An expanding DVD market and digital streaming made the Criterion Collection edition of Life of Brian superfluous. I purchased the CC copy of Life of Brian before a cheaper copy was available; and, even if there was one somewhere out there, I could not imagine how, as I held a sixty dollar DVD in my hands, a non-Criterion release would have had the same extra features.
I’m not complaining. Life of Brian is one my favourite comedies. However, its reasons to be included in the Criterion Collection were challenged almost immediately after its release. For context, here is the mission of the Criterion Collection (as of 2021):
Since 1984, the Criterion Collection has been dedicated to publishing important classic and contemporary films from around the world in editions that offer the highest technical quality and award-winning, original supplements. No matter the medium—from laserdisc to DVD and Blu-ray to streaming—Criterion has maintained its pioneering commitment to presenting each film as its maker would want it seen, in state-of-the-art restorations with special features designed to encourage repeated watching and deepen the viewer’s appreciation of the art of film.
My CC copy does not look better than what I can find elsewhere. The commentaries are nice, but they have since been included in copies that cost far less. A fan of Monty Python might also learn little from the commentaries. The living cast of Monty Python rank high on any list of artists that are repeatedly interviewed about career highlights older than twenty years. Therefore, a dedicated fan is likely to already know some of the Life of Brian stories–George Harrison’s investment; filming in Tunisia; Graham Chapman’s sobriety.
But the film deserves its inclusion. In the event that the film did not look better than it did before, or if there could not be many special features, Criterion selected Life of Brian in order to perform what the Library of Congress does in the American public sphere: declare that a cultural object is important.
“… and I should know because I’ve followed a few!”
A good comedy knows how to follow each funny thread to its best end point. If you can’t stop at the right time, things start to crumble. An imaginative premise is shortchanged if one stops a joke too quickly. When a joke needed to end seconds or even minutes ago, the gag feels cheap and in creeps tiredness.
Monty Python jokes are rarely short punches, so the risk of audience fatigue is high. Thankfully most of Life of Brian finds the right tempo for its silliness. In the stoning scene (Jehovah! Jehovah!) the violence grows exponentially rather than in linear increments, because the disguised women are impatient to perform a forbidden act of execution. The two scenes with Pontius Pilate (played by Michael Palin) are some of the longest in the film. Palin’s Pilate is also a drawling character. Nevertheless, the pace is just right because slow and long makes the game of lisps, accents and dirty names frustrate Pilate, who, like the soft-speaking administrator of the crucifixion line, believes there is nothing funny about Imperial Rome.
“… in an extremely cheap and tenth-rate way.”
On the timeline of taboo filmmaking in mainstream cinema, Life of Brian is a mark after the death of the Production Code Administration, but well before Western societies, including their conservative pockets, grew to tolerate levels of vulgarity that would be culturally lethal in an earlier time. Almost two decades before crowds grew comfortable to see Jason Biggs fuck a pie on the big screen, and without precedent to combine the era of Jesus with comedy, Life of Brian was a lone target for religious groups in Britain and America.
How the controversy played out for Life of Brian should be familiar to those who follow the news cycles of most film and television controversies: tension is high for a brief period, everybody is either offended or defensive, but then the item in question is forgotten, because down the road attackers and defenders will reunite on the battlefields of The Last Temptation of Christ, The Satanic Verses, The Simpsons, Dogma, South Park, Family Guy and so on. The anxiety about Life of Brian was highest on a BBC2 talk show, Friday Night, Saturday Morning. An episode of the show allowed John Cleese and Michael Palin to debate Malcolm Muggeridge and Mervyn Stockwood, the Bishop of Southwark. Muggeridge and Stockwood viewed the film before the show, but supposedly they missed the first fifteen minutes of the film, which is when the story establishes that Brian is not Jesus.
A full viewing of Life of Brian would have changed little. Bishop Stockwood spends the first minute of his “review” reflecting on the inability of communist countries (Romania, China) to eradicate Christianity. Holding a silver crucifix around this neck, which is big enough to make Flavor Flav jealous, he then performs the typical headmaster maneuver: stating that he considered the ideas of the youth, but the ideas are too naive and fail to show respect for the big structure the headmaster occupies a position within. As Stockwood makes clear, he hardly had the energy to find Life of Brian funny because he spent the morning delivering communion: “I didn’t roar around with laughter at the alter in my chapel this morning, I just fell down, genuflected and worshiped”.
A DVD copy of Sanjuro was gifted to me. If I had purchased a hard copy myself, I definitely would never have skipped buying Yojimbo, the first in the pair of films about Sanjuro, the ronin who names himself “30 years old”. Sanjuro is a film for the those–investors and samurai fans alike–who wanted more from Kurosawa’s creation. The success of Yojimbo created the desire for a sequel, and Kurosawa repurposed an old script to have Toshiro Mifune and other players, like Tatsuya Nakadai, continue the adventure.
Much like how I feel when watching a Mizoguchi film, a Kurosawa film is comforting because it is so well crafted. One does not watch Sanjuro to see what can happen if continuity is thrown out the window. Rather, one seeks a film like this because it demonstrates how, in the hands of an expert, a so-called “straightforward” style of story-telling is not an impediment to radical creation. In the realm of fiction, James Clavell’s Shōgun is the first cousin of a Kurosawa film; the former is dedicated to observing the action of characters from third person, but the precision of its description allows for different layers of a feudal system to be folded into one complex picture.
The funny thing about praising the style of Sanjuro is that one can, with a small push from Stephen Prince’s audio commentary, read the film as Kurosawa telling the next generation of Japanese filmmakers they made a mistake to reject the Japanese cinema Kurosawa helped create. Not for lack of enthusiasm, the young samurai in the film fail to read almost every political maneuver that is taking place. Consequently, Mifune’s exposition is not just for the audience–Sajnuro has to tell his own allies that, if he was a less capable swordsman, his head would be cut off by their hands and from their blind stupidity.
Part 1 introduced Scorcese’s argument in his Harper’s essay, which was about much more than Fellini. The first part also explained how we can connect Scorcese’s essay to the drive in the Hollywood film business for major film distributors to differentially accumulate, i.e., beat a benchmark that is relevant to dominant capitalists. By the end, we were left with an open question: how did major Hollywood studios differentially accumulate in the blockbuster era when their differential profits were actually stagnating? This question comes from the evidence in Figure 1, which was first presented in Part 1.
