The Book Club

Smell the System

Dear Bryan,

You are right that Guber is unforthcoming and Bart is little more than a mascot. And yes, Linson is a terrific foil in his role as Mr. Give-It-to-Me-Straight-With-a-Testosterone-Chaser. When Guber falls back on the wearying metaphor, “A shoot out was underway. Who would blink first?” Linson gets in the middle of “what Hollywood classically calls ‘a dick-waving incident.’ “

But by the end of What Just Happened? Linson is in much the same place as Guber. Both rely on a quasi-independent system in which presold foreign rights cover most production costs. (Guber’s production company Mandalay has a lock-in deal with Paramount for domestic distribution; Linson has to shop around.) The difference is attitude.

Guber is at peace with the system, and it evokes the best writing in the book, those hyper-lucid paragraphs reminiscent of Russell Crowe’s mathematical gaze in A Beautiful Mind: “The financial model of these companies was essentially built around the following structure: Roughly 60 to 70 percent of the budget would be raised from advances on licensing agreements covering foreign territories, with the bulk of the money coming from France, the U.K., Germany, Italy, Spain, Japan and Australia. …” Etc. The beauty here is the completeness of the list: “These are the important territories; all of them. I am not picking exemplary countries, and I know, within hours of an opening, what is going on in all of them.”

Linson wants us to smell the system, or at least his corner of it. So when he and Mamet cut the deal to make Heist, they must meet with Elie Samaha, proprietor of Franchise Pictures. “We were in an empty Italian dive on Santa Monica Boulevard and La Cienega sitting at a small table next to a reeking open men’s room. … It didn’t resemble Sherry Lansing’s table at the Paramount commissary … but the intentions were the same. I found out later Samaha owned the restaurant.” (Samaha is in the middle of a flak storm for keeping two sets of books; can his “rehab effort” be far away?)

We know how Guber got to Mandalay. Hit and Run is the epic of his profligacy: how he (and Jon Peters) took control at Columbia/Tri-Star; robbed Sony blind; built the bomb (Last Action Hero); and got dumped.

So why did Linson do so badly at Fox? Why couldn’t he buy a hit, even if he was making “good” movies? Option 1 is that it didn’t matter where he was, he just happened to be under Murdoch’s wing—he would have tanked anywhere. And if you believe the usual story that the studio system is dead or that studios don’t matter, that they’re just big moneybags who think of films as content for the distribution maw, that the moguls don’t care anymore, this might seem compelling. Bart is the master of this kind of talk, and even Linson has his moments.

Option 2 is that somehow studios still matter and the trick is to figure out how. When Linson isn’t being self-consciously over-macho, he reaches the nth plane of Zen strategy: “When a studio is weak, opportunities are created,” or, as his interlocutor Jerry puts it, “Were there any ideas you came up with that Fox didn’t want to do?” It looks like Fox is a vacuum and Linson is stepping into the void.

But what kind of place was Fox, anyway? More than Universal drowning in Waterworld, Fox was awash in Titanic, which was a similarly aqueous epic beyond all budgetary control. It was destined to be the greatest flop of all time, until it wasn’t. About this, everyone agrees Murdoch cared. But even if Rupert never heard of The Edge, Linson imagines that Murdoch is omniscient. “As I glanced over Bill [Mechanic’s] shoulder, I accidentally made eye contact with Murdoch. I felt the chill. He didn’t know who I was, but his look reflected grave disappointment, as if he foretold the next few years.” This fantasy of power is enough to make the studio real.

And that means you get the strange voodoo of the old-time classical system without the seven-year contracts. Linson didn’t know, he says, that both his Great Expectations and Titanic featured “burgeoning young artists hired by the rich girl to be drawn nude, resulting in love, romance and sex.” “Whether it was a grand coincidence or an accidental stealing or something even darker, I don’t know.” When someone in Hollywood speaks vaguely of unseen powers, think studio.

Everyone on a studio lot—from the president of production to the mail-room clerk—runs around imagining things—what people know, what they want, what they think—and that means that even today studios really matter to the movies they make. The Guber story about Sony’s Norio Ohga stepping in to quash Milos Forman’s sumo picture? It’s part of a pattern. Someone got John Singleton to change the name of the real estate company in Boyz N the Hood from something Japanese to “Seoul to Seoul.” (A nice piece of creative censorship there.) And someone decided that despite having a lock-in deal with Phoenix pictures, Sony would pass on Terence Malick’s The Thin Red Line,since in the film the Japanese are the bad guys.

So Thin Red Line went to Fox, where it joined what turned out to be a late-’90s cavalcade of provocauteurs: Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, James Cameron’s Titanic (and Dark Angel), David Fincher’s (and Art Linson’s) Fight Club, TV equivalents Chris Carter and Matt Groening. If Murdoch had a style, it was épater the “cultural elites;” and if Fox had a house style it was épater the cultural elites and Murdoch, too. Not exactly MGM under Thalberg, but close.

Linson got to make the movies he wanted to, and even if they failed to find an audience, they documented his own fascination with working at Murdoch’s studio. He rendered struggles for power as struggles for existence (The Edge); he pondered the relation of art to fortune (Great Expectations); and he reveled in the antinomy of David Fincher, a man who got “excited about ideas that were almost indefensible in the corporate culture that would pay for it.” Not likable, but admirable. Likability tomorrow.