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01 October 2023

Deal or no deal, Hollywood thrives

By Martin Baker

Greetings from West Los Angeles. Tinsel Town is always, always picture-perfect at this time of year. Though not always in the way that people might suppose.

Let me elucidate. On the one hand, it's the beginning of things. Mid-January and the weeks up to the end of March are known as the Pitch Season, when the studio executives and the independent producers who style themselves as being in the development side of the business listen to pitches and commission or green-light "spec" scripts, which have already been written.

Development producers, as opposed to those specialising in production or distribution (though all three areas overlap), have a very busy schedule at this time of year. And you have to be on hand, or at least able to get to town at short notice, to get a meeting. The reason is complex, and all to do with the nature of the beast: in the rest of the business world forward planning is more or less possible. In the movie business this is much more difficult because of the way the industry works.

In the halcyon days of the 1930s and onwards, writers such as Huxley and Eliot bought the idea that the cinema was a marriage of commerce and art. That simple fusion did not work for these literary luminaries, who were eaten up and spat out by the system. So far as I can see – mired as I am in the process of trying to get a movie deal over the line – the magical world of Hollywood mingles commerce with other things all right – but the main ingredients of the admixture are vanity, with a fair bit of commodity placement and political lobbying thrown in.

Some movies have a political sub-text which may or may not have been relevant in their funding. The giant box office hit Avatar, directed by James Cameron, is a classic example of this. The political right in the United States is furious at the strong message that the search for minerals is a form of eco-imperialism driven by materialist greed. Commodity placement is a broad term for the promotion of a brand or product. Ford famously promoted a small car in Casino Royale, where James Bond hires a smallish Ford and drives it from the airport to the Caribbean casino. Trailing in well behind these concerns in putting as movie together is the occasional scrap of pure aesthetic, more or less describable as art.

So the movie industry is a complex machine driven by a multiplicity of factors whose interests often clash. Add in the fact that the drivers of the machine are producers, directors and actors, all with towering egos of a sugar-spun fragility, and you have a very strange and delicate business model indeed.

Perhaps the best take on Hollywood came from William Goldman, an eminent screenwriter and novelist who, years ago, wrote in his seminal work Adventures in the Screen Trade, that the one truth in Hollywood is that no-one, but no-one, really knows anything.

So the people over here are driven, well paid and very insecure. The great fear is missing out on the next big thing.

Which is why the producers won't make an appointment more than a couple of weeks ahead. And that in turn explains why one has to be on hand, available on tap, so to speak.

If the rest of the business world has some structure, albeit a structure that bends to the mighty will of the markets, Hollywood has behaviours best compared to shoaling – everyone follows the lead of the fish that scents the sweetest bit of plankton. That fact that the collective intelligence quotient of a shoal of fish is probably in single figures only adds piquancy and weight to the metaphor.

On the surface, of course, all is serenity and beauty. The actresses engage in competitive starvation to appear slinky on the red carpet ahead of the upcoming Oscars. And they do look great in public, despite the private pain.

The trade journals, from Variety downwards, are full of advertisements promoting the qualities of movies nominated for various categories.

The newspapers, too, benefit from the urgent push to promote Oscar candidates. Yet the magazine and newspaper industries are floundering, beaten to a pulp by online opinion-formers, their advertising support critically depleted.

In the long term, the condition of a mighty organ such as the Los Angeles Times may be terminal. The paper has already had a run-in with closure, but escaped. On the surface, though, all is well. The pain is hidden.

After a couple of days of rain here, the glorious, gold threads of a Los Angeles sun now fall across the hotel forecourt.

I mention the location because my hotel is The Peninsula, one of the iconic places for dealmakers to gather. The lobby has to be seen to be disbelieved – agents gather over canapés like town birds seeking winter bread; older male producers hold court in various nooks and crannies with supplicants of various sorts being ushered in and driven away – from young female starlets with their minders to crusty book publishers seeking a top dollar sum for movie rights.

It is a fascinating place, full of superficial courtesies, but beneath the surface, you sense that these conversations are laced with pain and the fear of rejection.

The box office figures for Hollywood's product show that demand is reasonably strong just now. But there are signs that the distribution model – yes, that thing that dominates the media in all its forms at present – may be about to change.

For the moment, the big screen makes cinema a unique experience and safe from the at-home screen-user. But things change rapidly. The next innovation is three-dimensional cinema. Most big movies are already made in 2D and 3D.

After that, it will be holograms, which will ultimately be stored on the internet. The problem with hologram viewing is that you need a huge theatre in the round to enjoy the experience. Either that, or you have to watch a small version hologram at home. It could be that going to the movies will die, and quickly.

Meanwhile, why should I worry? Whether or not a deal gets done, everything looks good on the surface. Why the hotel has even put my own personal monogram on my pillow...

The writer is a journalist, author and commentator on international business affairsmartin baker


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