Eyes Wide Shut

Relatively speaking, this has been a good box-office summer for the movies, which adds to the typical “Everything’s-greeeaaat” lack of reality in L.A., because the movie business – the business of making feature films for wide release – is in terrible shape (structural decline I think is the term). Movie people know this – how could they not? – but can hide behind the continuing success of Star Wars and the reliability or gullibility of teenage boys (There’s Something About Mary, last summer; American Pie, this summer, although none of the teenagers I know could get into American Pie because of this summer’s new R-enforcement measures). At any rate, it’s one thing to acknowledge that your business is in trouble – there’s been talk of a Hollywood recession for some time – but quite another to get your head around obsolescence.

The Blair Witch Project, an amateur film, was, hands-down, the most successful movie of the summer; while Eyes Wide Shut, Warner Bros.’ extravaganza from one of the greatest directors of the modern film era, was the most amateurish film of the summer (in the age of HMOs, the hero is a rich doctor!). Bob Daly and Terry Semel, the Warner Bros. studio heads, professed to be in awe of Eyes Wide Shut – and they probably were, which is part of the problem. (In other industries, this is called a quality-control issue.) There is just no capacity within the business to judge a movie anymore – no doubt because everybody is making movies for someone else, or some other market segment far from his or her own experience. Of course, everybody knows that everybody else’s movies are awful.

This era of awfulness has also created a gulf between real stars, who are rapidly aging, and a new generation of disposable stars (there’s no product loyalty anymore). Who would bet on the staying power of Leonardo DiCaprio or Will Smith? It is the Detroit syndrome (now the Tokyo syndrome): Everybody knows that something is wrong, but no one has the vaguest idea how to fix it.

Runaway Bride, a summer hit that took ten years to make, illustrates another aspect of structural dysfunction: ever-lengthening development cycles (which partly explains how Stanley Kubrick could think doctors are rich – they were when he started to develop Eyes Wide Shut). The longer it takes to bring products to market, the more you can be sure the industry doubts its own reason for being. There is no appetite for risk because the odds of success are so long. Obviously, in the day and age of Internet time (or any day and age, for that matter), for Runaway Bride, a product almost exactly like any other Hollywood product, to take ten years to come to market means the focus of time and talent is not on producing products but on avoiding producing products.

The launch of DreamWorks – perhaps the major Hollywood production of the nineties – has been a kind of test case about whether the movie industry could reinvent itself. But a summer subplot, in addition to the sub-subplot of the Eisner-Katzenberg trial, has been the abandonment of the big plan for a DreamWorks’$2 47-acre studio lot (the first new lot to be built in 60 years), and rumors of an impending agreement that will combine DreamWorks with Universal. “Infighting” is why people say DreamWorks is not succeeding.

In a personality-driven business, personalities are of course to blame. Studios blame talent; directors blame producers; everybody is still blaming Mike Ovitz. It must be someone else’s fault. It is possible that no one in the movie business – a blamer’s business if there ever was one – has ever uttered the words structural decline.

Surely one aspect of Hollywood’s decline is that movie studios, or the companies that own movie studios, are not really in the movie business anymore. The impact of a single feature film at Fox or Paramount or Warner Bros. or Disney is negligible at News Corporation or Viacom or Time Warner or the Walt Disney Company. A single movie is a business model that large companies deplore: It’s a one-off. Where’s the continuing upside? From a media company’s point of view, the only reason to put its resources into moviemaking is to create franchises (i.e., brands) and other product lines for exploitation – to be in the Austin Powers business, for instance, rather than the movie business. The distinction between movies that are marketing inverted pyramids and movies that are movies (whose only job is to make people forget they’re sitting in the dark) is subtle enough that everyone in Hollywood can still insist that what they do is make movies, and meaningful enough so that everyone knows exactly what business they are really in.

Another explanation for the overall decline of what movie people call “the business” (as the police say “the job”) goes to the basic economics of feature films. That is, it’s better to make one big expensive movie and aggregate your audience than produce a lot of smaller films that disaggregate the audience (based on the assumption that whatever you do, the overall audience will never grow). This means that product output remains static. Movies may cost more and theaters may charge more and take in more, but the number of movies and jobs in the movie business does not meaningfully increase. As a result, more and more people fight over the same number of positions. If there are only 200 feature films made every year, only 200 directors will work. Rather than this meaning that studios get the pick of the best, though, it has tended to mean they get the pick of the worst.