This post will focus on the change in attitude that established the blockbuster era. To firmly establish blockbuster cinema, Hollywood changed its attitude about the creativity of its filmmakers. Certainly, any version of Hollywood will need creative people to write, shoot, design, manage and act in films. However, around the early 1980s, the party was over for those whose creativity got in the way of Hollywood’s new path to differential accumulation: reducing risk.
Can we talk about what we just watched?
Kirshner’s history of the “New” Hollywood era (2012) begins anecdotally, with his personal memory of how often he and his friends would spend hours in cafes talking about the films they just watched. This anecdote, in my opinion, points to the heart of “New” Hollywood cinema. Films like The Friends of Eddie Coyle, Klute, Night Moves and California Split are hard to praise for how they look and sound. You can see the grain and muted colours of a typical “New” Hollywood film from a mile away. If you are watching the film at home, you might still not clearly hear the dialogue after raising your TV volume to 100. Nevertheless, a good “New” Hollywood film–and there are many–will certainly make you think, because no other era of Hollywood cinema is so explicit in its intention to make the moral ambiguity of a story as deep as an ocean. For example, in McCabe and Mrs. Miller, one of Robert Altman’s best films, McCabe (played by Warren Beatty) is hardly a hero, but Altman never lets your opinions only travel in one direction. McCabe is weak, but strong enough to fight. He is directionless but also a likeable martyr that hates the correct enemy: a mining monopoly that hires killers to terrorize a defenceless town.
In terms of theatrical attendance in the United States, the “New” Hollywood era was successful. We can see this with two measures of success. Figure 2 shows how the period between 1968 and 1980 had high theatrical attendance of the top five films per year. (Ticket price inflation is why theatrical attendance in the blockbuster era is lower than what one would have expected it to be.) Figure 3 shows a five-year percent change for the per capita theatrical attendance in the United States. A percent change of the series makes the relevant historical shift easier to see; all per-capita theatrical attendance after the 1940s is low by comparison, as theatrical attendance plummeted with the decline of the studio era and the rise of television. Figure 3 demonstrates that, while the level of theatrical attendance per capita was still much lower than what came before it, “New” Hollywood was able to produce positive five-year growth rates after two decades of shrinkage.
Not much to left to see if you ain’t here for blockbusters
In the two figures above, “New” Hollywood earns its name, as the era is defined by the ways studios successfully bounced back by embracing young, often inexperienced, filmmakers, whose film projects were infused with the social issues of America in the 1960s and 70s. There were cracks in the business-artist relationship from the very beginnings of “New” Hollywood–e.g., the studio treatment of Elaine May–but some of cracks that appeared in the mid-1970s were so big that this more free-spirited version of Hollywood was under threat to end almost as soon as it began.
The growth of the financial problem with “New” Hollywood was caused by Hollywood itself. Hollywood studios in the 1970s liked the newest post-studio-system distribution strategy, saturation booking, which is the act of releasing a big film like The Godfather, Part I in as many theatres as possible. Yet saturation booking needs a lot of people to come to the theatres, and the early problems with saturation booking would only be solved when Hollywood was more effective at using the saturation-booking strategy. The ability for saturation booking to be the solution to its own problems existed because Hollywood in the 1970s was a curious mix of proto-blockbusters, auteur blockbusters, and hard-to-market films produced by directors like John Cassavetes, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman. Look beyond the two most obvious financial successes of the 1970s–Jaws and Star Wars–and there are examples of this decade having qualities that undermined the interests of a Hollywood system that was now hungry for pure, uncut blockbusters. First, if blockbusters were to be high-octane fuel for the big engine of saturation booking, Hollywood studios would need to learn how to design enough “must-see” films for the top financial tier. As shown in Figure 4, this lesson was first taught in 1976, the year that was sandwiched between Jaws and Star Wars. Jaws created a new pecuniary standard for high-grossing films, and in this environment, the great financial success of Rocky–the highest-grossing film in 1976–was, as Cook describes, “puzzling and unnerving” (Cook, 2000, p. 52). Rocky was a low-budget project that featured, at the time, a cast of unknown actors. Its unexpected success twisted the knife in the side of designed-to-be-blockbuster films like King Kong (1976) and The Deep (1977), two films that could not repeat the financial success of Jaws.
This frustration with Rocky needs to be viewed through the lens of risk. In both its technical and conceptual senses, risk is relevant to the study of how Hollywood, as a business, utilizes social creativity. The conventional wisdom is that cinema is a very risky business enterprise, which means that even the biggest Hollywood firms are uncertain about their financial success. Yet, we will see going forward that Hollywood has devised strategies to reduce the possibility that the future of culture will be radically different from what capitalists expect it to be. This making of order does not eliminate risk entirely. Rather, by exercising corporate power again and again, industrial art of filmmaking and the social world of mass culture can be transformed into an order of cinema, in which film projects are weighable and calculable in terms of future expectations. Under such historical conditions, estimations of a film’s social significance can, with a degree of confidence, be low risk or “sure bets”.
For the blockbuster style to be low risk, Hollywood needed to selectively nurture the “right” type of creativity. Steven Spielberg and George Lucas were certainly proving their worth early on, but many of their contemporaries in the late 1970s were making auteur/blockbuster hybrids that proved to be incompatible with the saturation booking strategy. On the one hand, the production costs of films like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Peckinpah’s Convoy, Friedkin’s Sorcerer, Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Scorsese’s New York, New York, and Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate were far too big for a small-release strategy to be profitable; on the other hand, the form and content of these films were also too esoteric to ever reach the revenues plateau of a Jaws or a Star Wars.
Figure 5 helps illustrate the transformation from the 1970s to the current era of Hollywood cinema, 1980-2019. The figure is a proxy for the consumer habits of American cinema. It presents the volatility of attendance for both the top three and top five films per year. Volatility is computed in two steps. For both the top three and the top five films per year, the annual growth rates of total attendance are computed from the 1940s to 2019. The two series in Figure 5 are measures of, for each year, a 20-year trailing standard deviation of these growth rates.
