Books May 2005

The Big Shill

Hollywood's need for hits creates a culture of misses
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If the movie business baffles you, it helps to understand that between them Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck define Hollywood's divided soul. On the industry's calendar, Thanksgiving to New Year's Day is Daffy's time: his perennially thwarted schemes are always about getting bystanders to agree with his preposterously idealized self-image, and that's when each year's lumberingly noble Academy Award contenders crowd marquees, striving to turn artistic prestige into both an end in itself and a means of attracting audiences. But summer—or, rather, "summer" (in terms of actual release dates, the multiplex version now starts before Memorial Day and is all over but the shouting by mid-July)—is Bugs's season in the sun, wherein profit is brassily conceived as not only an end in itself but also a means of gaining industry prestige, otherwise known as beating the competition. Needless to say, Bugs idealizes nothing except success.

Today's 800-pound Daffy—the heir to Samuel Goldwyn's mighty quacking—is Miramax head Harvey Weinstein, since he clearly won't rest until his company's Oscars are numerous enough to do battle with the emperor Qin Shihuang's terra-cotta army. But the Bugs side of movies is the subject of Dade Hayes and Jonathan Bing's first-rate Open Wide: How Hollywood Box Office Became a National Obsession. It is published, let us note, by Miramax Books, which may or may not irritate the rival studios being scrutinized, but does remind us that Harvey is sentimental enough to think that having an eponymous print division confers classiness. In contrast, Rupert Murdoch probably has to pinch himself on most days even to remember he owns HarperCollins.

Hayes and Bing's opus doesn't live up to its pop-sociological subtitle. The audience's internalization of industry yardsticks of success, a phenomenon to delight behavioral scientists, is only fleetingly discussed. But that's no real cause for regret, because what these two have actually produced is a classic look at Hollywood in the age of box-office megabucks—a book to set alongside Lillian Ross's Picture, John Gregory Dunne's The Studio, and Steven Bach's Final Cut, the best of a genre that ought to be more crowded. In a culture as media-driven as this one, finding out what goes into the entertainment we consume can be every bit as educational as it was to learn from Upton Sinclair how the meatpacking industry did its thing.

The only alarm bells the authors want to set off, however, are in the biz itself, which will almost certainly mistake the sound for wind chimes. Briskly, knowledgeably, and often wittily, Open Wide puts the inanities of Hollywood's conventional wisdom on display by tracking the fortunes—from inception to the shouting—of the following three summer-2003 releases, which had nothing in common except premieres timed for the high-profile July 4 weekend and the hopes their respective studios had riding on them. Terminator 3 was Arnold Schwarzenegger's belated return, on the way to Sacramento, to his signature role as a cyborg; Legally Blonde 2 was Reese Witherspoon's reprise of her star-making turn as Elle Woods; and eventual last-place finisher Sinbad was DreamWorks SKG honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg's attempt to out-Disney Disney, his former employer, at the traditional animated features that DreamWorks's own all-computerized Shrek had just helped define as old hat. As each of these behemoths staggers toward the starting gate, the triple narrative develops into a fascinating examination of the pseudo-methodical lunacy—geared to second-guess every aspect of a project except whether it was worthwhile in the first place—shaping each creative (i.e., marketing) decision along the way. At the same time, we're given an eye-opening tour of all the practicalities involved in manufacturing and selling summer blockbusters, from the etiquette of press junkets and the 24/7 hum of the Technicolor warehouse where the posters and trailers are processed to the inner workings, midway between Metropolis and Rube Goldberg, of today's twenty-two- and thirty-screen megaplexes.

Another quality shared by Hayes and Bing's chosen movies is that they turned out to be inconsequential—failing even to register as pop events, which is how summer blockbusters achieve cultural salience. Not even T3, the biggest brand name here (and the winner, for what little it's worth besides dollar signs, of that year's July 4 box-office contest), has stayed in moviegoers' memories, except as a suitably bizarre prelude to its star's entry into politics. Yet that doesn't make the book any less interesting. After all, the great irony of rabbit season versus duck season is that the supposedly more thoughtful movies, the ones that put Hollywood's best face forward, with their unctuous production values and hazy sensitivity, are by and large not only equally forgettable but also more meaningless: they don't tell us as much about who we are.

Face it, when tomorrow's cultural historians get down to pegging that elusive nineties zeitgeist, they aren't likely to waste time pondering The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, or American Beauty, three vacuously "classy" Best Picture winners that touched on absolutely nothing of any moment to the public. But they'll be agog at the cornucopia of revealing intimations in the decade's definitive summer movie, 1996's stupid/profound sci-fi epic Independence Day. With its fighter-pilot president leading ragtag patriots to victory, its startling equation of America's fortunes with those of the planet at large, and its berserk fantasies of revenge on literally dehumanized enemies, ID4—to use the movie's post-literate shorthand title, itself a brilliant piece of advance branding—foreshadowed the absolutism of the George W. Bush era as surely as the success of Star Wars in 1977 augured Reagan's rise. Curiously, Terminator 3, which drew on the same stock of ragged-glory imagery after 9/11, didn't get nearly as much oomph out of it.

