‘Not a Recipe for Artistic Renewal’: The IP taking over Hollywood
“People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours...”
I'm going to miss the print New Yorker when it goes. This is the online hed/sub for Stephen Metcalf's piece on what has happened to Hollywood and the movie-star system in the age of the superhero film. It's straightforward. It's a straight arrow:
How Superheroes Made Movie Stars Expendable
The Hollywood overhauls that got us from Bogart to Batman.
Here it is in print:
How superheroes killed the movie star.
How perfect is that? Succinct, clever, resonant. It's both The Thing's longtime catchphrase and what superheroes—though not the Fantastic Four, interestingly—have made of traditional movie stars. Because it's open-ended, it also makes you wonder what else is getting clobbered? What other parts of our lives? The online headline is specific and designed to get clicks. It's actually part of the problem the article is delineating.
I was actually dismissive of the piece before I read it. I was like “No shit, Sherlock, we were all writing about this 10 years ago.” The early going didn't help much. Metcalf calls it a “startling fact” that the biggest movie in China in 2005, “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” pulled in just $12 mil vs. nearly $400 million for last year's “Fast and Furious” sequel. Startling ... unless you read me. More, “Fast & Furious” was only the second-biggest hit in China last year. The biggest, “Wolf Warrior II,” grossed half a billion dollars more.
But then, in reviewing four books (The Big Picture“ by Ben Fritz; You‘re Only as Good as Your Next One” by Mike Medavoy; “Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency” by James Andrew Miller; and “Representing Talent” by Violaine Roussel), Metcalf gives a great overview of the various stages of the star system, and who held power in Hollywood during those stages: from Thalberg to U.S. v. Paramount to the rise of the super-agent. Who could force the cut-rate on whom? It used to be studios on the theaters: If you want this A picture you need to pick up these three B pictures. Then it became the agencies over the studios: If you want this A star, you need to hire these three B- or C-list clients.
Now the hot hand is the intellectual property—divorced from the star. The power is in the copyright. And the powerless? Those without IP, as “The Big Picture” makes apparent. Also maybe us. “Today,” Metcalf writes, “the major franchises are commercially invulnerable because they offer up proprietary universes that their legions of fans are desperate to reënter on almost any terms.” This, too, will fade, though, because everything does. We can't be desperate forever.
Metcalf closes well.
The quality of film acting has never been higher, and there is still a craft in scriptwriting and directing that makes one regularly bow in awe. But a minimal standard of human relatability is not being met, on a routine basis, in the medium's most dominant genre. People who are nothing like us rescuing a world that is nothing like ours is not a recipe for artistic renewal. ...
The benchmark for a good movie was once coherence, and this meant more than a competently executed three-act script. It meant the unity of story with character, of character with star persona. The whole shebang was given life by a highly improbable marriage between our narcissism and our idealism. In this model, the movie theatre was a special kind of institution, where a primitive instinct for action and drama came together with a desire to banish our residual cruelty, if for no other reason than that it wouldn't play.
Hollywood was always called a dream factory. One wonders what kind of world we might create if we all woke up.