Interestingly, the volatility of attendance in the 1970s was similar to that of the 1960s and even the mid-1950s–two periods when saturation booking was not yet a method of distribution for mainstream films. Thus we can surmise that while the theatrical events of Billy Jack in 1971, The Godfather in 1972, Jaws in 1975 and Star Wars in 1977 were big in terms of levels of revenues, they had yet to translate into, for interested capitalists, high levels of confidence about the predictability of future earnings. To be sure, having single-handedly pulled in around 128 million attendances in the United States, Jaws was an example to be mimicked immediately. Justin Wyatt describes the saturation-booking strategy that followed on its heels:
Following Jaws, high quality studio films developed even broader saturation releases; in 1976, King Kong (with a 961 theater opening); in 1977, The Heretic: Exorcist II (703 theaters), The Deep (800 theaters), Saturday Night Fever (726 theaters); in 1978, Grease (902 theaters) and Star Trek–The Motion Picture (856 theaters) continued to expand the pattern of saturation release and intense television advertising.
Wyatt, 1992, p. 112
Despite this flurry of wide releases, however, Figure 5 illustrates that there is still a difference between the 1970s–a decade when blockbuster cinema was still in its infancy–and the contemporary period from 1980 to the present–a time when blockbuster cinema has become Hollywood’s predominant style. The two series–“Top Three Films” and “Top Five Films”–both start their decline in the 1980s and reach their lowest levels in the 2000s. By 2011, the 20-year trailing standard deviation for the attendance of the top three films was 48 percent less volatile than it had been in 1980. The same can be said for the attendance of the top five films.
Next post: Seeking low-risk cinema
This reduction in the volatility is neither accidental or a lucky externality of general market behavior. The next post will show examples of where, I believe, we can see Hollywood using capitalist power to reduce risk. In the day-to-day experiences of filmmaking, this mode of power can appear in flashes, such as when executives “give notes” to creatives or when studios suggest casting stars to boost a film project’s “bank-ability”. However, even when the sabotage of filmmaking is micro enough to be imperceptible (much like the slow boiling of a frog in a pot?), the key is that the oligopoly at the centre of Hollywood has the power to act when creativity is perceived to be “too risky”. Some film projects, on account of their subject matter or style, can be effectively withheld from the market because no major firm will purchase the rights to distribute them. A film project may be able to find financing, but under a contract that stipulates conditions about form, content, budget, cast, crew, etc. A film can be produced, but management will have a role in the direction and pace of creation. And if business interests are still sceptical about their investment in potentially chaotic artistic creativity, the right of film ownership often includes the right of “final cut”–i.e., the right to modify a film before it is released but after the director presents his or her final version (Bach, 1985).
Hollywood’s drive for risk reduction is implied in Figure 5 but clearly found in the long-term reduction of earnings volatility. Figure 6 presents an updated version of my index for the volatility of the earnings per firm of Hollywood’s major studios. The figure is presenting ex post risk. For each year, I compute the percent rate of change of earnings from its five-year trailing average. Second, I measure, for each year, a trailing fifteen-year standard deviation of the computed rates of changes. Thus, the larger the standard deviation, the greater the volatility in the earning growth rates of Hollywood’s previous fifteen years.
With data going into the late 1940s, the time series in Figure 6 confirms that, in terms of profits, the troublesome period was from the late 1960s to the last years of the 1970s, when risk spiked and stayed high. After the 1970s, risk steadily declined and continued to decline to 2019. The level of risk in 2019 is also lowest in the period from 1950 to 2019. The annotations in Figure 6 are meant to remind us of the film history that overlaps this reduction in risk. We might not know the contribution of each film to this decline–and there are many other important films in any story about Hollywood–but the coincidence of a significant reduction of earnings volatility occurring after the twilight of “New” Hollywood is unlikely an to be an accidental one.
TO BE CONTINUED …
McMahon, J. (2013). The Rise of a Confident Hollywood: Risk and the Capitalization of Cinema. Review of Capital as Power, 1(1), 23–40.
McMahon, J. (2015). Risk and Capitalist Power: Conceptual Tools to Study the Political Economy of Hollywood. The Political Economy of Communication, 3(2), 28–54.
Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a telling example of Hollywood rationalizing its so-called inability to widen the boundaries of its creativity. In this case, the boundaries concern Hollywood’s tendency to reserve roles for its biggest stars, even when a big star appears unfit for the role in question.
Much of the pre-release journalism on Exodus concerned the contentious decision to cast white Hollywood actors in the story of Moses opposing the Pharaoh and leading the Israelites out of Ancient Egypt (examples 1, 2, 3). Christian Bale, who was cast to play Moses, became a de facto spokesperson for the film and attempted to diffuse some of the criticism. Bale’s defense of the casting decisions inadvertently reveals how these decisions were not made for lack of historically available alternatives:
I don’t think fingers should be pointed, but we should all look at ourselves and say, “Are we supporting wonderful actors in films by North African and Middle Eastern filmmakers and actors, because there are some fantastic actors out there”.
Christian Bale and Ridley Scott defend Exodus casting at film’s New York premiere
The obvious rationale for not casting fantastic North African or Middle Eastern actors instead of Bale and other white Hollywood actors is rooted in the financial goals of Hollywood–even Bale acknowledged this. However, such a rationale does not only downplay the racist element of this story, it actually obscures how Hollywood’s modus operandi transforms a controversial choice about casting into a so-called “rational” business decision. For instance, when Scott defended his film with the argument that he had to assemble the “best possible cast … on a budget of this scale [~\$140 million]” , he admitted to Hollywood’s interest in profit but glossed over the main reason why narrow-minded casting decisions are the so-called “best” business strategies.
If we start to ask follow-up questions about the aesthetic decisions of the film, it becomes clearer that the size and influence of Hollywood in modern cinema has a hand in making these decisions become “smart” in certain evironments. Is it necessary for a film about the Book of Exodus to cost $140 million? Is it necessary that, for the sake of entertainment, Moses bear a sword rather than a staff, or that the Red Sea be made red from man-eating crocodiles sent by God? Is it necessary that Moses be portrayed as an atheistic warrior–where God might be the hallucinatory consequence of a concussion–rather than the eventual lawgiver of God’s commandments? If the answer to each question is “No”, we actually catch a glimpse of how the casting of Bale fits into a larger story of corporate power. Hollywood is using the oligopoly of blockbuster film production and theatrical distribution to bend the curvature of modern cinema. Once bent according to its interests, Hollywood has created a financial disincentive for it to cast a film about Moses more appropriately, even when Bale claims this is what he would personally hope for: “To me that would be a day of celebration. For the actors it would be wonderful. It would be a wonderful day for humanity, but also for films and for storytelling in general”.
