so many citizens carry within them, a version that has tremendous power despite its many fictions. Disney has been instrumental in constructing and propagating those fictions of a utopian past, and is now recycling them as life, a postmodern reality carried to extremes. As the critic Robert Hughes noted, “It’s not that Disneyland is a metaphor of America, but that America is a metaphor of Disneyland.”

As reality and entertainment increasingly merge, what is the future of film, and what does it mean for the public? The “reality” that we see on screen will steadily decrease. Over 70 percent of the shots in The Lord of the Rings trilogy were digital. Russell Crowe’s face was digitally fixed onto a stuntman’s in Gladiator, a common practice now. After actor Oliver Reed died during that shoot, his face was digitally superimposed on another body. Several stars have been laser-scanned, their skin, facial expressions, and bodies digitally stored, ready for stunts or perhaps for scenes when the actor must look younger. The animation of people (Tom Hanks in The Polar Express, for example) may become more commonplace, actors becoming their own Sleepy and Grumpy. The line between animation and live action will continue to blur.

Other lines will blur as well, among them the line between advertising and entertainment. The Bond film Die Another Day had twenty merchandising partners who collectively invested $120 million in advertising that sold both their own products (which were featured in the film) and the film itself. Disney has a ten-year merchandising deal with McDonald’s. A film’s merchandising potential will increasingly be part of the studio’s decision to go ahead with a project or kill it.

There are other, de facto alliances. Wal-Mart is the largest seller of dvds and videos in the United States, having sold over $5 billion in 2003 , the single largest source of revenue for the studios that year. The chain often alters the packaging, and occasionally the content, of some films to suit its “family values” image. The parade of sequels (Mission Impossible 3), remakes (The Longest Yard), and adapted television properties (Bewitched, The Honeymooners) will lengthen, as they provide recognition and relative safety for both studios and retailers. For some of us, there will be the opportunity to view the banal TV and film offerings of our childhood in perpetuity.

The lines between video games, live action, and animation, between reality shows and fiction, will become finer as computer culture gradually replaces traditional Hollywood culture. Movie theatres will be usurped entirely by home viewing (box-office grosses in 2005 continued their long decline, and one poll showed that 73 percent of moviegoers prefer to watch at home). Grownups, as Walt Disney noted, will be increasingly expendable as an audience. But who needs an audience? At some point we will be the stars in our own films, animated, heroic, misunderstood, and triumphant, though it’s unlikely we’ll see a cut of the profits.

Don Gillmor
Don Gillmor (@dongillmor) published his latest novel, Long Change, in 2015.

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