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Not Quite the Big Picture

Martha Bayles

The Big Picture offers a lively, readable account of a profound transformation taking place in the U.S. entertainment industry: namely, the collapse of the self-contained narrative film that for the last 100 years has defined the art and business of the cinema, and the massive shift of cultural weight and influence from movies to television—or more accurately, to the multi-part dramatic series that was originally developed for broadcast television but has now migrated to digital streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu.

Ben Fritz has covered the entertainment industry for several years, first for the Hollywood Reporter, then for the LA Times, and now for the Wall Street Journal, and his reporting has always shown incisive clarity. That quality is evident in his highlighting of the three main forces driving the present transformation: 21st-century information technology; changes in the viewing habits of Americans; and the globalization of the entertainment market. But when it comes to analyzing these forces, The Big Picture does not always live up to its title.

Like many smart reporters who develop a feel for their beat, Fritz found himself itching, a few years ago, to write a book explaining how all the pieces fit together. Writing such a book was not easy, though, because Hollywood, like the British Royal Family, employs an army of PR experts highly skilled in stroking the egos of journalists while keeping their inquisitiveness at a stiff arm’s length. Without a better sense of how this transformation appeared to insiders, even this outstanding reporter could not have ventured beyond speculation.

But then Fritz caught a break. In November 2014, an unknown hacker1 penetrated Sony Pictures Entertainment, causing a massive leak of internal documents, including all kinds of production memos and tens of thousands of private e-mails. According to his preface, Fritz hesitated to exploit this treasure, because some items were potentially embarrassing to individual Sony employees. But he also understood that “much great journalism has used stolen material as its source.” To his credit, he does not trade in gossip or moralize about revealed lapses in political correctness. Instead, he uses the hacked material to explain “why we get the movies we do.”

Why do we get the movies we do? Why is it so hard to find a compelling human drama, a genuinely funny comedy, or even a clever and visually appealing animated feature in a theater nowadays? When exactly did the big screen get colonized by oversized, overproduced, overblown comic-book superheroes who can barely talk, except to mouth pseudo-lofty sentiments and grunt vows of spectacular revenge against oversized, overproduced, overblown supervillains? How did the words “mature” and “adult” come to mean pornography? And why do so many technically amateurish, morally blinkered “indie” films get lauded as works of art, simply because they are produced on a shoestring budget and recycle a “progressive” cliché or two?

These are my complaints, not Fritz’s. He is not pleased by the demise of the “mid-budget original film.” Nor is he especially enamored of comic-book superheroes, with the possible exception of Spider-Man. But his overall concern is less with the larger ramifications of these developments than with what matters most to the movers and shakers in America’s Dream Factory: the bottom line. This is hardly surprising. The majority of reporters who cover Hollywood work for the business section of their news organizations, not the arts section. So typically, they treat movies and TV shows as widgets, or production units, rather than unique cultural expressions that sometimes rise to the level of art.

This widget approach works fine when Fritz explains how changes in technology and viewing habits have contributed to the decline of the classic American moviegoing experience. He frames this story in dialectical terms, with the thesis being classic moviegoing, the antithesis being couch-potato home viewing, and the synthesis, made possible by the age of Big Data, being Netflix.

As of this writing, Netflix is all over the news, with cover articles appearing in publications like the Economist and New York Magazine. Fritz was ahead of this curve, explaining in a cogent few pages how a once obscure mail-order-DVD business grew into a digital-streaming Godzilla, able to strike fear into the coldest Hollywood hearts. To my fellow Netflix subscribers: The next time you open your account, take a good look at the cute little rectangle by your name. Behind that smiley face surges a tsunami of viewing options, curated for you by serried ranks of hyperactive algorithms that never sleep and care nothing for the elevation or debasement of your taste and character, only for their own ability to satisfy your present whim and keep you coming back for more.

Less cogent is Fritz’s repeated lament for lost glory days when, he presumes, Americans all watched movies together and collectively discussed them for days afterward. It is unclear why he harps on this theme. Did an agent or editor advise him to sex up the book with an attention-getting argument? If so, it was poor advice, because the book is not improved by passages like this: “Films at their best are cultural moments, when millions of us gather to laugh, cry, scream, or dream together in a theater with a huge screen and a state-of-the-art sound system. These movies completely immerse us and for a few hours make us forget about our Snaps and our Instagram likes.”