My cynical side thinks Bale is being disingenuous with his hope for better casting in the Hollywood blockbuster he stars in. However, the issues of repetitive or narrow casting in Hollywood are more institutional than they are individual. We can use IMDB data to demonstrate the extent of Hollywood’s repetitive casting in films above the 75th percentile in opening-theatre size. Films in this group are in blockbuster territory; they get wide-releases and money to promote and advertise at national and international scales. Consequently, Hollywood must certainly assess the risk of casting in this set of films, as their wide theatrical openings need to cover distribution and advertising costs by generating lots of revenues as fast as possible. Exodus, for instance, is above the 75th percentile in opening-theatre size in its year of release, and we just saw Bale and Scott defend casting in relation to the film’s expensive budget and the need for a star to generate blockbuster-level sales.
Table 1 helps me explain my method of gathering casting data. For each film, I gathered the first twenty actors on the cast list. With respect to actors having enough dialogue or screen-time for their roles to be memorable, a Hollywood film is rarely twenty actors deep. However, a long list of actors can achieve two things at once. First, it can account for the possibility that an notable actor is unexpectedly lower on IMDB’s cast list. Morgan Freeman’s role in Batman Begins is a good example. In Table 1 Morgan Freeman is 12th on the list. There could be many reasons why he is 12th on the list, but the important thing is that his cameo-like role in the film would have been excluded with more a selective slice of IMDB data. Second, a lengthier list of actors gives us data to investigate if repetition in casting occurs further down the list, with actors who are not stars in the public’s mind but who have secured roles in a Hollywood film. For instance, Table 1 includes actors with smaller speaking roles in Batman Begins: Mark Boone Junior as Arnold Flass; Linus Roache as Thomas Wayne; Larry Holden as district attorney Carl Finch; Colin McFarlane as Gillian B. Loeb; and Emma Lockhart as Young Rachel Dawes. Does the possession of these roles in Batman Begins increase the likelihood that an actor will have roles in other films above the 75th percentile in opening-theatre size?
The IMDB data shows that Hollywood is (a) repetitive in its casting and (b) that this strategy of repetition is translating into sector-wide inequalities in casting (if you think about it, (a) and (b) are the same thing, just written about from different perspectives; if an in-group is narrowly repetitive when alternatives exist, the out-group is repeatedly excluded). Figure 1 shows two distributions of film count per actor. Panel A shows the top 20 actors, sorted by total count of roles between 1983 and 2019. Readers will likely recognize all or some of the names in Panel A. The panel also shows signs of racial and gender inequalities in Hollywood casting: the majority of the list is white, actors of Asian descent are missing and there is not a single woman in the top 20 (the first five female actors outside the top 20 are: Julia Roberts (16 films), Sandra Bullock (15), Angelina Jolie (15), Halle Berry (15) and Carla Gugino (15)). As Yuen (2016) demonstrates through interviews with actors of color trying to secure roles in Hollywood, racial discrimination in casting limits opportunities in different ways–e.g., perceiving actors of color to be “too foreign” or not American enough in demeanor and accent, typecasting by ethnicity or skin color, and restricting acting opportunities to a narrow range of stereotyped characters. The unfairness of the biggest female stars having fewer film counts than men is not surprising when systemic gender discrimination and the role of power in distributing roles to women might be one of Hollywood’s biggest open-secrets–especially after the testimonies of many in the #MeToo movement. This prevalence of gender discrimination is also institutional, rather than being about “bad apples” in the workplace. Erigha (2019) demonstrates how Black women are repeatedly disadvantaged in securing creative roles in Hollywood filmmaking, such as directing and screenwriting. The interviews of Simon (2019) with Hollywood talent agents revealed the degree to which the job of talent representation advantaged white men; many of the prominent positions in talent agencies were held by white men and their shared beliefs that “good” masculine traits were necessary for strong job performance created exclusive networks of patrimonial mentoring, affected who was promoted to talent agent, and enabled talent agents to openly complain about the so-called “emotional instabilities” of their female clients.
Panel B in Figure dispels the belief that any role in a wide-release film will lead to other roles in big Hollywood films. There are 16,154 actors in the dataset and roughly 60 percent will only have one appearance in this set of films from 1983 to 2019. Because of this power distribution in film count per actor, elite status can be reached with only a few films to one’s name. Christian Bale, for example, is listed in the dataset six times: [Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Terminator Salvation, Public Enemies, The Dark Knight Rises, Exodus: Gods and Kings]. This is actually a fraction of Bale’s filmography–the dataset is not counting his numerous (serious) roles in smaller theatrical releases–but what is counted in the figure puts Bale above the 95th percentile of the dataset. The actors in Panel A are all in the 99.9th percentile.
To see if repetitiveness of casting has changed over time, Figure 2 is built from rolling windows of data. Five-year windows of casting data are created first and then the film count is computed for each actor. This avoids actors with long careers skewing measurements of recent years–e.g., the cumulative film counts of Eddie Murphy or Samuel L. Jackson would beat any newcomer, whose career started in the mid-2010s. The y-axis of each panel in Figure 2 measures the inequality of every 5-year distribution as a Gini coefficient, where 0 is perfect equality and 1 is perfect inequality. The x-axis in Panel A selects the top ten actors in each window and calculates the mean of their film count. Panel B plots on its x-axis the number of films released by major Hollywood studios, smoothed as a 5-year rolling average.
