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Book Reviews Review: Ben Fritz’s The Big Picture dissects the age of the easy-to-sell blockbuster

  • Title: The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of the Movies
  • Author: Ben Fritz
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Pages: 304
  • Price: $38.00

“Nobody knows anything.” With those three words, screenwriter William Goldman long ago summed up the whys and wherefores of Hollywood. And Goldman’s maxim was on full, hilarious, garish, desperate, blinded-by-the-light display the other week at CinemaCon in Las Vegas, where the titans of the film industry gathered to present their wares for the all-powerful National Association of Theatre Owners.

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What will dominate the box office for not only 2018, but for years to come? Each and every major studio offered their best guesses – crass comedies starring wildly inappropriate puppets? Dramas about sexy young women adrift at sea? Musicals culled from ABBA’s back catalogue? The continuing opportunity to see Tom Cruise defy death? – but they are merely guesses.

And guessing leads to panic. Which means relying on the one sure thing Hollywood has going for it the past few years: superheroes. Known quantities, in other words: characters and concepts rooted in comfort and only occasionally, tangentially related to artistry. After all, if someone tells you that the sky is falling – and with theatre attendance in North America last year recorded as the lowest since 1995, the atmosphere is certainly in peril – wouldn’t your first call for help be to the supermen and superwomen who have proven time and again that only they can save the day?

This is the entertainment landscape, and devastating line of thinking, that is explored with thorough attention to detail and only a necessary bit of cynicism by Ben Fritz in his new book, The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies. In just under 300 pages, the Wall Street Journal reporter quickly and clearly establishes a history of how Hollywood transitioned from being a star factory, dependent on celebrity to sell its product while still ostensibly interested in original voices and stories, to being a desperate assembly line designed to exploit intellectual property to the point of exhaustion.

As Fritz writes, the current superhero industrial complex – where it is easier for studios to rely on the box-office returns of even third-tier comic-book creations than it is to invest pocket change in original material – is not entirely of Hollywood’s making. Silicon Valley gets its own fair share of the blame, with myriad technological disruptions (streaming, state-of-the-art home-entertainment systems, video-on-demand) all helping push audiences away from theatres and toward their living rooms, or bedrooms, or bathrooms even. Why pay $12 – not counting concessions, parking and the babysitter – to watch a quiet and dignified studio drama in a sticky movie theatre when the same content can be enjoyed in the peace and comfort of one’s own washroom for $10.99 a month via your Netflix-equipped tablet?

This landscape-shifting dilemma – combined with a growing global audience, especially those in China, ravenous for franchise-ready American product – has resulted in massive upheaval across the studio system. As Fritz writes, the Big Six studios – Disney, Paramount, Fox, Universal, Warner Bros., and Sony – quickly came to the realization that the bigger (and more familiar) the spectacle, the larger the chance that audiences would have no choice but to experience it in theatres.

In dissecting the various creative mistakes and financial triumphs that led to this current age of the easy-to-sell blockbuster, Fritz takes an especial shine to the plight of Sony’s Columbia Pictures. By looking at how the studio under Amy Pascal struggled to reconcile its past as a star-friendly home – it enjoyed strong relationships with Adam Sandler and Will Smith, who once upon a time could do no wrong – with the current franchise-fuelled marketplace, Fritz finds a perfect litmus test for the state of the industry.

It didn’t hurt, though, that Sony was the victim of a massive e-mail hack – perhaps sparked by North Korean agents unhappy with its Pyongyang-mocking comedy The Interview – which afforded Fritz a wealth of confidential material. The author acknowledges the ethical dilemma right away in his book’s introduction: “This book is based, in part, on stolen material. I won’t make any bones about it,” he writes, but ultimately justifies using the data. “Interesting information worthy of public scrutiny is fair game for journalists.” Perhaps, but after ploughing through Fritz’s book, there is doubt it would be as breathless and detailed a read as it is without the help of those anonymous hackers.

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For the savvy and hungry moviegoer, the industry shifts Fritz details may seem obvious. All it takes is one glance at the marquee or your Netflix queue to determine what is and isn’t being sold. Yet Fritz uses his skills as both a financial journalist and a natural storyteller to spin a narrative that is detailed, funny and a little terrifying. Anyone with a love for intelligent cinema made for discerning adults should be concerned. After reading Fritz’s final pages, it is impossible to imagine major studios making something as bold and daring as, say, Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men. A $76-million dystopic drama based on a downer of a novel, with no sequel possibility in sight? Those days are over. (Cuaron’s next film will arrive via Netflix.)

Like any industry-focused reporter, Fritz relies on too-frequent moments of inside baseball to carry his story – there is little evidence that those outside Culver City are curious about the details of a long-ago power war between Pascal and Sony’s Steve Mosko. Problematic, too, is the book’s complete absence of #MeToo material. Due to the timelines of the book world, the New Yorker and New York Times’ investigations into Harvey Weinstein and the ancillary reports and investigations it sparked were published after Fritz was done writing. Yet it is still a queasy experience to read here about the creative successes of Amazon Studios executive Roy Price, with no word on the subsequent sexual-harassment allegations that extinguished his career.

Still, in an industry where nobody knows anything, it is fair to say that Fritz knows at least enough to make sense of nonsense.

Barry Hertz is the film editor for The Globe and Mail

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