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From Eisenstein to Eisner

<i> Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" and the former executive editor of Premiere magazine</i>

Despite its provocative title, “Movies and Money” is not the delicious tell-all about David Puttnam’s 15-month reign as chairman of Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s. Rather than offering salacious details about that turbulent time, Putnam instead has assumed the weighty mantle of historian. The book appears to have been inspired by the heated battle that erupted during the 1993 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs talks between Hollywood and the Clinton administration on the one side and the Europeans, led by France, on the other.

Mickey Kantor, representing the United States, argued that movies are essentially widgets, commodities like any other--beanie babies, microchips, blue jeans--and as such should be traded freely, while the French maintained that films are quintessential expressions of national identity and therefore must be protected. According to this view, Hollywood must be prevented from overrunning weaker markets lest it suffocate local production and pollute European cultures with crass American values. What it boiled down to was “E.T., Go Home!”

This debate is of considerably more than academic interest. Under the relentless pressure of Hollywood’s celluloid kudzu, many national cinemas are disappearing, while from the industry’s point of view, foreign markets have become increasingly important. Often, a movie that does only average business in the United States can make substantial earnings overseas. In 1997, foreign sales represented 53% of the studios’ gross, or something like $5.6 billion. Feelings were further inflamed when a group of blue-chip American directors, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, signed a letter addressed to their European counterparts supporting the American position. The GATT talks ended in a stalemate, and the issues they failed to resolve are still on the table, especially with the worldwide economic downturn raising the specter of revived protectionism.

As if these questions weren’t grave enough, Puttnam reminds us that this debate is merely a subset of the question that has bedeviled film from the start: Is it an art or a business? He opens his book by pointing out that “The Battleship Potemkin,” one of the landmarks of world cinema, was yanked from Soviet theaters after only a few weeks because it could not compete with that Hollywood version of revolutionary expropriation, “Robin Hood,” starring Douglas Fairbanks. If the free market rules, in other words, goodbye “Potemkin” and hello “Armageddon.” Or, to put it another way, Puttnam might well have called his book “From Eisenstein to Eisner.”

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Puttnam uses the GATT dispute as a lens with which to reexamine the history of the movie industry and discovers not only that pyrotechnics over protectionism have been a constant fixture of the motion picture landscape from the start but that the polarities of this debate have often been reversed, with Hollywood calling for quotas when it seemed that France, for instance, was making inroads in the American market. He makes it clear from the outset that he favors the European position, but still he remains a reliable Virgil for an exploration of this territory. As a Brit, he speaks from the perspective of a country whose film industry has always labored in the shadow of Hollywood, yet as the former head of an American studio, he presumably understands the American point of view. And as a producer, he likewise occupies a middle ground between the media giants that finance movies and the talent that makes them possible.

Much of this story is familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of motion pictures--Lumiere, Pathe, the Edison Trust, the rise and fall of the studios--with all the attendant anecdotal material about the old moguls we’ve heard before, but Puttnam brings to this narrative a deft hand and an eye for telling detail, and the British perspective provides an antidote to the Hollywood-centrism that mars most film histories.

Far from demonizing Hollywood, Puttnam is highly critical of the French and British industries, and he argues that American domination of world markets stems in part from its geographical and historical advantages. From the start, the vast American market--much larger than that of any single European country--was able to support an industry whose products were insanely expensive, when smaller economies were not. Hollywood consolidated its position after the chaos of World War I. In Italy, for example, annual production declined from about 500 pictures in 1915 to 10 by the end of the 1920s, even though audiences for movies--that is, American movies--increased.

Further, in Europe, the great production facilities were situated in major metropolitan centers like Rome, Berlin, London and Paris, so that filmmakers naturally became part of an intellectual community of artists and writers, giving rise, particularly in France, to the idea of film as an art form. In America, on the other hand, the studios situated themselves in Hollywood, a remote, rootless, culturally challenged suburb of nowhere, and therefore American movies, for the most part, made zero artistic claims. To Puttnam, Hollywood’s lack of cultural pretension was and is its greatest asset: Whereas French directors like Jean Cocteau were preoccupied with Art, and British producers like Alexander Korda beguiled themselves with the notion of beating Hollywood at its own game, the American studios triumphed by dint of their superior retail skills. “Just as they treated the creation of films as a manufacturing process, albeit a highly sophisticated one, so the moguls treated the finished film as a product to be sold using the most sophisticated retailing techniques.” Historically, Europe focused on production, not distribution. In Britain, for example, until well into the ‘70s, marketing costs constituted no more than 10% of a picture’s budget. By dominating European markets, the studios made a lot of money, but they also sowed the seeds of protectionism. Way back in 1927, an editorial in London’s Daily Express complained that "[t]he bulk of picture-goers are Americanized to an extent that makes them regard the British film as a foreign film. They talk America, think America, dream America; we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intents and purposes, are temporary American citizens.”