Figure 2 is interesting for at least two reasons. First, rising inequality in the figure is, in this case, an effect of Hollywood being more repetitive with its top-tier, A-list actors. For example, in the period from 1983 to 1987, Dan Aykroyd was first with 6 films and the top-ten-actor average was 4.7 films; in the period from 2015 to 2019, Dwayne Johnson was first with 11 films and the top-ten-actor average was 7.5 films. Second, there is a curious non-linear path in Panel B. From 1983 to 2009, there is a tight correlation between the increase in the number of films and the increase in inequality in casting. The inflection point at 2009 puts the relationship on a new trajectory, whereby there is increasing inequality as the number of films decrease. Additional work will be needed to explain why the inflection point occurs around 2009. For now, I can make a hypothesis by drawing from Leaver (2010), who conceives of actors and their agents as a group that fights against film distributors for claims on film earnings. A-list actors cannot control the number of films released by Hollywood studios, the x-axis in Figure 2-B. Yet they have agents who can fight against new opportunities to cast actors more equitably. If casting decisions in the mid-2000s followed the historical patterns of Hollywood casting since the 1980s, the decreases to film output would have signaled a return to more equal shares of roles. But this step towards equality did not happen and we are left with a Hollywood cinema that is somehow even more repetitive than it was previously.
Anonymous. (2014, December). “Christian Bale and Ridley Scott defend Exodus casting at film’s New York premiere”. CBC.
Child, B. (2014, December). “Christian Bale defends Ridley Scott over Exodus ‘whitewashing’”. The Guardian.
Erigha, M. (2019). The Hollywood Jim Crow: The Racial Politics of the Movie Industry. NYU Press.
Leaver, A. (2010, August). “A Different Take: Hollywood’s Unresolved Business Model”. Review of International Political Economy, 17(3), 454–480.
Palmer, B. (2014, December). “How White Were Ancient Egyptians? Not as white as Christian Bale”. Slate.
Simon, S. J. (2019). “Hollywood power brokers: Gender and racial inequality in talent agencies”. Gender, Work & Organization, 26(9), 1340-1356. doi:https://doi.org/10.1111/gwao.12365
What is more pleasurable: reading Martin Scorcese on cinema or reading reactions to Scorcese on cinema? The reactions compete for our pleasure because they reveal how easy it is for someone’s words to make us jump into a debate with two feet and eyes closed.
In the March 2021 issue of Harper’s, Scorcese wrote an essay to pay tribute to Federico Fellini, the Italian director who directed such great films as La Strada, 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita, Nights of Cabiria and Satyricon. Scorcese writing on Fellini is definitely newsworthy for cinephiles who want to know about Fellini’s beginnings in Italian neo-realism (for example, he worked with Rosselini on Rome, Open City), or who simply want to be reminded of why his filmography is so great. However, the news of this essay’s arrival went well beyond film studies and had very little to do with Fellini. News outlets reported the publishing of the essay and #scorcese trended on Twitter because Scorcese framed his tribute to Fellini–which was both personal and knowledgeable–with an argument about the decline of cinema as an art form. Here is a key example from the essay’s conclusion:
Everything has changed—the cinema and the importance it holds in our culture. Of course, it’s hardly surprising that artists such as Godard, Bergman, Kubrick, and Fellini, who once reigned over our great art form like gods, would eventually recede into the shadows with the passing of time. But at this point, we can’t take anything for granted. We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema. In the movie business, which is now the mass visual entertainment business, the emphasis is always on the word “business,” and value is always determined by the amount of money to be made from any given property–in that sense, everything from Sunrise to La Strada to 2001 is now pretty much wrung dry and ready for the “Art Film” swim lane on a streaming platform.
Jump-cut to a crowd of people who vehemently agree with Scorcese. They recite the names of directors from the past, in the hopes that people will understand the magnitude of what will be lost if cinema goes extinct. A reverse shot of another angry crowd, who believe Scorcese is over-reacting to cinema’s future. Some in this crowd might dislike his characterization of streaming platforms like Amazon Prime, and the recommendation-through-algorithm method. Others might be skeptical of the argument that art is being crushed inside the corporate packages that deliver media content.
I strongly support Scorcese’s essay. But I also think that my form of support is slightly different than others. Through a curious survey of #scorcese after the Harper’s essay, I noticed that much of the digital debate is used to re-state definitions of cinema and art. (Scorcese, for his part, produced his own version of “What is Cinema?” before the Harper’s essay, when he said Marvel superhero films were movies but not cinema.) My support for Scorcese is based on a deep appreciation for the artistic potential of films, but it is also based on the significance of this claim: “We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema.”
A reader might have skimmed over this sentence, or perhaps it was grouped with all the other pieces of Scorcese’s argument for the preservation of cinema. But if we pause on the sentence “We can’t depend on the movie business, such as it is, to take care of cinema”, we can see there is something perplexing about it. Would we say this about other industries, such that we have sentences like:
We can’t depend on the steel business, such as it is, to take care of steel production.
We can’t depend on the aviation business, such as it is, to provide safe air travel.
We can’t depend on the pharmaceutical business, such as it is, to provide useful medicine.
Researchers and journalists on steel, air travel and pharmaceutical medicine might reply with reasons why you can definitely say these things about their respective business sectors. My point, rather, is a simpler one. Scorcese is revealing a truth that is not taught to those of us who grew up under capitalism: that a business has an antagonistic relationship with what it is purportedly in business to produce. An implication of this truth is that, with respect to the art of cinema, the film business does not want another Fellini, Antonioni, Varda, Godard, Ackerman, Scorcese, ….
In a multi-part post, I want to show how Scorcese is right about the differences of circumstance, which exist between himself and a director like Fellini. I also want to use Scorcese’s argument as a platform to widen our perspective on the political economy of Hollywood. The story Scorcese is telling about the business of Hollywood is a story about business interests wanting to reduce risk. The ambiguity of risk in this story–is it financial risk or is it aesthetic risk?–is a helpful shortcut to understanding what reducing risk means for those who have control over the industrial art of filmmaking. When the Hollywood film business is estimating its future earnings, risk perceptions account for the possibility that the future of culture will be different–and perhaps radically different–from what capitalists expect it to be. This logic of capitalist accounting, while quantitative in expression (prices, income, volatility, etc.), is social in essence. For this reason, the capitalization of cinema cannot overlook any social dimension of cinema, be it aesthetic, political or cultural. The eye of capitalization searches for any social condition that could have an impact on “the level and pattern of capitalist earnings” (Nitzan & Bichler, 2009, p. 166).
Part 1 will introduce Scorcese’s concern and situate it within the method I will use to analyze the financial performance of the major Hollywood studios.
