Waiting for the revolution

We seem to have hit a brief lull in the storm of megamergers, so this may be an appropriate moment to assess what has happened. Not surprisingly, there’s been considerable pontification about the financial implications of these deals, but little has been said about their impact on the creative community.

Neal Gabler, who has written some absorbing pieces about Hollywood history, advances the theory that we are presently on the cusp of Hollywood’s third revolutionary cycle. The first occurred around 1910-1915, when the original purveyors of “hardware” – i.e. those who held patents on the motion picture camera and projector, including Thomas Edison – lost control of the business to a fierce band of exhibitors, most of them immigrants from Eastern Europe.

Those nickelodeon operators, Gabler reminds us, believed their business was driven by movies. Like the Japanese of the 1980s, they were hung up on “software.” This point of view ultimately took shape as “the studio system,” wherein movies were put on an assembly line, stars became the “brand names” and control of the distribution mechanism guaranteed a satisfactory return, even when the quality of the product was marginal.

This cordial modus operandi was disrupted by several forces – bad management, competition from television and antitrust rulings that divorced the studios from their theater chains. Hence the stage was set for Revolution II, with Lew Wasserman cast as Robespierre. Emerging from the agency business, Wasserman understood that the brand names (i. e. the stars) lent “celebrity” to the movies, not the other way around; he thus made them important participants in the revenue stream.

By securing the rights to film libraries and building his own TV programming machine, Wasserman also demonstrated that TV wasn’t the enemy of movies, but rather a pivotal link in the distribution chain. Michael Ovitz ultimately took this precept to the next level, breaking new boundaries with superstar salaries. Where the studios of old would package projects and keep stars under contract, the agencies now preempted the brand names, cashing in mightily on their exploitation.

Under Gabler’s formulation, what Michael Eisner has now done is to ignite Revolution Ill, which arguably is a sophisticated update and exponential expansion on what the old boys did in Revolution I. While Eisner used to insist his interest was limited to software, suddenly he is in control of a myriad of other revenue streams – broadcast television, cable, video, merchandising, theme parks, soundtrack albums, books and many others.

Given the structure of a megacompany like the new Disney-Cap Cities/ABC, the risk factor inherent in the creation of “software” suddenly is diminished. And the addition of Michael Ovitz to the Disney mix brings the Revolutionary cycle to its inevitable culmination: The champion purveyor of “brand names” instantly links his know-how to production and distribution.

Thus the “new Hollywood” over the next few years will reinvent itself as one big happy family under a new structure that spews forth enormous financial return while, at the same time, minimizing risk.

But will it really turn out that way? Under this “new world order,” suppliers of capital may feel a heightened sense of security, but members of the creative community – the wretches who supply the software – may conceivably find their own career paths considerably riskier. Here are some of the questions that may present themselves:

* Will the new megacompanies try to apply a lid to the costs of talent and material by re-creating a version of the old contract system, under which writers, directors and actors would once again labor for fixed sums of money rather than functioning in part of the entrepreneurial mix?

* Will the vast new companies like Disney and Time Warner be able to “manage” the creative process without lapsing into bureaucratized assembly lines? Consider some early warning signs of “assembly line” filmmaking: Last year’s major hits were three highly idiosyncratic movies, “Forrest Gump,” “The Lion King” and “Pulp Fiction.” This year’s summer fare was dominated by items like “Batman Forever” and “Under Siege II: Dark Territory.”

* Will “edgy” young talent in film and TV be able to fight its way to the forefront of the vast creative bureaucracies or will there be a wall between the “money” and the artists? In short, can vast multinational megacompanies respond to the constantly changing trends of pop culture?

It would be ludicrous to suggest that anyone is privy to the answers to these questions – the landscape is changing too quickly. The important point to digest is simply that, as Gabler reminds us, Revolution III is at hand, and things will never be quite the same again.

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