With any luck, this might be the last piece you have to read about Hollywood’s Sunday brunch with Bush’s consigliere, Karl Rove. In the last few days, we have been inundated with coverage, from Rick Lyman’s reasonable take in the New York Times to, most annoyingly, a clunk-headed NPR roundtable with three industry reporters who sent me up the wall with their accusations of sinister self-interest. I think the execs who were invited to this meeting were proud to go, and not just because it was so A-list. Post-Sept. 11, they too feel helpless, and—like the performers on the various telethons—want to “do something.” I can’t imagine any of them curling their Snidely Whiplash mustaches or furrowing their well-Botoxed brows, trying to figure out how to profit from this tragedy.
Besides, the idea of altering content was off the table from the outset. Jack Valenti, our chief lobbyist for 30 years, is the firewall who insured that by his presence. It’s hard to believe, but studio chiefs care about their First Amendment rights, too. No matter how craven, these moguls would never cede their control over content, what with their collective bad memories of government interference, mixed with personalities loath to give any power away in any circumstance.
What the paranoid pundits don’t realize is that it’s too expensive to make a movie for either altruistic or legislative reasons. At an average of $56 million per movie, before marketing costs, it’s cheaper to underwrite an entire campaign. With a 6 percent profit margin, no one is giving away anything in Hollywood right now, whether it be control or green-lights.
Besides, we are too slow and cumbersome to chase the news. Even if today’s movie moguls were inclined to imitate their 1940s counterparts, they wouldn’t be able to deliver the elements of a movie by themselves. In the old days, the writers, directors and, most important, the stars were under contract. These days, if we want either Tom (Cruise or Hanks), we must call CAA; ask, “Father, may I”; and wait our turn behind all their $20 million paychecks. It is not feasible to produce movies that keep up with the news. The battleship Hollywood doesn’t make hairpin turns. So, rest assured that if you see Delta Force busting into caves in
True, no one will be inclined to make wildly anti-American movies right now—it’s not an Oliver Stone-ish moment. But that is not to please Karl Rove or W. Instead, it’s because of both the studio heads’ personal sensibilities and what they glean to be the national mood, i.e., the almighty box office.
What else could the studio heads actually do from whatever smidgen of goodness they may have left in their unfathomable souls? Everyone’s talking about the studios producing public service announcements, which the networks would air for free. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some pro-military action movies a year or two from now, à la Top Gun, An Officer and a Gentleman, Patton, etc. But these have always been a Hollywood staple. The studios have been cooperating for years with Army, Navy, and Air Force public relations, mostly because approved scripts get free use of equipment. (And it’s worth getting approval, given how expensive and hard to find Humvees and Black Hawk choppers are.) None of this is remotely new, and projects like these were considered commercial long before Sunday’s meeting and before Sept. 11.
It’s irritating to always have to be the person defending these studio types (particularly because they spend a good portion of my day torturing me), but everyone has a cross to bear. If these assorted network, studio, and guild leaders are able to accomplish anything for the war effort or the Bush administration (so far, the only concrete request was for extra DVDs), it is not for cynical reasons. It is because right now they are feeling, like you and me, heart-thumpingly patriotic. It is actually sweet. (Never forget how many transplanted New Yorkers are here.) In the words of my favorite Variety headline of all time, “Showbiz Rocked by Real Life.”