It’s Friday evening, and you have arrived at your local multiplex with your ten- and twelve-year-old boys and two of their very closest friends. You’ve come to see the best movie $150 million can make. You cannot remember just when, but it seems you idly mentioned to your wife earlier in the week that you might take the boys to the 11th coming of Captain Kirk and Mr. Spock. The boys, of course, understood this casual aside to be a solemn promise—a contract tighter than Mr. Spock’s paralyzing trapezius pinch. When you reach the ticket counter, you pay the $38 for admission with your Visa card. Distressing, yes, but not as much as that pg-13 rating you belatedly noticed just inside the theater. Now that it’s too late, you recall the small print in the newspaper ad: “some science fiction violence” and “brief sexual content.” But the die is irretrievably cast, so you resignedly go where most dads have gone before and will go again.
What are you getting for your money? Not art, certainly. Like other movies of its kind, Star Trek is a cleverly packaged commodity. Director J.J. Abrams’ real mission was not to tell a story but to manage the consistency of the Star Trek product. He didn’t direct the movie; he took charge of quality control. Paramount wanted to ensure the franchise’s profitability. That meant making something similar to what they had made before. But William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, and Patrick Stewart, now in their 70’s, no longer look appealing in the series stretch-cotton uniforms. What to do? Abrams’ solution was to remake Kirk and Spock with youthful actors selected for their plausible resemblance to Shatner and Nimoy in their prime. He further had his writers concoct a contorted narrative to reboot the franchise. Using the stale conceit of time-travel discombobulation, screenwriters Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have created an alternate timeline for Kirk and Spock. This way the old adventures can be preserved for continued DVD sales while the new installments can be developed without being overly slavish to the earlier episodes. And as with so many other American commodities, this one’s been designed to encourage you to consume still more. For starters, there’s the theater’s concession stand. That’s why you paid admission with your credit card. You knew you would need cash in your wallet to pay $18.75 for five sodas and $9.90 for two titanic tubs of popcorn buttered with genuine artificially flavored hydrogenated coconut oil.
Once you’re in your seats, other commodities confront you. Although James T. Kirk lives in the 23rd century, he drives a 1970 Corvette. As the script helpfully explains, it’s vintage. Don’t worry. You’ll probably be able to convince your sons the Corvette will have to come second to their college education. Kirk’s Nokia cellphone may pose a problem, however. The Finnish company has made Star Trek editions of it complete with Star Trek ringtones—models affordably priced at only $329 to $529. To keep up with these and the gadgets likely to come, just follow Spock’s advice: Live long and prosper.
From the moment Star Trek was in production, Paramount set their publicists to work. In the final two weeks before D-Day, the invasion force hit the media beaches. The film’s stars began showing up on Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood. They confided to David Letterman, Jay Leno, Jimmy Fallon, and even master ironist Jon Stewart that, as kids, they dreamed of being in a Star Trek movie. What’s more, they did their own stunts. Well, mostly. And let’s not forget the action figures.
By the time Star Trek arrived at your multiplex, it had transcended its origins. No longer a mere movie, it had become an unstoppable, worldwide, cross-cultural, mass-marketing force bulldozing its way into your home.
Like Pepsi, Hollywood franchise movies are ubiquitous commodities. Even if you don’t go to see them, you will be forced to notice them by dint of the distributors’ relentless promotion. No wonder Marxists used to take offense at such crassly commercial enterprises. In the last century, they would point their ideological fingers and mutter imprecations against “commodity fetishism” and “American cultural imperialism.” I recall Michael Keaton giving some color to these Marxist charges, however inadvertently. It was 1989, communism was staggering to its demise, and the first of the big Batman movies opened in June. As the star of this comic-book film, Keaton had been doing his capitalist duty, making the usual promotional rounds. Stopping by the Tonight Show, he told Johnny Carson how strange it was to find himself suddenly propelled to such an eminent plane of celebrity. While walking in Manhattan he had been startled to see his own face, shrouded in the Batman cowl and blown up to Brobdingnagian proportions, scowling down on him from the side of a passing bus. Never one to say the obvious, Keaton didn’t belabor the political implications of his experience, but I will. Marxist moments just don’t come any purer than this. Here was the perfect instance of commodity fetishism in action, the worker intimately confronted by his alienation from the commodity his own labor had produced. Holy class struggle!