Nostalgia for a business that likes risky cinema
As mentioned above, Scorcese’s shows little restraint to let his celebration of Fellini celebrate the art of cinema more broadly. For instance, Scorcese sees Fellini as one the leaders in a cadre of filmmakers that were willing to explore every potential within cinematic art. Like Bresson, Godard and others, Fellini was open to letting a film tell a story in the best way it could.
Scorcese also makes a point to give his admiration to the old film business, or at least some part of it, which was willing to support this cinema renaissance:
The choices made by distributors such as Amos Vogel at Grove Press back in the Sixties were not just acts of generosity but, quite often, of bravery. Dan Talbot, who was an exhibitor and a programmer, started New Yorker Films in order to distribute a film he loved, Bertolucci’s Before the Revolution–not exactly a safe bet. The pictures that came to these shores thanks to the efforts of these and other distributors and curators and exhibitors made for an extraordinary moment. The circumstances of that moment are gone forever, from the primacy of the theatrical experience to the shared excitement over the possibilities of cinema. That’s why I go back to those years so often.
Fellini and his contemporaries could not have long careers without financial support. But if that is the case, what changed? Have these “brave” beneficiaries disappeared? Who replaced them?
Hollywood needs to differentially accumulate
In the trenches of independent filmmaking, nothing has changed: producers scramble for money and people with money take a risk and invest in a film project that might not be purchased by a distributor. These producers might also sell future distribution rights for advanced funding–so if the film is a hit down the road, the lender is the one getting rich.
However, in the broader world of the film business, a lot has changed. Financing a film for profit is the core of business enterprise, but the significance of that profit changes when you are, for example, competing to reach the same levels as Fortune 500 companies.
To illustrate the change let us look at an extreme comparison of investment in cinema. George Harrison of The Beatles was one of the key financiers of Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The comedy troupe was in need of around $4 million to begin shooting and Harrison stepped in to help. This amount of money is not insignificant, and we do not need to assume that Harrison, famous as he was, could afford to lose his investment. However, listen to members of Monty Python recount the financing of Life of Brian and it is hard to imagine that Harrison was as serious as a capitalist–e.g., benchmarking his investment against alternatives or trying to find the Beta coefficient of Monty Python–even though he took a clear risk in his personal wealth.
At the other end of this comparison is an example of Hollywood’s historical performance: in 1996 the average operating income per firm of the major film distributors was $504 million. For the same year, its average revenues per firm were $4.5 billion. Are these magnitudes large or small? Now consider other relevant questions. How would investors, who could always put money in sectors other than film and media, regard these numbers? How does Hollywood know if it is doing well or not? When is the financial performance of cinema cause for celebration, and when is it a reason for distress? There are no universal answers to these questions, but Harrison was not even seeking such answers. He might enjoy a return on his investment, but he is investing in a project that corporations rejected. He was also not telling Monty Python that he could invest in Life of Brian, or oil, or plastics, or insurance stocks, or US bonds, etc..
The modus operandi of actual capitalists is to find and use contextually-relevant benchmarks for the performance of their investments:
A capitalist investing in Canadian 10-year bonds typically tries to beat the Scotia McLeod 10-year benchmark; an owner of emerging-market equities tries to beat the IFC benchmark; investors in global commodities try to beat the Reuters/Jefferies CRB Commodity Index; owners of large US corporations try to beat the S&P 500; and so on. Every investment is stacked against its own group benchmark—and in the abstract, against the global benchmark. (Nitzan & Bichler, 2009, p. 309)
Relevancy, in this case, is defined by such factors as listed stock exchange and the size of the investment. As an oligopoly of cinema, major Hollywood film distribution finds like-minded competition in the giant firms around the world and in their respective sectors. Their levels of accumulation are worthy benchmarks of the powerful capitalist.
When the risk of investing in cinema is compared to investment in the rest of capitalist universe–oil, weapons, grain, cars, etc.–it is entirely possible that corporate love for risky cinema can disappear. In fact, if we place Scorcese’s argument within a general history of cinema, we can see there is an overlap of two events:
Hollywood’s heavy reliance on blockbuster cinema;
the change in how Hollywood film distributors accumulate capital, relative to dominant firms across other sectors.
We can simplify our presentation for the sake of showing this overlap of aesthetic trends and business strategies clearly. Figure 1 places selected films from Fellini and Scorcese on a broad timeline of Hollywood history. The three major eras in this timeline are the studio system, “New” Hollywood and blockbuster cinema. The studio system is not directly relevant to our topic, but it is perhaps still the most controversial era of Hollywood history. The key distribution-exhibition strategies of the studio system, such as “block booking”, were dismantled by the 1948 US Supreme Court case United States v Paramount Pictures. “New” Hollywood does not have definitive start and end points–we are setting it at 1968 and 1980, respectively. This era is famously Hollywood’s counter-cultural phase, when it hired younger directors to speak to such issues as the Vietnam War, the Hippie movement, civil rights, Women’s Liberation, Richard Nixon and state surveillance. The young Scorcese graduated from NYU and started building his directing career in this era. The blockbuster era, like “New” Hollywood, has no official start date. 1980 is a simple marker because it signifies the beginnings of Hollywood privileging blockbusters over everything else. Jaws (1975) and Star Wars (1977) were released before 1980, but, with hindsight, we can see the sector-wide push that followed; Hollywood initiated a new era because it was hungry to find that next Jaws and that next Star Wars, and on and on.
Figure 2 has our cinema timeline overlap a measure of Hollywood’s differential capitalization. According to Shimshon Bichler and Jonathan Nitzan, differential capitalization is a symbolic representation a capitalist trying to accumulate more than a relevant benchmark of capital (Nitzan & Bichler, 2009). For example, differential accumulation occurs when the capitalization of A rises faster than its benchmark or falls slower than a falling benchmark. In this figure we measure the differential accumulation of Hollywood with the capitalization per firm of major Hollywood distributors (Columbia, Paramount, RKO, Twentieth Century-Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros.), divided by the per firm average market capitalization of all US-listed firms.
Perceived as a story of differential accumulation, the differential rises of Hollywood occurred during its notable “eras”. The rise and fall of the studio system is visible in Figure 2. “New” Hollywood was also a strong period of differential accumulation. The brief embrace of Leftist counter-culture enabled Hollywood to effectively reverse the depression between 1948 and the early 1960s. From there, the blockbuster cinema launched Hollywood to new heights. Without any long-term de-acceleration, blockbuster-Hollywood increased its differential capitalization 390% from 1980 to 1993.
