The Grand Acquisitors

In his study of “the new logic of money and power in Hollywood,” Edward Jay Epstein offers the reader a goodly array of facts, some of them charming and others of them snooze-making. I can’t easily suppress my indifference to the fact that Sony employed seven thousand people in 2003, but I’m mildly charmed to learn that Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was the first movie to gross $100 million, and, also, was the first film to boast a score that became a hit record. Walt Disney, as Mr. Epstein observes, was perhaps the first person to recognize that the way to control actors was to draw them. The never-easy-to-please Ezra Pound could not get enough of Disney’s early masterpiece Perri: sheer genius, he called it.

Of more relevance to power and money was Disney the marketing wizard, who quickly began to license his characters, thereby making the whole world his store, as it still is. Double-barreled geniuses such as Walt Disney are rare in any line of work. Of more relevance to today’s Hollywood are the legions who pursue what Mr. Epstein rather grandly calls “The Learning Imperative”:

Studios are finely tuned learning networks. Faced with a constant stream of reports on how relevant audiences in different markets are reacting to their films and other products, they analyze the various elements—including marketing, stars, and music—and, along this learning curve, adjust their subsequent decisions accordingly.

Which is to say that, like sorcerers of old, they read entrails, with mixed results of course. The cruel truth is that only the public knows what it loves, and then not until it sees it. Giant, hugely expensive flops continue to thud into the theaters season after season; why they were made no man can explain.

Some of these flops are made by the biggest names in the business: Spielberg, Scorsese, anyone. Directors and actors who work steadily are going to have flops; the process of making a film is just too complicated to click every time. Great directors control this process better than do mediocre directors, but no one—whether producer, director, or star—achieves total control.

And the business is slippery in other ways. DVDs now account for huge amounts of income flow, but consider how complicated that can be if the DVDs are being sold through Wal-Mart, as billions of dollars’ worth are ($5 billion in 2003, for example):

Wal-Mart makes it a policy to vet DVDs, videos, and CDs according to its own standards with regard to profanity, sexual imagery, or anything else it deems potentially offensive to “family values.” If the studios want the premium shelf space…they have to take into account its standards.

So the vast retail chains, each of which gets its say, have replaced the wacky old Hays Office, the self-censoring board which accounted for many ridiculous movies in which husbands and wives had to sleep in all those chaste-making twin beds.

When Mr. Epstein talks about “logic” in his…

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