There is no need to enlist the pedantic Marxist vocabulary of economic analysis to register how strange the ubiquitous presence of film has become in our lives since its humble origins in 1890’s nickelodeons. Evelyn Waugh said it plainly in 1929 when he declared that film was “the one vital art of the century.” He went on to say that it was unlikely the medium would ever produce anything valuable. Like many novelists in the first decades of the last century, Waugh recognized film’s strengths. Its storytelling power, he judged, had a speed, economy, and immediacy the page could not match. But the medium’s cost would always hobble its potential. To justify its expense, a film would have to attract an audience of tens of millions at the least. This meant in practice making entertainments that pleased everyone, including the least discriminating, a situation hardly conducive to achieving artistic excellence.>
Waugh, as always, was right. Consider the economics of film’s nearest competitor in storytelling, the novel. A novel begins to turn a profit when sales exceed 7,000 copies. Now consider Star Trek with its $150 million cost. If only 7,001 souls showed up to see James T. Kirk and Mr. Spock pursue another mission to spread tolerance across the universe, the Star Trek product would disappear from the shelves permanently—unless President Obama could be persuaded to take over Paramount.
Whether or not we think of movies as commodities, their producers always have. Although screenwriter Ben Hecht helped make some pretty good movies, he evidently did not have an exalted sense of his profession. “There’s no art to the film,” he once told an interviewer. “There never was, any more than there is to making toilet seats or socks or sausages. It’s a commodity for mass consumption.” The movie industry in America was largely started by people who adhered to a commercial line when it came to their craft. Many were men who had either emigrated from Eastern Europe or were born to those who had. Typically, they began their business careers as merchants selling their wares on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Adolph Zukor had begun his career as a New York upholsterer and moved to Chicago to become a furrier before founding Paramount Pictures. Samuel Goldwyn, né Goldfish, had been a glove salesman before moving to Los Angeles. Louis B. Mayer had taken up his father’s trade dealing in scrap metal before he set the lion roaring. And let’s not forget Joseph P. Kennedy, the Boston bootlegger who came to Hollywood worth a million in 1926 and stayed long enough to buy four studios and multiply his money five times over, a stakehold that served as the foundation of his dynastic ambitions and our woe. As different as these men were, they had in common a devotion to making money by any means necessary. They got into filmmaking because they correctly foresaw it was the next big thing. Their earlier trades schooled them in the art of ruthless negotiation. At the same time, they liked to project themselves as the master-builders of a new art form who were contributing mightily to American culture. As early as 1929, they invented the grandly named Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give their industry a patina of respectability. But these guys rarely took their eyes off the prize. They went west to Los Angeles for the movie-making weather and the complaisant women, but they went most of all for the gold in those Hollywood hills. Now, as any financier will tell you, to make and hold on to money requires avoiding undue risks. Once these producers took their initial start-up chances, they frowned on latecomers who wanted to experiment in what they came to think of as their medium. Like other businessmen, they liked to stay with material that had succeeded with customers already. This is one reason why from its outset Hollywood loved adapting classic novels. Moby-Dick came with its own built-in audience: all those schoolkids who had been made to wade perplexedly through Melville’s turbid waters and now wanted to find out what all the fuss was about. In 1930, Warner Brothers told them and improved on the gloomy original in the process. The studio transformed Captain Ahab into a romantically coiffed John Barrymore and had him fatally harpoon the leg-chomping Moby. Why, he even got to come home to his lady love! The important thing about the novel was neither its plot nor its ideas. It was its name-recognition. You can’t push a commodity successfully if the public doesn’t recognize it. That’s why Madison Avenue invented branding.
Today’s sequel moviemaking is a variation on this tradition. If a movie succeeds at the box office, then its brand is established and will likely succeed again. Why tamper with a winning formula? Give the audience what they want. This is not always a bad thing. Last year New Line Cinema brought out an adaptation of Philip Pullman’s insidious Golden Compass, the first installment of his children’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The studio and its director eagerly looked forward to adapting the other two volumes. The public, however, had another idea. As Sam Goldwyn would have said, they stayed away in droves. It seems they did not want to see a film intent on teaching children that there is no God and that those who profess to believe in Him are a band of scheming, treacherous powermongers. This year’s Marxist-flavored comic-book extravaganza Watchmen will likely suffer the same fate. It performed woefully with capitalist consumers who were less than enthralled by a story line that recommends we follow Stalin’s advice and kill several hundred million people in the course of building the just and healthily green society.
Most investors put their money into a film project as they would buy pork-belly futures. Their principal concern is with profit. There’s nothing wrong with this in itself. But it does mean that most movies are going to be produced based on purely commercial calculations. Quality won’t come into it. A movie may be devoid of any of the known hallmarks of imagination and intelligence and still be made to succeed wildly at the box office. The easiest and surest way to accomplish this is to brand the film with an iconic star. “Hey, want to see that Tom Cruise movie tonight?” Yes, something crummy often takes place when commodification sets in. Some John Wayne movies that once beguiled all America now leave me wondering. Was Rooster Cogburn, the sequel to True Grit, really good, or was it just reassuringly a John Wayne commodity? The Marxist would have us focus only on the commodity’s intrinsic worth, its “use value,” demanding that we drop frivolous considerations such as celebrity, which marketers deploy in the cause of inflating profit margins. But, as always, the Marxists are making utopian judgments. Admittedly, the free market is clotted with crass goods. But what is the alternative? State-subsidized movies? How many times can we watch Battleship Potemkin and Triumph of the Will?
