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From Eisenstein to Eisner

MOVIES AND MONEY. \o7 By David Puttnam with Neil Watson (Alfred A. Knopf: 340 pp., $27.50)\f7

November 01, 1998|PETER BISKIND | Peter Biskind is the author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock 'n' Roll Generation Saved Hollywood" and the former executive editor of Premiere magazine

Despite its provocative title, "Movies and Money" is not the delicious tell-all about David Puttnam's 15-month reign as chairman of Columbia Pictures in the late 1980s. Rather than offering salacious details about that turbulent time, Putnam instead has assumed the weighty mantle of historian. The book appears to have been inspired by the heated battle that erupted during the 1993 General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs talks between Hollywood and the Clinton administration on the one side and the Europeans, led by France, on the other.

Mickey Kantor, representing the United States, argued that movies are essentially widgets, commodities like any other--beanie babies, microchips, blue jeans--and as such should be traded freely, while the French maintained that films are quintessential expressions of national identity and therefore must be protected. According to this view, Hollywood must be prevented from overrunning weaker markets lest it suffocate local production and pollute European cultures with crass American values. What it boiled down to was "E.T., Go Home!"

This debate is of considerably more than academic interest. Under the relentless pressure of Hollywood's celluloid kudzu, many national cinemas are disappearing, while from the industry's point of view, foreign markets have become increasingly important. Often, a movie that does only average business in the United States can make substantial earnings overseas. In 1997, foreign sales represented 53% of the studios' gross, or something like $5.6 billion. Feelings were further inflamed when a group of blue-chip American directors, including Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, signed a letter addressed to their European counterparts supporting the American position. The GATT talks ended in a stalemate, and the issues they failed to resolve are still on the table, especially with the worldwide economic downturn raising the specter of revived protectionism.

As if these questions weren't grave enough, Puttnam reminds us that this debate is merely a subset of the question that has bedeviled film from the start: Is it an art or a business? He opens his book by pointing out that "The Battleship Potemkin," one of the landmarks of world cinema, was yanked from Soviet theaters after only a few weeks because it could not compete with that Hollywood version of revolutionary expropriation, "Robin Hood," starring Douglas Fairbanks. If the free market rules, in other words, goodbye "Potemkin" and hello "Armageddon." Or, to put it another way, Puttnam might well have called his book "From Eisenstein to Eisner."

Puttnam uses the GATT dispute as a lens with which to reexamine the history of the movie industry and discovers not only that pyrotechnics over protectionism have been a constant fixture of the motion picture landscape from the start but that the polarities of this debate have often been reversed, with Hollywood calling for quotas when it seemed that France, for instance, was making inroads in the American market. He makes it clear from the outset that he favors the European position, but still he remains a reliable Virgil for an exploration of this territory. As a Brit, he speaks from the perspective of a country whose film industry has always labored in the shadow of Hollywood, yet as the former head of an American studio, he presumably understands the American point of view. And as a producer, he likewise occupies a middle ground between the media giants that finance movies and the talent that makes them possible.

Much of this story is familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in the history of motion pictures--Lumiere, Pathe, the Edison Trust, the rise and fall of the studios--with all the attendant anecdotal material about the old moguls we've heard before, but Puttnam brings to this narrative a deft hand and an eye for telling detail, and the British perspective provides an antidote to the Hollywood-centrism that mars most film histories.

Far from demonizing Hollywood, Puttnam is highly critical of the French and British industries, and he argues that American domination of world markets stems in part from its geographical and historical advantages. From the start, the vast American market--much larger than that of any single European country--was able to support an industry whose products were insanely expensive, when smaller economies were not. Hollywood consolidated its position after the chaos of World War I. In Italy, for example, annual production declined from about 500 pictures in 1915 to 10 by the end of the 1920s, even though audiences for movies--that is, American movies--increased.

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