Every movie is "on some level about the business," according to Academy Award winner Robert Towne. The introduction examines that claim in light of Towne's film Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, and finds it to be true.
This opening chapter shows the reader how to approach a Hollywood film. The key is the studio logo at the beginning. In dozens of cases, those logos bleed into the story world of the film. The Paramount mountain turns into the landscape of Raiders of the Lost Ark; the X in "Fox" glows at the beginning of X-Men; and the ice cap on the Universal globe melts at the beginning of Waterworld. In these evanescent images, studios are tying their stories to their corporate identities, encouraging us to see these movies as studio stories. The remainder of the chapter discusses various reasons why scholars believe that studios don't matter and shows why that kind of thinking is wrong. Alternative theories include those of Horkheimer and Adorno, Jerome Christensen, and John Thornton Caldwell.
Everyone knows Jaws invented the blockbuster. Because of marketing? The story? Some connection to our primal fears? Half of the audience saw Jaws as a knowing throwback to the cheesy monster movies of old; the other half just saw it as a monster movie. That split audience—one sophisticated, one not—would be the key to the studio renaissance. Jaws isn't yet the story of its studio, but it is the story that teaches the audience how to look out for what lies beneath.
The seventies were supposed to be the glory days of the director, the auteur era. Yet even when the studios were at their weakest, directors such as George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Roman Polanski were terrified of them. Paramount did all that it could to turn auteurism into a business plan, but the paranoid auteurs would have none of it. Everyone, from studio chief Robert Evans to Coppola, was trapped in a fantasy of the 1930s. This nostalgia for the classical era gave rise to some of the studio's greatest hits—Rosemary's Baby, The Godfather, The Conversation—but it was only when they put the thirties aside and turned to the present that the studio found a way out of the cul-de-sac. The solution was Saturday Night Fever.
The most important new player in Hollywood in the eighties was Mike Ovitz's CAA. A relentless packager of films, CAA preyed on weak studios, turning movies like
Unable to make auteurism into a model, Paramount turned away from directors and complex narratives toward production designers and clean, hyperlegible images. "High-concept" style conquered substance, but it was a style that stayed true to the studio's history of extreme production design. The studio capitalized on the success of Saturday Night Fever by making a series of "popsicals" like Flashdance and Footloose and by turning Eddie Murphy into a movie star. But as Gulf + Western remade itself as Paramount Communications, the studio was under tremendous pressure to justify its role. Barry Diller argued that the movies were the heart of the new, synergistic conglomerate. Still, the changes at Paramount chased away the inventors of high concept. Left behind were Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer, and their next film, Top Gun, showed how the paranoid gaze of the seventies could meld with the high finish of the eighties.
The Hollywood mantra is "Nobody Knows Anything." Faced with a bottomless pit of risk, studios are always looking for insurance policies—hot writers, stars, genres; complex financing deals; accounting scams. In the nineties, one of the most comforting visions of risk management was "chaos theory," and the key idea was the "butterfly effect," the belief that the slightest change could make all the difference. Nothing was more reassuring to assemblers of talent than the notion that their smallest decisions were world shaping. This chapter discusses Groundhog Day, Jurassic Park, and Pocahontas.
This chapter looks at two colossal corporate meltdowns—the destruction of Vivendi Universal and the catastrophic corporate losses at AOL TimeWarner—in order to understand what happens to the movies when the synergy goes terribly wrong. At Vivendi, the crucial story is the failed attempt to turn Curious George into a company mascot on the order of Mickey Mouse. At Warners, the essential story was Steven Soderbergh's valiant attempt to generate, via the Ocean's 11 series, enough corporate momentum to keep the dream alive.
The wave of epics that followed Gladiator—King Arthur, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven, 300—became think pieces for conglomerate overstretch. The epics of the new millennium weren't like the roadshows of the fifties. These were not tales of empires on the march but of empires in retreat. Directors who wanted to tell stories about the perils of empire during the Iraq War found themselves dependent upon far-flung international megacorporations that looked an awful lot like the imperialists they were opposing. Criticism of the war started to look like criticism of the company, and the studios began to lose their hold on the corporate imagination.