Will the marketplace finally succeed in embalming the one vital art of the century, leaving us with nothing but remakes starring the same small pool of actors reprising the same genre plots? Movie producers who travel this road claim they are just giving the public what it wants. But what does the public want?
One possible answer can be found in the proliferation of websites, such as Box Office Mojo, that track movie receipts. It seems there is a vast public appetite for news of how much money each new release takes in on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. It’s the same kind of obsession that drives sports fans frantic to learn the ups and downs of salary negotiations between star athletes and the franchises that employ them. In both venues, the amounts of money at stake have been cleverly converted into one more promotional tool. Reasons to cheer or boo A-Rod turn less on his performance than on the salary he commands. Similarly, studios routinely announce how much a film cost as though the amount they have spent on Star Trek were somehow a guarantee of its entertainment value. Here again our Marxist analyst will be scandalized, and, in this instance, I sympathize with him. It’s dispiriting to consider how often an inverse proportion obtains between a film’s budget and its resulting quality. Then again, as Waugh predicted, this is almost inevitable. If you laid out $150 million on a film, how likely would you be to take a chance on an untried actor, a daring theme, an experimental director, or an idealistic scenarist? No, when the money gets this big, one consideration is paramount: R.O.I., return on investment. This calculation affects even the most modestly budgeted films. In 1948, Vittorio De Sica approached David O. Selznick to raise the money he needed to make The Bicycle Thief. The American producer grandly agreed to back the Italian on one condition: De Sica would have to give the lead role of the unemployed worker to Cary Grant. Preposterous? Not from Selznick’s vantage. Grant, had he agreed to the part, would have branded the movie. Selznick was merely trying to guarantee that the project would be investment grade, as the financiers say. Of course, De Sica went elsewhere and made what is still recognized as an uncompromising if mildly Marxist masterpiece. Still, this is one instance when I wish commodity capitalism had prevailed. Imagine Cary Grant in overalls cycling through Rome, stopping here and there to paste a hoarding with a film poster of Rita Hayworth at her most luscious. Can’t you hear Cary crooning in his inimitably denatured cockney, “Ree-tah, Ree-tah, Ree-tah”? As commodities go, this one would have been a joy to behold.
There’s an apposite scene in Quiz Show, Robert Redford’s excellent analysis of American class differences through the prism of mass entertainment. It features Martin Rittenhome, a fictionalized version of the CEO of Geritol, the sole sponsor of Twenty-One, the hugely successful and thoroughly fixed television quiz show of the 1950’s. The executive is being interviewed by investigating attorney Richard Goodwin, who wants to know about the contestant coaching on Twenty-One. After skillfully eluding Goodwin’s probes, Rittenhome smiles wolfishly. He is untroubled by the demise of his fabulously successful advertising outlet. “The quiz shows will be back,” he assures Goodwin. And they will not be fixed the next time around. “Why bother? You could accomplish the same thing just by making the questions easier. The audience wasn’t tuning in to watch some amazing display of intellectual ability. They just wanted to watch the money.”
Watching the money. Is this the sole arbiter of taste among American filmgoers today?
Fortunately, there’s a story beyond the money school of aesthetic appreciation. Hollywood may have tired-blood syndrome, but, surprisingly, each year brings a lively lineup, however meager, of aesthetically and intellectually ambitious films. If predicted R.O.I. were the only gauge, would Preston Sturges have been allowed to make Sullivan’s Travels in 1941? Would Elia Kazan have been permitted to bring On the Waterfront to the screen in 1954? And last year, would Bryan Singer have been given the go-ahead for Valkyrie or Thomas McCarthy for The Visitor? Although hardly Hollywood, the Israeli-Palestinian team who made the honest and bracing Lemon Tree last year are doubtless depending on the American audience’s continuing interest in the Middle East’s seemingly inexhaustible flashpoint to recoup some of their investment. Even Duplicity, Tony Gilroy’s lighthearted comedy, gave cause for rejoicing a few months ago, although everyone knows it will take in an infinitesimal fraction of the proceeds Transformers II will yield. It can’t boast of a single shapeshifting Camaro product placement, and there’s not a single scene in which someone reaches for a Mountain Dew instead of a Martini. Gilroy’s film has only this to recommend it: a smart, funny script given life by some of the best actors working today, especially Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti. That it skewers corporate America’s obsession with watching the money is a pleasing grace note in its satiric symphony.
It seems film’s vitality will always call forth the medium’s risk takers. It’s nice to make money; it’s ecstasy to make art.