Writes Puttnam: “It is easy to see why Hollywood movies attracted such opprobrium. . . . They symbolized everything that the European bourgeoisie found most threatening. . . . They championed the value of cash over culture. . . . They often championed the underdog, and they had developed largely outside the control of the dominant social and cultural groups.”

As the last line of defense, European producers lobbied for quotas and subsidies and often got them. But measures like these only made matters worse. Hollywood, with the aid of foreign distributors and exhibitors for whom quotas are anathema, invariably managed to circumvent them. Subsidies meanwhile succeeded merely in insulating directors from the pressures of the marketplace, guaranteeing that their films appealed to smaller and smaller audiences. Puttnam quotes Jean-Luc Godard as saying, “Films are made for one or maybe two people.” By 1995, U.S. films accounted for 73.5% of total cinema revenues in the European Union, up from 35% in the mid-'60s.

Size does matter, as Puttnam maintains, and Hollywood’s Godzilla-like footprints across the international movie landscape without question threaten the survival of national cinemas. The situation will only get worse. As he points out, globalized French multinationals like Canal Plus and Chargeurs are considerably more interested in maximizing return on investment than in nourishing national cinemas. They couldn’t care less about the glorious heritage of French film, the classic films of Rene Clair and Francois Truffaut; they are more than happy to throw money at Hollywood. Co-productions are on the rise, creating an international cinema that owes its sensibility to no country in particular, blurring cultural boundaries. “In many ways, the norms and values embodied in Hollywood films have come to be absorbed as universal,” Puttnam writes. “The genealogy of Hollywood’s value system has been forgotten, so that its films no longer appear as the products of any particular society.”

Puttnam’s argument is incontrovertible, so much so that he can’t seem to find or even suggest the outline of a solution, and “Movies and Money” ends weakly, ambiguous and confusing. He starts the last chapter by floating the idea that perhaps the Europeans should just forget about competing with Hollywood: “Why don’t we simply accept that the Americans understand, better than anyone else, how to produce and market films, just as the Germans make cars, the French make perfume, and the Scots make whiskey?”

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But he quickly rejects this argument because movies are too important to write off: “Movies are more than fun, and more than big business. They are power.” He cites Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington to argue that America’s cultural dominance is dangerous, driving other countries, particularly in the Middle East, into the arms of nationalist fundamentalisms of one stripe or another. But later in the same chapter, he seems to cede the field, writing, “The largest and most influential element of our entertainment business has inexorably shifted abroad. . . . As far as the European audiovisual industry is concerned, we may have lost an important battle--for control of mainstream cinema.” He seems to suggest that Europeans should cut their losses and focus on developing technologies in education and information, which pose similar issues but which he seems to feel, for reasons not entirely clear, Europeans have an advantage they do not have in film.

With new GATT negotiations on the horizon, the issues Puttnam raises have a certain urgency, but he ends his book with a sonorous peroration long on rhetoric and short on ideas, unhappily better suited for an Oscar speech than to a white paper. “Our planet is now too small and too crowded to afford either the arrogance of the very rich or the ignorance of the very poor,” he writes. “From its earliest beginnings, [film’s] real magic has been its ability to conjure up and sustain the dreams of ordinary men and women. At the turn of a new millennium the human race needs those dreams as much as at any time in its history. The question is, Do we have the ambition to seek a new and more sustainable dreams, and do we have the determination to achieve it?”

At the very least, Puttnam’s thoughtful book should make it difficult for Scorsese and Spielberg to again endorse American trade policy in such ringing terms. But if he began by pitting Potemkin against Robin Hood, by the end we are no closer to solving this dilemma.


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