Next post: The change to Hollywood’s accumulation
1993 is a funny year for the time series of Figure 2 to end. The reason is related to conglomeration and the usage of firm-level data. My data sources switch to annual reports in the early 1990s because various financial databases (Compustat, Global Financial Data) do not have business segment data, which is needed when we need to isolate film production and distribution from a conglomerate’s other business operations. Therefore, the market capitalization of a conglomerate is just as misleading when, for example, a firm also invests in theme parks (Disney), wind turbines (GE), or radio stations (News Corp).
Notwithstanding its termination in 1993, the dataset is long enough to show that Hollywood kept beating a US benchmark when it switched to a blockbuster-centric strategy. The next post will analyse how this success is related to Scorcese’s issue with contemporary Hollywood. To preview the relation, see Figure 3. In this figure, the benchmark is the 500 largest firms in the Compustat database, measured each year and sorted by market capitalization. The 500 firms are a proxy for the S&P 500, which is a standard benchmark for the biggest firms in the world. When you can repeatedly beat the S&P 500, you reside in the dominant class.
Like Figure 2, the differential market capitalization of Hollywood rose in the era of “New” Hollywood and continued to rise into the blockbuster era. However, differential operating income fell in the early years of the blockbuster era and then continued to fall over the long term. And unlike the parallelism that occurred during “New” Hollywood, major Hollywood firms in the blockbuster era were not able to beat our 500-firm benchmark in both market capitalization and profits. How does differential market capitalization rise when differential profits trend downward? The answer, we will see, is risk reduction.
TO BE CONTINUED …
McMahon, J. (2013). The Rise of a Confident Hollywood: Risk and the Capitalization of Cinema. Review of Capital as Power, 1(1), 23–40.
McMahon, J. (2015). Risk and Capitalist Power: Conceptual Tools to Study the Political Economy of Hollywood. The Political Economy of Communication, 3(2), 28–54.
 The accumulation of what? Power. I will unpack this claim in future posts. Currently I am, for the sake of brevity, glossing over a key piece of Bichler and Nitzan’s theory of capital accumulation. Lots of writing on the capital-as-power approach appears on http://bnarchives.yorku.ca/ and https://capitalaspower.com.
 If you are interested in a detailed breakdown of my data, see (McMahon, 2019). Each firm does not appear every year. Disney is not included in the average market capitalization because its valuation includes more business operations than film production and distribution.
 While not spoken of in terms of capitalization and differential accumulation, many histories of Hollywood present “New” Hollywood as a period when studios reversed their bad fortunes and became profitable again. See, for example, Cook (2000); Kirshner (2012); Langford (2010).
Cook, D. A. (2000). Lost Illusions: American Cinema in the Shadow of Watergate, 1970-1979 (C. Harpole, Ed.) (No. 9). New York: C. Scribner.
Kirshner, J. (2012). Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society, and the Seventies Film in America. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.
Langford, B. (2010). Post-classical Hollywood: Film Industry, Style and Ideology Since 1945. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
McMahon, J. (2019). “Is Hollywood a risky business? A political economic analysis of risk and creativity”. New Political Economy, 24(4), 487 – 509. doi: 10.1080/13563467.2018.1460338
Nitzan, J., & Bichler, S. (2009). Capital as Power: A Study of Order and Creorder. New York: Routledge.
“Change your outlook …” . This prescription is given to Badii by the Azeri taxidermist. Of the three passengers Badii picks up to solicit help in his plan for suicide, the taxidermist is the most vocal in his disagreement of Badii’s intentions. In sharp contrast to the young soldier, whose nervousness from Badii’s appeals made him tight-lipped and skittish, the taxidermist, an older, more reflective character, offers example after example of why life is worth living. But the taxidermist is also the one who agrees to go to the hillside with the hole under the tree and check to see if Badii is alive or dead. He also gets one additional chance to cancel his promise, because Badii returns to the taxidermist’s workplace to make a revision to the plan: the taxidermist is to throw stones and shake Badii, just in case he is not dead but asleep.
Contained in this partial summary of Taste of Cherry is the frustration you will feel watching this film. Badii’s reasons for suicide are never given, and the behavior of a life-affirming character like the taxidermist compounds the mystery of what is going on. Over an hour into the film, the viewer is not surprised that Badii does not change his mind to execute the plan to go to the place where he will decide his fate, but the taxidermist has just met Badii. What does the taxidermist see in Badii? Does he think it is necessary for Badii to go as close as he can to attempting suicide?
When I say Taste of Cherry is frustrating to watch, I sincerely mean “frustrating”, yet I am using the word for the purpose of recognizing Kiarostami’s genius. In other words, Roger Ebert’s infamous review of Taste of Cherry is right, but for the wrong reasons. When Ebert grew impatient with what Kiarostami withholds from the viewer–character background and the causes of suicidal ideation–he was right to want more from the film; but he was surprisingly reluctant to think through his feelings of frustration, to find the connection between the aesthetics of Taste of Cherry and this angry desire to know if the life of Badii is worth living or not.
Taste of Cherry puts the audience in a state that is intimately familiar to those who have experienced suicidal thoughts (which I have). In order to continue to live, you have to change your outlook (to put it very mildly), but the whole process of affirming life cannot function like the balance sheet of an accountant. There is no utilitarian sum or product to indicate the exact point when you have accumulated enough reasons to live. Is the taste of mulberries enough of a reason? Mulberries and cherries?
Then comes the controversial ending of Taste of Cherry. With one more parry, Kiarostami has you stumbling from your interest to know what will happen to Badii lying in the hole under the tree. Badii enters the hole at night and in a slow zoom towards the hole’s pitch-black opening, we anticipate we will see what comes after. CUT TO: camcorder footage of the same hill in daytime, which suddenly looks greener than how it was filmed hitherto. This footage is documentary-like. It takes place on the central hillside of the film, but we watch Kiarostami talking with the actor who plays Badii. We are on the film’s set and not in the story itself.
