HOLLYWOOD PRIDES ITSELF on being a trailblazer, assiduously setting the styles for our global pop culture. When it comes to simple economics, however, this town is hardly a trendsetter.
Hence Hollywood presently finds itself drifting into a mini-recession at a time when the nation as a whole is experiencing a nonstop boom. Indeed, while some gurus believe the U.S. has been swept up in what they like to call the “New Economy,” the “Old Economy” seems to prevail in Hollywood. And maybe it’s time to ask why.
In the years since I attended the London School of Economics — a sordid chapter of my past I don’t normally disclose — I have observed that the sheer mention of the term “economics” sends people nodding off. Economics suggests incomprehensible data and mind-numbing analyses leading up to ambiguous conclusions.
Yet there’s no ambiguity in the fact that the present economic “high” has subtly transformed this nation’s politics and even its entertainment habits.
Under the “New Economy,” economic growth seems on a steady upward curve with business cycles a thing of the past. Inflation has been erased along with unemployment. Consistent with the doctrine that “wired means inspired,” there’s been a dramatic climb in the number of workers employed in businesses that either produce or consume information technology. E-commerce is a huge new industry, though transactions on the Internet are mainly business-to-business rather than business-to-consumer.
There are even signs that worker productivity is on the rise in the new high-tech economy, though this applies more to dweeb businesses than others. The wobbly new edifices of high-tech America were spewing forth incredible stock market winnings until the recent carnage in Internet stocks on the Nasdaq, thus ushering in a new chapter in free market entrepreneurial adventurism.
The big debate among economists, however, is whether America’s “New Economy” can serve as an effective model for the less exuberant economies of other nations. A more relevant debate here in Hollywood is whether the “New Economy” can supplant this town’s distinctly old one.
Examine the contrasts: Business cycles may have disappeared from the “New Economy,” but show business remains resolutely cyclical. What other explanation could there be for the waning fortunes of the once-exalted Walt Disney Co., which has become the worst performer in the Dow Jones Industrial Average over the past 12 months? Once the wunderkind of the “creative content” arena, Disney has overnight become its splendid invalid.
AT A TIME WHEN THE PUNDITS of the “New Economy” are bullish about constant growth, show business analysts are bearish about profit margins. Employment, too, may be growing in other sectors, but sinking in Hollywood along with productivity. And if most business leaders believe “wired is inspired,” Hollywood remains an oddly uninspired, seat-of-the-pants business.
To be sure, the multinationals that control show business increasingly are clamoring to get aboard the digital revolution, though they’re getting clobbered even in these pursuits. Disney’s proposed merger with Infoseek and its plan to issue Go.com stock elicited a decidedly mixed response from Wall Street, perhaps because Disney is the whipping boy du jour.
Indeed, some of the initiatives aimed at latching onto the whirlwind “New Economy” seem more reactive than innovative. Rather than launch a frontal assault on soaring marketing costs and star salaries, Hollywood is cutting production, paring down development, recruiting financial partners to share the risks and nipping away at below-the-line costs by shipping movies out of town.
Some of these steps seem counterproductive in the long term. In moving the production of movies to Canada or Australia, for example, Hollywood is undermining its long-standing base of loyal, skilled artisans. In sharply curbing development and canceling deals with writers and independent producers, it is confining its seed bed of new ideas and innovation to its own bureaucratic infrastructure — always a dicey exercise.
There are some who argue that the key to Hollywood’s future health lies in resisting some of the economic mandates imposed by its multinational proprietors. Under these dictates, movies and TV shows have come to be accepted as pricey “loss leaders,” with their economic value keyed to ultimate payoffs further down the distribution pipeline.
Who cares if “Wild Wild West” loses money as a theatrical feature, if its real value resides in overseas video, pay TV or DVD? None of this makes any long-range sense financially, to be sure, but it provides a comfortable rationale for runaway salaries and soaring production costs.
To no one’s surprise, a degree of revisionist thinking has now set in, and this summer’s slate represents the upshot. With the exception of the $180 million “Wild Wild West,” stringent cost controls have been exercised. Complex partnerships surround more and more films, with “Runaway Bride” effectively embracing a triumvirate of financial allies — Paramount, Touchstone and Lakeshore. And more movies than ever have been blatantly targeted at the most receptive demo — teenage boys. Witness “Big Daddy,” the “Austin Powers” sequel and “American Pie.”
While box office remains vigorous in Hollywood and a movie like “The Haunting” can open to unanimously bad reviews and still register a $33 million weekend, a very great distance still stands between Hollywood and the bold “New Economy” that has swept through the rest of the U.S. And there are a lot of working stiffs who would love to see that distance narrowed.