The $11 Billion Year

From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

By Anne Thompson

Newmarket Press. 320 pp. $26.99.

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Reviewed by Carrie Rickey

The keenest takes on Hollywood's twinned, and often opposing, aims come from Charlton Heston and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

In the actor's view, "The trouble with movies as a business is that it's an art and the trouble with movies as art is that it's a business." For the author who tried his hand at screenwriting and died before completing his Hollywood novel, The Last Tycoon, the calculus of moviemaking is mystifying: "Not half a dozen men have ever been able to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads."

Anne Thompson's ambitious chronicle, The $11 Billion Year, covers a period in which the movie business evolves from simple addition to complex algorithms. The book begins at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2012 and culminates at the Academy Awards in February 2013. Those 13 months are transformational for both film business and film art.

For one thing, "2012 is the year that the word 'film' officially becomes an anachronism" as digital photography and projection replace celluloid and analog projection. For another, "the ongoing tension between theatrical release and digital video-on-demand on multiple platforms" (cable, iTunes, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon) suggests that seeing a movie in a theater soon may be an anachronism as well. Add to the equation the escalating quality and popularity of episodic television and there are some who doubt the future of feature film. As the ground shifts under Thompson's feet, the longtime entertainment reporter doesn't stumble, she sprints. The same cannot be said of the movie industry, inching toward decisions on the types of movies to make and how to distribute them.

The book is organized around the annual tribal rites where movies are discovered, marketed, and tapped for awards consideration. The multiple tribes converge, and compete, at the ultimate gathering of the clans, the Oscars.

Thompson's year begins at the Sundance Film Festival, where she scouts possible Oscar contenders. She contemplates the paradox that because of digital technology, while "it's never been easier to make a film . . . . distribution is still a challenge" because of the stiff competition for winning a marketing guarantee in a crowded marketplace.

With a quarter of Sundance releases going the video-on-demand route on or before their theatrical releases, art-film exhibitors worry that on-demand might spell the end of the art film in theaters.

Thompson proceeds to the mega-budgeted spring-break releases, films their respective studios hope will establish franchises, cash cows that can be milked for years.

One is The Hunger Games, an $80 million feature, based on the dystopian trilogy from YA novelist Suzanne Collins. The other is a $250 million John Carter, based on the pulp novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs, author of Tarzan. The former is a smash, the latter a bust, and Thompson teases out the reasons for their different box-office fates as she addresses the studio reliance on "tent-pole" movies that raise the bottom line.

She attends CinemaCon, the Las Vegas convention where the studios give exhibitors a taste of what's to come. Theater owners are excited by the 3-D footage from Life of Pi. To screen 3-D product, theaters must replace film projectors with Digital Cinema Packages. It is at CinemaCon that the president of the National Association of Theatre Owners warns his constituents, "If you don't make the decision to get on the digital train soon, you will be making the decision to get out of the business."

You can almost hear the collective moan from exhibitors. With a larger share of movie revenues going to cable, On-Demand, and Internet downloads, will they be able to make back the money they spend on digital upgrades for their theaters?

From May through October, it's a blur of film festivals and conventions. First Cannes, where American product is sold to offshore countries and vice versa. Next up is July's Comic-Con in San Diego, where the studios tease the fanboys and -girls with a clip from Iron Man 3. And then the September surprises at festivals in Telluride, Toronto, and New York, where Argo, Silver Linings Playbook, Life of Pi, and Lincoln are rolled out for filmgoers and critics.

In the chapter "Women, Politics and Zero Dark Thirty," Thompson takes on the question of why Hollywood continues to chase after young men, who amount to 44 percent of the opening-weekend crowds, rather than women and adults. "The reasons for Hollywood myopia are many," she writes. "But they mostly come down to the entrenched studio habit of making movies by men for men."

One of the few movies directed by a woman in 2012, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, is immediately slammed on release for implying that the use of waterboarding produced information that led to the death of Osama bin Laden. Was this campaign defaming Bigelow politics or Oscar politics?

The juiciest chapter is about the 2012 Oscar race, filled with anecdotes of how campaigners go about winning the Academy Award competition.

Thompson's no Chicken Little. She thinks the top films of 2012 were by and large of high quality. Still, she worries that the old strategies of the movie business aren't working, and that Hollywood isn't flexible enough to adapt to the new realities of business and art.