A Big Picture in Need of Magnification

In the Hutong
Under Clearing Skies
22:58 hrs.

I just finished Edward Jay Epstein’s new book, The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. I figured it would be a timely read, immersed as I am scribbling a tome about television in China. And I liked the book, frankly, because I thought it was a good 10,000 foot overview of the industry as it stands today. For that reason, it’s a good primer and so for those needing a primer on Hollywood (i.e., if you’ve never been in, on the periphery of, or spent a lot of time studying the industry), it’s worth the read.

But in critiquing my own writing, part of me was reading the book a little more critically that I would normally, especially for something that for me was a recreational read. In the desperate hope of avoiding such issues myself, there are some things bothering me about The Big Picture.

Epstein never seems to want to get too close to his subject matter. Even though his list of sources cites several interviews conducted over a period of 16 years, the book feels exceedingly detached from Hollywood. In fact, the book had the feel like it was written from his Manhattan apartment surrounded by a stack of books, magazine clips, and videotapes.

The tone of the book leaves a lot to be desired as well. Epstein correctly approaches his topic as an outsider (all the better to explain to outsiders.) The problem is that he approaches it as an outsider having a difficult time managing his latent hostility, as one of those literary New Yorkers who have always been a tad perplexed (and secretly jealous) that the movie industry has managed to wrest dollars and eyeballs away from the printed word. His derision, I will grant, is subtle, but it is no less acidic – and slightly distracting – for it.

I don’t begrudge a writer his biases. Lord knows old Hunter S. Thompson had them, and he stands high in my pantheon. But at least people like Thompson come right out and say “hey, this is who I am, this is where I’m coming from, and it’s going to bias my writing, but it would be both stifling and intellectually dishonest to do anything different.”

Epstein doesn’t, and the problem is his work suffers for it. He clearly spent as little time on the left coast as possible, and as little time delving into the the guts of the business. He never rises above the level of critic, and for that reason his book – which at around 350 pages could have afforded to be a lot longer – suffers.

First, when he uses examples to illustrate different points, he uses the SAME examples over and over again. He refers to the terms of Arnold Schwarznegger’s $29.92 million above-the-line fee for Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines no less than 14 times.
Hello? Is this the kind of deal typical or extraordinary? Are there other examples of 8-figure stars apart from the now-moved-on-to-greener-pastures Governator?

Second, he makes stupid errors that belie his lack of familiarity with the system. In referring to Tim Robbins’ character in the movie The Player, Epstein calls him a “studio chief” and marvels how he is unable to greenlight anything. Anyone who spent more than a couple of weeks around a Hollywood studio knows the difference between a development executive and a studio chief. It’s nitpicking, I know, but it’s indicative. And mistakes like this throughout the book cost him credibility.

Third he fails completely to talk about how Hollywood is dealing with the threat of digital content. To read the book you would think that a) Hollywood invented the idea of digital movie delivery, and b) is leading the charge to adopt it. MGM v. Grokster, anyone? Hello?

Fourth, he talks extensively about US distribution system and the Popcorn and DVD economies, but he has no clue about the challenges and opportunities Hollywood faces offshore. The fact that China merits a single mention is just dumb.

Fifth, he never talks about the implicit opportunities Hollywood faces in not only new distribution models, but new production models as well. There’s no discussion of green-screen technology and what it could do for location costs or the cost of talent. No thinking about the Bollywood or Hong Kong production models. No consideration given to people like Richard Rodriguez who, amazingly, have discovered a mystical formula to deliver films ahead of schedule, under budget, and for moderate fees that actually make money. No. It’s much sexier to talk about how Hollywood lavishes ridiculous production budgets on overpriced films that are created by a bunch of artless marketers and overpaid dummies posing as talent.

There are numerous other smaller faults as well, but suffice to say that if Mr. Epstein labored mightily he brought forth a mouse. He indeed gives us The Big Picture of Hollywood, but there are holes in that portrayal that leave a sightly knowledgeable reader asking for more.