What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Monday, November 11, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
The Studio by John Gregory Dunne
In 1967, author Dunne was granted free access to the 20th Century Fox movie studio, for the purpose of writing an inside-look, warts-and-all book. By today's standards of Hollywood tell-alls, the results are pretty tame (the juiciest the Hollywood depravity gets is one scene in which a producer's girlfriend insists on stealing a silver dish from a restaurant...which later quietly adds its cost to the studio's bill), but there are a few bits that do make the resulting work an interesting read, even after 35 years.
First of all, it's fascinating to note that, in the introduction, Dunne himself comments that he didn't like the book after he wrote it, and didn't even read it for 10 years after it was published. And, in a supplemental introduction to the 1998 edition, he also notes that he now sees he missed accurately portraying the real tensions that drive the moviemaking business. It's rather odd to read an author's own discounting of a work before reading it oneself, but now, after reading it, I can see his point. Because while the book does give you some peeks at the deals, meetings and personalities that ran a big studio in 1967, it never really comes to life as its own story, and the people portrayed always seem to be held at something of a distance. We get glimpses of them at work, but never really get to know them as characters or full-blown personalities.
In some ways, Dunne's "miss" in this respect is oddly akin to the book's most other interesting aspect: its depiction of the studio bosses' hopes and fears during the events leading up to their year's big release, the Rex Harrison-starring musical, "Doctor Doolittle." The studio plowed every resource it had into the movie and the plans for its release, hoping that it would be another "Sound of Music." But as time (and even the early previews) would tell, that picture, calculated as it was to contain every element of a successful film, just didn't resonate with audiences.
It is interesting watching this timeless story unfold. Writers write, actors act, costumes and special effects are designed, music is composed, marketing campaigns are carefully plotted...but not once during this process does anyone really look at the product they're producing and say, "Gee, do I think this is a great movie?" Instead, they just keep calculating their odds and assuming (hoping?) viewers will love what they're presenting. Too often, this is still how Hollywood operates today, and it's one of the big reasons that big-budget flops like "Dr. Doolittle" continue to be made.
While blindness to what makes a movie "good" hasn't changed much in the past 35 years, however, some other things about the business - particularly the financial aspects, certainly have...and this book shows just how much. First of all, while the 1967 studio is most consumed with and worried about its big "roadshow" releases (the ones that will play in the biggest theaters, with premium ticket prices and biggest promotional pushes), roadshows are now a thing of the past (studios prefer to just dump their biggest releases into as many theaters as possible on opening weekend). And when studio head Darryl Zanuck announces that Fox will be spending $118 million on 23 movies (that's the total cost for 23 movies, not for each movie) in 1968, the numbers seem downright quaint...and the speed with which those numbers have soared ($118 million for a single big-budget studio release isn't at all notable these days) is truly scary.
All in all, The Studio is definitely a flawed book, and - like "Dr. Doolittle" - oddly, frustratingly not as good as it probably could and should have been. Still, however, if you enjoy Hollywood history, there are probably just enough interesting tidbits here to keep you reading through the relatively quick 250 pages.