The Hollywood Economist
By Edward Jay Epstein
What do you do with a book that’s all access and no insight? It’s hard to heap praise on it, but if you’re looking for the next step in the movie business The Hollywood Economist offers a pretty good place to start. It comes from Edward Jay Epstein, a former MIT professor and writer for Slate (much of the book is culled from his columns of the same name), and while the access is nothing short of breathtaking, he stops just short of the indictment his research suggests.
Here’s the worst news: the indie film financing cocktail used to fund everything from Nashville to Lost Highway is effectively broken. For the past 40 years, the hustle went like this: get a star attached, get foreign distributors signed on, and set up a bond to borrow against the foreign release revenues. Following that playbook, producers could get money to fund a film with nothing but a good idea and a whole lot of trust.
But after the real estate bust and twenty years of diminishing returns, banks aren’t lending money to anything as shaky as an indie film—and even if they were, foreign distributors aren’t large-hearted enough to buy rights in advance. It’s terrifying stuff—the kind of thing that sends eager young film students into CPA programs—but Epstein’s too busy picking the brains of the executive class to think about what this will mean for film as an art form. It’s not even clear whether he likes movies. Like the studios, all he sees is the bottom line.
It’s a shame, because Hollywood is in desperate need of a reassessment. Epstein’s book shows an industry so addicted to video game tie-ins and audience-building ad campaigns, it can’t see anyone over the age of 13. (Naturally, the author’s too timid to describe it that way.) Instead of fire and prophecy, we get a book that feels like a candid afternoon with the head of MGM. It’s interesting, but the ideas are so shopworn, you can see right through them.