“Part of the reason the movie business was struggling throughout the 2010’s was its leaders couldn’t adjust to the fact that they were no longer the center of the pop-culture universe, around which all other media orbited. Movies still had an important place, of course, but they no longer had the first and foremost claim on the best talent, the critics’ acclaim, and the audiences’ attention.”
-Ben Fritz (from The Big Picture, page 140)
From my late teens, through college and until my early 30’s, a week did not go by where I did not attend at least one screening of a motion picture in a theater. Whether it was with friends, relatives, or on dates, the cinematic experience was as much a social as artistic endeavour; even if the film was disappointing, at least you could sit at a café afterwards and discuss that. 2 decades later I find myself more often seeing movies for the first time at home, and a trip to the multiplex is now at best a bi-monthly event. And I am not alone in this: Overall North American box office numbers have been steadily declining for years. And interest in the movies have been ebbing as well, best demonstrated by this year’s Academy Awards broadcast, apparently the lowest rated ever. Part of the reason is the influence new technology has had on the entertainment industry (similar to how the invention of the TV remote forced broadcast shows and commercials to be more colourful and move at a quicker pace), cable television and digital downloading is transforming content, leaving cinephiles with fewer options at a poorer quality. One could read all about how that happened in The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies by journalist Ben Fritz.
In The Big Picture, Fritz outlines the recent history of Hollywood movies. In what I thought was a nice touch, he cleverly names chapters after famous films like Star Wars, Revenge of the Nerds and Trading Places, and divides his effort into two distinct sections, How Hollywood Got There and Where Hollywood is Headed, with the former heavy on the experiences of Sony Pictures Studio and its then head Amy Pascal, primarily using emails hacked by foreign agents and made public in 2014, and the latter focusing on more recent history and the influence industry giant Disney has had on the business.
Like many books of this kind, The Big Picture often cites numbers, facts, and statistics redundantly. The author’s employment of the aforementioned email quotes at times seemed a little forced and on other occasions unnecessary; the book would not suffer if more than half of them were not included. I felt excessive space was used with Sony (likely because of the plethora of information the emails provided), and it soon enough grew a tad tiresome.
But overall The Big Picture, unfolding like an epic soap opera, is illuminating, usually well-paced, and the writing is crisp. The information it does contain is interesting (especially to fans of the cinema) and the author’s analysis and conclusions are perceptive and thoughtful.
For the longest time the play was the thing, to paraphrase The Bard, and people went to playhouses for live entertainment, be it dramas, concerts, vaudeville, orations or ballets. In the early 20th century movies forced live acts out of theaters and reigned until the 50’s, when televised broadcasts challenged their supremacy. But the movies fought back with bigger, grander productions, and eventually excessive violence, profanity and nudity; territory where their adversaries could not tread. Now with new formats and platforms, the Visigoths have stormed the city gates again. Will the Hollywood we know and love survive? For those who care enough to seek that answer, I recommend The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies.
For those who do not? “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!”