Here Fritz does not take the widget approach, but neither does he offer any artistic judgments. Instead, he defaults to the standard postmodernist view of films as social and political texts which either reinforce the oppressive status quo or raise awareness against it. Singling out two recent films that in his view recall the lost glory days, he asks, “Would Wonder Woman have sparked a national conversation about the representation of women in our culture, or would Get Out have everyone talking about the intersection of horror and the African-American experience, if so many of us weren’t watching the same movie together at the same time?”

Almost none of this rings true. First of all, who are “we”? Theaters show films for several days or weeks, so even when a movie is deemed an “event,” most people go to see it at a time that is convenient for them, and in a place (the local cineplex) where everyone else is a stranger. With the exception of major sporting events, presidential elections, and mass shootings, there are very few occasions when millions of Americans laugh, cry, scream, and dream together. Second, most Americans are not particularly inclined to discuss movies, but when they do, I’ll bet you a gallon of greasy popcorn they don’t use phrases like “the representation of women in American culture” or “the intersection of horror and the African-American experience.”

So far, we have seen Fritz treat films and TV programs in two different ways: as mere commodities, and as fodder for postmodernist analysis. Neither is adequate, in my view. But it is hard to find thoughtful aesthetic judgment in any artistic medium these days, least of all commercial entertainment. So I will cut Fritz some slack and turn to the best part of his book, which is the chapter on the third force transforming the U.S. entertainment industry: the globalized market. The shorthand for this is China.

As Fritz makes clear, the single, overriding reason for the proliferation of loud, vapid movies about comic-book superheroes is that such movies constitute a dependable, almost risk-free product that makes boatloads of money in China. In this connection it is worth noting that back in 1915, when the cinema was in its infancy, the U.S. Supreme Court defined it as “a business, pure and simple.”2 One effect of this ruling was to deny movies the protection of the First Amendment. Half a century later, that decision was overturned,3 and today the U.S. entertainment industry enjoys a greater degree of artistic freedom than that of any other country. Yet when it comes to the export of “audiovisual products,” both Hollywood and Washington revert to the older definition.

For example, in the 1980s and 1990s, when a group of trading partners led by France and Canada sought to carve out a “cultural exception” to agreements under the WTO, the American response, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, was distressingly obtuse. U.S. trade officials simply rejected the other countries’ concerns with preserving their own cultural traditions, and insisted that the production and distribution of films and TV shows is a business, pure and simple. I am not arguing here that cultural protectionism is good policy. But I am suggesting that to ride roughshod over the type of concerns raised by France and Canada is a bad way to do business with friendly democracies.

It is an even worse way to do business with unfriendly regimes that take culture very seriously—indeed, that aggressively deploy it as a tool of “sharp power.” Yet this is precisely how Hollywood has been doing business with China over the last several years. Fritz’s chapter stops short of the very latest developments, but it does point in their direction.

The first such development took place this past August, during the lead-up to the 19th National Communist Party Congress in October. Very briefly, the Communist Party under Xi Jinping launched a crackdown on Chinese companies that had been heavily investing in Hollywood. One of the chief targets was Wang Jianlin, the CEO of the massive real-estate conglomerate Dalian Wanda, which as Fritz relates, was well known in Hollywood for “its monstrous hunger to devour anything and everything it could find.”

The subsequent withdrawal of major Chinese investment caused a near panic, because as Fritz writes about an earlier hiccup in this investment, “The Americans had no choice but to keep playing along. Nobody else was willing to pour billions of dollars into the struggling movie business.” According to one senior executive quoted in the trade publication Deadline: Hollywood“People are starting to ask, where is the money now? Because they have to feed the beast.” The same article quotes this warning from a highly regarded “China watcher”: “With no alternatives for risk-tolerant investors on the horizon . . . Hollywood will be forced to take every overture from China seriously.” (emphasis added)

Some of these overtures can be troubling. As I have written elsewhere, there are already quite a few Hollywood actors and technical directors willing to collaborate with Beijing in the production of propaganda films aimed exclusively at the Chinese audience. One such film, Wolf Warrior 2, is laced with strikingly anti-American messages. And while Wolf Warrior 2 made very little money outside China, it was a tremendous hit at the Chinese box office. If that pattern should repeat, then what will prevent the major studios from seeking a piece of the action by collaborating on equally troubling projects? Things have not yet reached this point. But if they do, then the Big Picture will have grown very dark indeed.

1 It is widely believed, though not proven, that the hacker was an agent of the North Korean regime, angered by the insulting portrayal of Kim Jong Un in The Interview, a foul-mouthed comedy from Sony scheduled for a Christmas 2014 release. See my review of both the film and the surrounding circumstances.
2 Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230.
3 Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495

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