This lack of growth has cemented the hierarchical structure. (Hollywood is the most hierarchical of places: Big stars and big directors and big producers speak to only one another. “When someone is out of his social place,” says the author and former studio executive Susan Braudy, “you always know he’s the drug dealer.”) And it has put a premium not on talent or on originality but on one’s ability to hold power, creating the unique sociopathology of the successful Hollywood figure: the talent as thug.

Additionally, because so few movies are produced, the only way to increase power is vertically. Producers become directors and writers. Or directors become producers and writers. Or stars become producers, directors, and writers. One clear result is that there are no writers in the movies anymore. Now everybody writes movies. Everybody. It is not really writing, of course, any longer. It is imitation writing. Indeed, it is an imitation of imitated writing. Virtually everyone, from entertainment lawyers to studio wives to Jamba Juice countermen, will tell you about three-act structures – or, as I overheard the Jamba Juice man explain, it’s now four acts; the second act is divided at the midpoint.

Imagine a world without movie stars. Already, this is a serious issue in the magazine business, because Hollywood celebrities are no longer a reliable draw on the covers of magazines. And obviously, to Hollywood’s deep consternation, The Blair Witch Project had no stars (did it even have actors?).

The rise of Jerry Levin’s Time Warner (as opposed to Steve Ross’s TW) and the transformation of AT&T into a media company, as well as the eagerness of other technology companies to join the media world, is also not about star power; it’s about wires.

Ross and Levin are powerful and instructive counterpoints. Ross, who created perhaps the most successful movie company of all time, and who engineered the creation of Time Warner, was pure glam, pure excess, pure starstruck impresario. He found big success in the entertainment business (after funeral parlors and parking lots) because the industry was open to freelance hondlers without education or bona fides (which still is a good Hollywood résumé). Ross was the age of Barbra and Clint and Warren and Jack. Levin, more modest in every way, has created a vastly larger, more powerful enterprise built not around stars but around reach, audience aggregation, distribution, cable.

Fat pipes, not content, are king.

Indeed, another major development of this Hollywood summer was the resignations – provoked by Levin’s tightening of control – of Bob Daly and Terry Semel, co-heads of the Warner Bros. studio and two of the most powerful men in Hollywood. But the really big news was the appointment, upon the resignation of Daly and Semel, of Richard Parsons in New York as the new boss of Warner’s Hollywood bosses. The studio execs are no longer important enough to report directly to the Time Warner CEO. The studios are being reduced to modest duchies within vastly larger media kingdoms.

Movies, big-budget blockbuster movies that are trying to attract an all-American audience, are really relics that fit more and more awkwardly into media companies whose strategies involve audience targeting and segmentation (the point about owning the pipes is that you benefit from whatever content variants your audience wants; you don’t have to bet on a hit). Movies, as a narrative form, are dying. The movie, after all, is 100 years old. It’s pure twentieth-century. It’s unreasonable to think that moving pictures would continue to dazzle or that audiences would forever stay fascinated by the form, particularly audiences more and more accustomed to calling up the stars, chatting with their fellow participants, and otherwise breaking down prosceniums.

In a way, it is television, the new television, that is most directly killing off the movies (50 years after it was supposed to have done the job). Hollywood and the myth of Hollywood, in fact, fed off the great days of network TV. Now, in the network, sub-network, premium-cable, regular-cable, all-news, satellite world of television (which most comedic and dramatic writers now call home – which is why HBO got the subtle and lively Sopranos and movie audiences got the lame one-joke Analyze This), audiences are discovering the amazing world of narrowcast.

Television is a remarkable new experience; the movies are way old. As various cable/Internet/satellite/broadband convergence happens, movies will look more and more like twentieth-century artifacts – mass media losing out to specialized media.

Likewise, the rise of independent films presents not so much a rival to Hollywood for the economic or even moral center of the movie business but a further part of the atomization of the content business. Hence, lesbian movies, black-lesbian movies, Irish movies, Asian movies, postmodern movies, documentaryish movies, classic art movies, black gay movies, transvestite movies, magic-realism flicks all head for their particular narrow channel.

How could people in Hollywood have missed this?

In a sense, this is a geographic issue. Hollywood, like Detroit, overidentified its function with its location. Hollywood makes Hollywood movies. Period. So clearly, as content demands change, it’s necessary to move content creation to other places. (You couldn’t have made a Japanese car in Detroit in 1975.) As this process accelerates, Hollywood loses its power, its meaning, and its magic.

This is happening fast, too. Business and cultural shifts certainly happen much faster than, say, the development of a major feature. If you’re old enough (like me), you might remember Hollywood movies with great nostalgia. They were magic. But you have to be pretty old.

E-mail: michael@burnrate.com

Eyes Wide Shut