Yet when a commercial movie ends up being expressive, it's usually by accident. And since Hollywood is disquieted by flukes—which even when they're hugely profitable are terrifying reminders that nobody knows anything—the industry's traditional reaction to them is to try to formalize their ingredients into sure things. The original Legally Blonde, for instance, was a tossed-together, feckless movie that connected thanks to Reese Witherspoon's ransacking of her formidable bag of tricks to communicate vivacity—the kind of acting that never wins awards, even though few things are harder than making a piece of floss work with no help from the script. But by the sequel expectations were through the roof, the actress's asking price had gone up to $15 million (only $5 million less than the first film's entire budget), and panic was in the air. As a result, LB2's failure—despite a perfectly respectable box-office take—to outperform its predecessor was a disappointment that Hollywoodites promptly converted into a debacle. "A sniper bullet through the heart of a franchise," one marketing exec called the sequel, which is a dizzying example of insider delirium; it's the addition of that little word "sniper" that transforms the rhetoric from merely excessive to unhinged.

If Picture had a weakness, it was Lillian Ross's complacent assumption that John Huston's lackluster adaptation of The Red Badge of Courage—an essentially unfilmable novel, since its surface actions don't add up to much without Crane's insights into the hero's mental state—would have been a masterpiece if not for the studio's interference. That familiar conflict, the defining cliché of most moviemaking sagas, doesn't really come up here; the kind of people who get hired to assemble contraptions like Terminator 3 and Legally Blonde 2 don't have creative priorities at odds with the business. At most they're haggling with "the suits"—a term that flatters its users by preserving an all but irrelevant schism—over whether this year's Edsel should have fins.

The only filmmakers in Hollywood who can pretend they're above all this are the ones who've already made their wad. After helming the first Terminator and its lucrative 1991 sequel, T2: Judgment Day, James Cameron scorned the threepeat: "With the third Terminator, there were dollar signs on everything," he airily said. "The original sense of guerrilla filmmaking was gone." Come again? Famous as the most expensive movie filmed up to then (it cost more than $100 million), the turgid T2 was already a travesty of The Terminator's terse, B-movie pulp poetry. The third picture was only a redundancy, and relatively modest as grotesquerie goes. But in the meantime, Cameron had directed that ultimate sequel-unfriendly project (unless The Passion of the Christ counts, and I do worry that Mel Gibson believes otherwise) Titanic, which qualified as guerrilla filmmaking at about the level Stalin qualifies as a guerrilla—and which earned Cameron so much money that he could have launched his own steamship line.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Flashbacks: "Gone With the Wind" (July 1998)
In 1973, Gavin Lambert told of the fortuitous circumstances that brought this would-be American epic to life, and a group of critics—including Stanley Kauffmann, Judith Crist, and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—attempted to explain its perennial popularity.

Complicating things is the demand to hew to the tried-and-true that comes from franchise fans themselves, usually expressed as a devout wish that the latest reprise won't "ruin" their beloved touchstone. (Never mind that complaining about what George Lucas has done to Star Wars is now many Star Wars nutters' favorite hobby—which only demonstrates that some religions can outlast even Yahweh's fallibility.) This kind of pressure is nothing new: David O. Selznick bowed to Gone With the Wind readers' howls that only Clark Gable could play Rhett Butler, and stars from Mary Pickford to Humphrey Bogart—and let's not forget Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler—faced resistance when they essayed mold-breaking roles. The new wrinkle, as Open Wide reveals, is that today's hardcore franchise fans are not only self-conscious interest groups but, thanks to the Internet and the media-age paradox of institutionalized mass subcultures, impressively organized ones. According to Clerks director Kevin Smith, himself a mass-subculture poster boy, their stake in a property like Terminator 3 amounts to "a sense of authorship"; their emotional investment not only trumps but is vital to the continuing health of the filmmakers' economic one.

As Smith says, the transformation of audiences into quasi-formalized constituencies never happens with movies like The Human Stain, which, for all their genteel but real merits, function as the educated version of escapism—elegant diversions that nobody is likely to get obsessed with. This just proves that, like it or not, the crud is where the vitality is. Almost a year before T3's release its director, Jonathan Mostow, took care to make a pilgrimage to the giant comics trade show Comic-Con, where he solemnly swore to a crowd of dubious true believers that he was "making the movie that, as a fan of the franchise, I'd like to see as the third installment." The crowd went nuts only for the ultimate validation—Schwarzenegger in the flesh. The resemblance to Karl Rove's shoring up "the base" before peddling George W. Bush to mainstream voters is uncanny.

