Hollywood Film: The Charity of Billionaires
One of the most memorable parts of the––at times excruciating––second volume of Capital is Marx’s discussion of turnover times. That is, the time it takes for a given capitalist or group of capitalists to cycle their capital through an entire circuit from production to realization. For instance, take the film industry, whose products typically emerge through prolonged production times. And at all stages, whether the capitalists will realize the capital set into motion is utter speculation. Even bolstered by hurricanes of expensive propaganda and hedged with market research and franchise tie-ins, films, being cultural events subject to the vacillations of taste and being decidedly discretionary rather than necessary spending, are enormous gambles for capitalists. Considered in that light, it’s no wonder that the studios have become merchandising arms of much vaster concerns, whose purpose is not to produce films but to capitalize on risky products by sucking as much profit as possible from successful investments.
There are two ways to minimize the extreme risk of filmmaking, which relies, as noted, on technical and business elites being able to guess, years in advance, the temper and tastes of an audience. The first way is to produce as many films as possible with moderate capital investment, with the hope that the winners will win more than the losers. The second is to discern as closely as possible a “sure thing” that can be reproduced and aggressively pushed onto the market for guaranteed super-profits. As documented in Mark Harris’ article for Grantland, Hollywood, which has in previous decades favored a mix of these two approaches, is increasingly wandering to the latter extreme. He writes:
What the movie industry is about, in 2014, is creating a sense of anticipation in its target audience that is so heightened, so nurtured, and so constant that moviegoers are effectively distracted from how infrequently their expectations are actually satisfied. Movies are no longer about the thing; they’re about the next thing, the tease, the Easter egg, the post-credit sequence, the promise of a future at which the moment we’re in can only hint.
Harris documents the transformation of Hollywood into what is essentially a rolling freight train of monotonous frenzy, each franchise train car hitched to the next and the next and the next. Having grown up in one of the great railway hubs of the United States and sat many hours in traffic waiting for the great behemoths to drag their sorry cargo out of the way, I can say that Harris’ charts documenting Hollywood’s franchise output for the next half decade evoke the tedium you anticipate when the red lights start flashing and the arms swing down in front of you. Every capital investment has had its risk trimmed by the fact that it is also an investment in future products, a foundation that can be exploited many times over.
Of course, this way of minimizing risk by honing and homogenizing the product and inflating every iteration of it to “event” paradoxically creates a greater and greater risk of catastrophic collapse. Homogeneous ecosystems, as any first-year biology student could tell you, are more vulnerable to traumatic shifts in climate or to disease than more diverse ones. As studios have laid out franchise paths further and further into the future, the entire scheme wobbles against sudden swings in taste or drops in demand. Hollywood has always been a profit-driven machine, a capitalist apparatus that exploits talent and labor to absorb surplus value and keep the cycle of capital accumulation spinning. But now the cogs of the machine are much more visible than before; the scales are dropping from people’s eyes.
Harris’ primary concern is the creative bankruptcy of the American film industry, his anxiety that the magnetized “keep them coming back” quality of television is being foisted on the film industry, ruining the aesthetic integrity of the standalone film. The original story is now more critically endangered than ever, he seems to say. Films become more overworked, less politically or culturally relevant for the sake of greater accessibility. For him, “The grace of billionaires is not a great business model on which to hang the hopes of an art form.” What he does not say after that, though, is that Hollywood always has been the domain of billionaires and kingpins. It may be a mass art form, but the levers of production in the film industry have ever lain with the most rarefied elites. Transforming the cultural industries, these mechanized and sprawling ideological factories, requires a transformation of the society they are meant to serve. Revolution, socialism, the massification and socialization of production and distribution––these are the remedies for the cultural desert of American film.
At the very least Harris can muster a modicum of concern, whereas insipid writing like this posits that digital distribution and wider access alone can provide the mass base necessary to sustain great film in the United States. Not only this! The author of the article, and Harris for that matter, mistake the fundamental problem. Rather than wondering “where will great films come from?” we should be asking “who is making films, and for whom?” Hollywood thrives on contorting people’s aesthetic tastes to its own ends and pandering to those tastes until they are frayed and sullied. Its frankly embarrassing absorption of so many of our world’s resources for the production of empty spectacles is an evil in itself. However much I can revel in the gangly, moribund fairytale nonsense of Jupiter Ascending, I recognize that it has emerged from an industry driven to the twin extremes of waste and banality. I don’t want a culture industry that can squeeze tiny original films through a “series of tubes” to my computer while the local multiplex exhibits its outsized irrelevancies. I want and will work for a film industry that goes “from the masses, to the masses,” that synthesizes the great aesthetic achievements of this art form with a truly democratic and mass content, which I can only begin to imagine since I’m not an artist.