I am repeatedly shocked by this ending. I now know that it is coming, but my brain can never time the cut to the camcorder sequence–much like how Geoff Dyer speaks about the transition from monochrome to color in Tarkovksy’s Stalker. Producing one more bout of shock in this film is incredible because it reminds you that you can’t help it: even after three open-ended conversations about Badii’s desire to die, you are searching for a logical cause-effect substratum. The taxidermist gave lots of reasons to live, and you desperately want to know if they were effective in reversing Badii’s plan. Incredible.
Andrei Rublev is a beautiful study of an artist’s relationship with his/her social circumstances. With patient camera movement and long takes, Tarkovsky presents Rublev, the 15th-century Russian icon painter, as someone who is internally split between a desire to paint in ignorance of social turmoil and a curiosity to get as close as he can to feudal power, non-Christian beliefs, or the lives of the Russian peasantry.
There is no shortage of memorable scenes in Tarkovsky’s body of work, but the scene of the pagan feast in Andrei Rublev might be one his most masterful feats. In the beginning of this scene Rublev is in his curious mode. He is gravitating, almost floating, towards the bacchanal of naked men and women shouting, dancing and running between trees. For part of the scene it is easy to believe that none of the pagans see Rublev or care about his presence. When his trespass is finally noticed, the viewer snaps out of the dream at the same time as Rublev.
My most recent viewing of Andrei Rublev coincided with my reading of Arthur Koestler’s The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe. As the latter looks at the scientific ideas of Johannes Kepler and Galileo, the book finds in the history of astronomy points when religion and science were complimentary to creativity and when they were in conflict. Religion and art are the two tectonic plates of Andrei Rublev; Rublev is the historical needle that is sensitive to their shifts and collisions.
Long films are scrutinized before they are watched. The prospective moviegoer wants to know if the long runtime is “worth” it, whatever that means. A typical Tarkovsky film is slow and long, and the unsympathetic audience hates the style that makes one of his films beautifully contemplative, often dream-like. Andrei Rublev is structured in eight parts and book-ended with a prologue and an epilogue. The film’s pay-off is that Tarkovsky is able use a long runtime to show the extent to which Rublev’s suffering is cumulative. The accumulation of suffering is revealed in the eighth part, when Rublev is a marginal observer of a young bell-maker tirelessly working to cast a bronze bell for a church. Everything Rublev has seen and done–including the killing of a soldier who attempted to rape Durochka–surfaces in his sympathy for the young bell-maker, who ends his successful bell casting alone in a field sobbing, thinking that he failed because he never knew his father’s secret to casting.
Seven Samurai was not the first criterion in my collection, but it probably should have been. When I first watched this film–a loan from my library–I started to see my ignorance of cinema history clearly, without bias or defensiveness. If it had taken me this long to see Seven Samurai, there must be so many other films I was slow to discover.
A dear friend gifted me the criterion edition of the film. I watched the copy almost immediately, but then Seven Samurai remained on my bookshelf for years. If I had to guess why it took me so long to re-watch the film, I would say the simplicity of its plot is able to trick the person who has forgotten the details. Simplicity is not a bad thing, but when you forget particular images and only remember the story of samurai defending peasants against bandits, the reasons to return to Seven Samurai are hidden from your mind.
Being a samurai is hard work
The samurai film is forever linked with the western. Seven Samurai shows us that the American genre might not be able to translate everything. The easy part is substituting seven samurai with seven gunslingers; the harder part is compensating for the loss of Kurosawa’s curiosity about the physicality of being a samurai. They swing swords as cowboys draw pistols, but Kurosawa emphasizes how much a samurai needs to work, run, climb, build, run and run even more. Seiji Miyaguchi’s character, Kyūzō, is seemingly indefatigable, which is visually contrasted by the stillness of his face.
John Ford’s Stagecoach demonstrates that in the universe of the western, the cowboy is limited in physicality because he is the center that action revolves around. Even as the stagecoach barrels across the plains, the target of the camera is a crouching John Wayne; it is his attackers, indigenous warriors on horseback, that come in and out of frame by the acceleration of their horses. Parts of Seven Samurai show us what happens when bodies move in a universe with no fixity. Even with repeated shots of Kambei Shimada (played by Takashi Shimura) strategizing with a map of the village, the audience cannot assemble shots of huts, rivers and pathways into something logical. The samurai organize the space for themselves, but with a lot of hard work. In fact, Kurosawa gives a lot of the film’s running time to show us all of the human energy behind the plan to have bandits attack from just one direction.
Laughter in melodrama
Plenty of comedies are funny because nobody in the film laugh. It is good that nobody laughs because we need flawed characters to accept the ridiculous premises of a situation with absolute seriousness. This is Spinal Tap, for example, is funny because you are watching an unbelievably bad band dedicate itself to producing great rock ‘n roll. No member of band can see that it is their fate to always fail in embarrassing ways.
Parts of Seven Samurai are humorous and I would even guess some viewers would audibly chuckle at some of its bits. Interestingly, people in the world of Seven Samurai frequently laugh, particularly at the oddball behavior of Kikuchiyo, the ronin jester. This decision of Kurosawa–to let characters laugh when failure, trickery or buffoonery would be funny in the film’s internal world–is important to have the film carry emotional force. The decision works because it balances the darker sides of the melodrama.
I do not know if there is a definite point where Kurosawa’s use of humor would have gone too far and become cheap comic relief; but there might be a way to intuitively know Kurosawa achieved something masterful. Melodrama in film is a tricky balancing act, where so many little things can cheapen or kill the rousing of emotional feeling. Kurosawa shows that moments of sorrow or despair can actually be amplified when characters prefer the emotional states of joy and laughter to anger and sadness. The other samurai laugh at Kikuchiyo because they need an antidote to the cold structure of feudalism. In fact, laughter is a democratic wrecking-ball that breaks the social barriers between samurai and peasant.
This is not our victory
Kurosawa puts an exclamation point on his story by giving the cruelty of medieval Japan the last word in Seven Samurai. When the remaining samurai can only watch the celebration song of the peasants, the audience shares their feelings of exlcusion. In the last remaining minutes of a 207-minute epic, Kurosawa carefully lets the barriers of feudalism return to their repressive heights. Earlier in the film, villagers were rebuked for shamelessly begging for help at the feet of passing samurai; now, during the finale, nobody can imagine that samurai and peasant are equal.