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.

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