Indeed, one of Open Wide's most fascinating if inexplicit themes is the degree to which pop culture now functions as politics by other means. In however innocuous a form, politics itself mostly alienates audiences; in most bizzers' opinion, the fatal mistake made by LB2 was to pack the heroine off to Capitol Hill, a setting few Legally Blonde fans could identify with. In Hayes and Bing's account the first big "Uh-oh" for the sequel comes when one girl in a preteen focus group calls two-time Oscar winner Sally Field, playing a congresswoman, "the lady in the black"—as in "the lady in the black is really boring." Another girl asks an absolutely superb question about Elle Woods—"Why'd she go to Washington?"—and the fact that the filmmakers had apparently never asked themselves this doesn't say much for their savvy. But even as LB2's makers are bumping up against the teen crowd's stony aversion to anything related to government, Schwarzenegger's budding gubernatorial candidacy—and isn't "gubernatorial" a word seemingly coined in the expectation that one day we'd get to hear Arnold say it?—is glamorizing politics as pure pop spectacle.

His entry into California's 2003 recall election isn't a development that Hayes and Bing could have foreseen, but it certainly doesn't hurt their story. As promoting T3 merges with Schwarzenegger's first steps on the campaign trail, the real revelation is that the mirror works both ways. While it's not news that running for office resembles marketing a movie, you may marvel at how much the high-stakes game of promoting rival blockbusters also parodies an election, with the voters' verdict arriving in the form of the opening-weekend numbers, which studios now consider the whole ball game.

That's why for Arnold—the star as pure essence of Bugs—the transition from the top of one heap to the top of another was no transition at all. While Ronald Reagan was rightly derided for imbibing his values (and whole sense of reality) from Warner Bros.' vaults, at least they were, well, values. A pupil of the industry rather than the art form, Schwarzenegger has only one core value: winning—with all the contempt for losers that implies. One wonders what financially strapped voters watching last summer's Republican convention made of this multimillionaire and Kennedy in-law's cheery command not to be "economic girly-men"; but the truth is probably that they figured he knew what he was talking about.

Along with Arnold's preternatural confidence, the one constant of his unlikely rise has been his genius for PR. He was always among the few stars who relished promoting their movies more than they did appearing in them, and to a man who "at press junkets … might do two hundred interviews in a weekend," as Hayes and Bing put it, "the idea of staying on message politically was as intuitive as a bench press." Although the authors, in one of their rare detectable outbreaks of fawning, soft-pedal his seamy side, characterizing the Premiere article that first publicized his loutish treatment of women as "a nasty takedown attempt" and leaving it at that, Open Wide's glimpses of Schwarzenegger's relentless shrewdness are invaluable. Here he is in newly conquered Baghdad, unveiling Terminator 3 to our presumably grateful soldiery: "It is really wild driving around here. I mean the poverty, and you see there is no money, it is disastrous financially and there is the leadership vacuum, pretty much like in California right now." (Emphasis added; syntax unchanged. But Schwarzenegger's grammar is the sort of off-road vehicle that gets him exactly where he wants to go.)

More trite, but as depressing, is his earlier salute to the troops: "I play Terminator, but you guys are the real Terminators." Because Hayes and Bing aren't culture critics (both are Variety staffers), they don't discuss the gruesome shift in attitudes the Terminator series charts. The 1984 original was a great female-empowerment fable before the genre was familiar, all about average-gal Linda Hamilton's courage in battling her robotic nemesis. By T3, Hamilton had vanished and, in a perfect inversion of the first movie's values, the menacing cyborg Schwarzenegger initially played had been transformed into America's ideal protector. Adding insult to irony, Arnold was facing off against vixenish Kristanna Loken as Hillary Clinton—er, sorry, as the T-X, a female Terminator. It's also nice to learn from Open Wide that Schwarzenegger, no fool about how to thrill teenage boys, personally bankrolled the scene in which he smashes Loken's head into a toilet.

Nonetheless, it's typical of Schwarzenegger's acumen (and cynicism) that he blatantly treated T3 as one last big score—the perfect enhancement of his brand recognition—before launching the political career he'd planned for years. The industry of which he's now an alumnus has no game plan of its own, and Hayes and Bing let the fundamental hysteria of Hollywood's blockbuster mentality speak for itself. Their larger point is that the conventional wisdom holds only until the unconventional kind inevitably demolishes it. The Passion of the Christ and Fahrenheit 9/11—two films destined to be forever linked—demonstrate the blinkered nature of the studios' obsession with comic-book franchises, "sure things" so costly and elaborate that they end up as reckless gambles despite themselves. Bizzers like to pretend that they've rationalized the process, but they haven't. They're just clutching at rabbits' feet.

Tom Carson is a contributing editor of The Atlantic and the author of Gilligan's Wake, a novel.
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