“The Studio,” John Gregory Dunne’s classic 1969 fly-on-the-wall account of 20th Century Fox, is a feat of journalism that’s unlikely ever to be repeated.
Dunne was granted a measure of access to the studio — its board meetings, pitch sessions, test screenings, proprietary financial data, temper tantrums and other unflattering behavior by executives, producer and talent — that studios today take enormous pains to shelter from public scrutiny.
“The Studio” opens at Fox’s annual stockholders meeting in 1967 — a particularly vulnerable moment for the studio. Fox was coming off its biggest hit, “The Sound of Music,” but it was still reeling from “Cleopatra” and other flops that had forced the company to sell most of its backlot. TV was considered a major threat to the health of the overall film business, and box office admissions were plunging.
But Richard Zanuck, who ran worldwide production for the studio, gave Dunne a passport to the studio. He knew budgets and executive salaries. Dunne even had a standing invitation to sit at Zanuck’s table at the studio commissary. Producer David Brown, who was a studio exec VP and board member at the time, recalled that Dunne “attended our meetings and was one of us.” Brown said most people at Fox assumed the studio would have the chance to review the book prior to publication. When it became clear that Dunne had no such plans, Brown recalled, “We soldiered on and didn’t cut him off the at the pass.”
Dunne attended the test screening for “Dr. Dolittle,” recounting the executives who repaired to a hotel room and spread the audience responses across the floor to read them — few were favorable; he chronicles the disastrous production of “Hello Dolly,” whose production budget of $20 million made it the most expensive bigscreen musical to date; he describes “Planet of the Apes,” a film produced by “Dolittle” producer Arthur P. Jacobs, which was greenlit with the lowest of expectations but became a commercial juggernaut.
Today studios are extremely wary of allowing outsiders to glimpse the vagaries of production and marketing. Journalists’ exposure to stars and sets are carefully stage managed. There’s a sophisticated, highly corporatized publicity system designed to prevent a book like “The Studio” from ever making it into print.
In 1967, however, studios were still independent companies. “The people who worked for Fox worked for Fox, not Gulf and Western, News Corp. or Viacom.” In those days,” Brown said, “everything within the studio was controlled by the executives.”
But Dunne also had something else going for him. He wasn’t exactly a Hollywood outsider. He lived in Los Angeles, knew Hollywood people socially and later enjoyed a lucrative career as a screenwriter and producer. “Monster,” the book he later co-authored with his wife, Joan Didion, depicted the travails of working for Disney, writing draft after draft of a biopic about Jessica Savitch. His first script after writing “The Studio” was for Richard Zanuck and Fox.