MOVIES AND MONEY
By David Puttnam with Neil Watson
Knopf 337pp $27.50
Age-old question: If Hollywood movies are so bad, why does the U.S. dominate world cinema with film production and distribution that are the envy of every other movie-producing nation? For decades, the standard answer has been that Hollywood reaches for the lowest common denominator of the audience, producing simple stories, told in broad visual strokes that minimize the importance of the spoken word. (For evidence, look no further than the grosses of The Waterboy.)
There's more than a grain of truth to that, but it isn't the whole story. At least so argues David Puttnam, a British ex-movie exec whose career embodies European moviemakers' love-hate relationship with Tinseltown: After producing such prestigious-yet-profitable pictures as Chariots of Fire, he was invited stateside to run Columbia Pictures in the 1980s. He strove to upgrade the intellectual level of American movies, Columbia's profits sagged, and he was swiftly shown the studio gate.
With the wounded nobility of a spurned lover, Puttnam insists again and again that he still loves Hollywood; like most European moviegoers, he was reared on a steady diet of its movies. But in Movies and Money, he paints a most unflattering picture of how America seized control, largely by appropriating and perfecting others' ideas. This goes back to the dawn of cinema when Thomas A. Edison patented the crude Kinetoscope movie projector while "borrowing" technology from such French inventors as Etienne-Jules Marey and Antoine Lumiere.
Even Hollywood's basic structure turns out to be purloined. Another Frenchman, Charles Pathe, came up with the idea of a vertically integrated system of movie production and distribution--"I didn't invent cinema," he remarked, "but I did industrialize it." American immigrant pioneers such as Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zukor simply refined the practice and enlarged its scale, laying the foundation for an American studio system that no other country has seriously challenged.
Puttnam's title is something of a misnomer: It should be Movies, Money, and Government. To his ex-mogul's eye, much of the movies' history is that of trade agreements and other legislation. Early on, Hollywood studios formed legally sanctioned trusts, allowing them to squeeze out independent film companies. With World War I, the White House, recognizing movies' propagandistic value, facilitated their entry into foreign markets. In later decades, Congress granted studios valuable tax breaks to ease the flow of capital into Hollywood and that of movies into the marketplace. Even 70 years ago, it seems, bankers and politicians were dazzled by movie glamor--and happily threw a few more millions or a key piece of legislation at Hollywood in return for a weekend at William Randolph Hearst's San Simeon or a good seat at the Oscars.
As for the men who ran the studios, Puttnam chalks up much of their success to practicality and sheer will: "The American moguls had made the long journey to their Bel Air mansions from the slums of the Lower East Side," he writes. "They were genuinely driven men.... That was why, when it came to fighting for overseas markets, they found it so easy to put aside all their personal hatreds, their internecine rivalries and their quarrels over talent."
Meantime, on the other side of the Atlantic, European film companies struggled to form consortiums that could compete. While these had some success, they were undermined by cultural barriers--has France ever truly agreed on anything with anybody?--and countries' unfortunate tendencies to write individual protectionist policies that undercut the pacts' all-for-one spirit. Result: a jerry-built marketing and distribution system for European movies, many of which remain virtually unreleased, even in their home countries.
Much film-related legislation is, to use Puttnam's phrase, "insanely complicated," and he can't make it interesting. On the other hand, he excels at recounting how Hollywood faced and eventually triumphed over every crisis it ever met. Talkies? After experimenting with simultaneously shot foreign-language versions of its movies, using different casts, it embraced subtitling. Television? After fighting the monster-in-a-box with Cinemascope, 3-D, and stereophonic sound, it realized how lucrative TV could be, both as a revival-house-of-the-airwaves and a purchaser of studio-generated TV shows. Changing demographics? Exhibitors closed or subdivided aging movie palaces and built high-volume cineplexes at suburban malls. The 1948 Supreme Court antitrust ruling that forced studios to surrender their monopolistic hold over movie exhibition? That was a tough one. But expense-cutting, percentage-based salary deals with stars, and more movie-favorable legislation gradually restored studios to economic health.
Puttnam is at his best recounting the movies' early days--when, as one old-timer recalls, "all you needed was fifty dollars, a broad and a camera"--and in a frustratingly brief section on his tenure at Columbia. He can be a bore when he splashes around in the alphabet-soup of trade deals, trusts, and industry associations. For those who need to know the financial and legal arcana of moviemaking, these lengthy sections are useful repositories of acts, facts, and dates. But I'm not sure I'd pay to see the movie.