Movies and Money
By David Puttnam
Alfred A. Knopf
339 pp., $27.50
When the thoroughly English film "Four Weddings and a Funeral" opened in British theatres in 1994, it was billed as "America's No. 1 Smash Hit Comedy!"
The domination of world cinema by American movie tastes implied by this example is the subject of "Movies and Money," by producer and former president of Columbia Pictures, David Puttnam. It is a detailed and convincing chronicle of how Hollywood won the war for the global audience.
Puttnam follows the plot of the birth and growth of cinema as it unfolded in America and Europe from the invention of Edison's kinetoscope in 1891 and on to silent films, talkies, and the creation of the studio system. He describes how two world wars proved tremendously advantageous for Hollywood, how it survived the advent of television, and positioned itself as a major player in the global marketplace.
The stars of Puttnam's cinema saga are not Chaplin or Spielberg, Eisenstein or Goddard, but Path, Laemmle, Goldwyn, Wasserman, Valenti, and Rank - the bankers, producers, distributors, agents, and political lobbyists behind the scenes.
The myth of American movies is that they are loved from Brooklyn to Bangladesh because of their inherently democratic, universal stories and characters. While acknowledging the mass appeal of American movies, Puttnam argues that Hollywood's businessmen essentially created the desire for American films by colonizing the world's movie screens. Hollywood films often account for 80 to 90 percent of the product shown in European theatres. By far exceeding Europe's efforts in marketing and distribution, they made the world's moviegoing experience synonymous with Hollywood.
Throughout the book, Puttnam recounts the brilliant strategies Hollywood's movie men employed to get their movies made, and more important, seen. These ranged from vertical integration (in which all aspects of a film, from production to marketing to distribution to the ownership of cinema chains, were controlled by various Hollywood studios) to convincing the US government that movies were a powerful weapon in the push for economic and cultural world dominance (a strategy that served Hollywood's foreign interests from World War I to the GATT talks). As time went on, they poured money into building glamorous movie palaces and later suburban cineplexes, and, at a crucial moment, "embraced the enemy" by leasing and selling films to be shown on network television.
The strongest evidence that Hollywood's world dominance was achieved off-screen rather than on is Puttnam's parallel chronicling of the development of European cinema. The talent of Europe's directors, actors, and technicians has always been on par and often significantly ahead of Hollywood's. But the European film industry never mastered the money side. It seemed incapable of shaking the belief that film was an art, not a commodity. Movies were a reflection of national identity, a continuation of a nation's culture, and the personal expression of artists.
While America perfected the business, the French embraced the idea of auteurs, handing almost total control to the film's "author" (usually the director), including the right to veto the distribution of a film. Governments in Britain and France repeatedly subsidized film production, thereby enabling directors and producers to ignore whether their films were appealing to audiences. Many European films never even reached an audience - thousands of movies gathered dust on shelves for lack of distribution. For years, until American investors spruced them up, moviehouses were allowed to become so run-down that audiences stayed away in droves. For Hollywood, the audience was the star; for Europe, the audience was never as important as the art.
Puttnam's writing is clear and practical. Appropriately, given his focus on the fiscal drama behind the scenes, the book is peppered with far less glamorous gossip than most industry histories. Yet Puttnam's depth of understanding and his respect for the financial genius of cinema's architects makes "Movies and Money" a compelling read. At the very least, when the next Schwarzenegger movie grosses millions overseas, you'll understand why.
* Elissa Adams is director of new play development at the Children's Theatre Company in Minneapolis.