Movies and Money

By David Puttnam

History as parable: Christmas Eve, 1925, the Moscow premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin. Two weeks later, it opens to the Russian public on the same day as a splashy American production of Robin Hood. In just a few weeks Robin Hood is a box-office hit, while Potemkin is “quietly pulled from the grubby, second-rate cinemas where it had been playing to almost deserted houses.” Eisenstein has bombed.

Of course, one can never forget that the film business is a business. But is it something more?

Movies and Money addresses that question, and others, within the context of an economic history of film. In a survey ranging from the Edison Trust to GATT, it asks how movies have combined their creative vision and power to influence society with the demands of the corporate bottom line.

An international perspective helps to illustrate the debate. France, for example, has traditionally viewed film as part of its national culture. Strong government support and an influential critical press have helped foster the attitude that film is an art and not a commercial product.

In contrast to the French philosophy there is Hollywood. While film as industry was, in fact, a French invention, America perfected it and presided over its global triumph. Even today the economically powerful European Union runs a huge, and growing, audiovisual trade deficit with the United States. British films account for less than 10 per cent of their domestic box office, and in many other countries the numbers are even worse. (There is almost no mention of the Canadian film industry in this book, but the situation here is much the same.) Questions of art aside, the commercial history of film has been overwhelmingly Made in America.

David Puttnam, a British producer who was chairman of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988, would like to find a middle ground between the American and French philosophies – “a way of working that combines financial prudence with artistic ambition.”

That is a formula that is repeated by anyone who has ever had anything to do with making movies, though it is usually conceded that the balance tips to the dark side (witness Puttnam’s brief tenure at Columbia).

In their drive to fill theatres with 17- to 24-year-olds (the only significant audience left), the major studios have largely resigned themselves to producing variations on a half-dozen “high concept” formulas. The box office has boomed, but not because of any rise in attendance. Movie-lovers mourn the loss of a Golden Age.

Despite all of this, Puttnam is optimistic that American hegemony in the entertainment world is not assured, and that contemporary film need not be a mere wasteland of excess. The future may, in fact, see the convergence of various fields of information technology, heralding the dawn of a new age in universal education.

This has been a resilient dream. When Edison invented the kinetoscope, he thought its greatest impact would be as a teaching tool. When television first came on the scene, similar claims were made. And the same things are being said today about computers and the Internet.

Haven’t we learned anything?

Review first published December 5, 1998.


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