Anne Thompson is an on-online Hollywood reporter. Aware that the what’s-happening-right-now world of just-in-time digital journalism (or most print journalism for that matter) does not allow for much reflection, she was looking for a way to tell her story of change in the movie business. Thompson was inspired by William Goldman’s The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, which covered one year in the theater and, in The $11 Billion Year, applies that formula to the business of tinsel town.
While The $11 Billion Year book hardly qualifies as a rom-com there are definite elements of affection. Thompson headed into the ‘wood some time back, working as a film columnist and editor at Variety. She hails from that other big cinematic locale in the US, New York City. Clearly a bit of home came along for the ride, as she remains a Yankees fan. Thompson worked for Entertainment Weekly, Hollywood Reporter, and other entertainment media as well.
She began her blog “Thompson on Hollywood” in 2007, which conjures for me an image of the writer in a saddle atop the sign (not gonna go with cowgirl here), and heightens the disappointment I feel at my lack of expertise with Photoshop. It is not nearly a bio-pic either, as Thompson keeps herself pretty much in the background. Nor is it likely that this book will begin a franchise or constitute a blockbuster and be a tentpole to support her other endeavors, but hopefully it will find an audience.
The $11 billion of the title refers to film income for one year, and that’s just domestic. Sounds like H’wood is doing nicely, able to put food on the dining room table, and maybe a few lines on the coffee table. In fact, according to Thompson
Hollywood is like Harold Lloyd in Safety Last, hanging desperately to the hands of that old (silent) clock, which is moving inevitably toward future time.
She says that Hollywood studios, increasingly profit centers in Blob-like corporate behemoths, are narrowing the range of product they are willing to put out, going increasingly for the formulaic, the tried-and-true, and thus are pushing talent into other venues, TV, internet, VOD, Netflix, et al. This represents the real core of the book, the migration from a studio-centric film world to a more dispersed digital environment.
This is not necessarily a terrible thing, as technological changes have put the means of production into the hands of more and more potential film-makers, and a broad range of potential venues has arisen to provide places where these films can be sold and seen. One interesting bit of history Thompson looks at is the rationale for and the transition from film (1999) to digital (2012), and how the diverse parties came to an agreement.
She tracks the annual festival migrations, from Sundance in January to the SXSW in Spring, Cannes in May and the Fall festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York, stopping at other annual events along the way. At Cinemacon, filmmakers show their upcoming product to theater owners. And fan-boy nerds rule at Comic-Con. Part of this is to track the progress, or lack of progress of films through this gauntlet, whether the end result is to gain notice for awards season or merely to get some distribution at all and make back production costs. You will get at least a feel, and sometimes more, for each of these festivals.
She writes in some detail about a handful of films whose titles are familiar and others you may not have heard of. Attention is paid as well to gender issues in the industry, with a focus on Kathryn Bigelow. The book offers for your consideration a look at some of the politicking that goes on before and into Oscar season, and some bits of info on AMPAS (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences) membership, which is about 6,000 strong, and is by invitation only. You will pick up some terminology too, and a few more abbreviations to add to your alphabet soup. “IP”, for example has nothing to do with an initial public something or other, but refers to “Intellectual Property,” the from part of an Oscar nomination for Adapted Screenplay. You will find that NATO can be something other than a plot device in a war flick. (National Association of Theater Owners). MG is not a car or a medication dosage but a Minimum Guarantee, a cash advance payable to the producer upon delivery of the completed film in exchange for exclusive rights to distribute a film in a sales territory. One last term, “four-quadrant” refers to a film that can attract viewers from diverse demographics, including the young, the old, male and female. There are plenty more expressions and letter combinations to take in.
As with any survey-type book, there is always the problem of wanting to know more about this or that element.
Thompson’s prose is fluid, as easy to read as a film treatment . If you are a fan of the cinema (Yes, yes, me, me) there is plenty of scene stealing material here, and a bit of comic relief, but the end result is a fascinating documentary look at how the whole business has changed, a long tracking shot of the running of the festivals, a bit of close-up on Oscar season machinations, and some previews of what might lie ahead. While I could not say for certain that The $11 Billion Year would walk away with a statue for best book about the business of Hollywood, not having
screened read other candidates, there is no denying that it has earned at least a nomination. And that’s a wrap. Let’s do lunch. I have a project I’d like to tell you about. I’ll have my people call your people. Okay?
Publication date – March 4, 2014
Thompson mentions Emma Fitzpatrick’s wonderful send-up of Anne Hathaway in a satirical version of I Dreamed a Dream . If you have not yet seen this you absolutely must.
A nice profile of the author
Thompson’s top ten films of 2012, the year covered in the book