The Hollywood Economist

The World According to Hollywood

Pushing the reality envelope.

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Beauty is truth, truth beauty …

On Sept. 4, 2005, the New York Times printed the following intriguing correction:

An article last Sunday about film piracy included incorrect revenue data supplied by the Motion Picture Association of America. Hollywood’s global revenue in 2004 was $44.8 billion, not $84 billion. Of the total, $21 billion, not $55.6 billion, came from sales of DVDs and Videos.

The correction was the result of a Times reporter, Timothy L. O’Brien, asking the Motion Picture Association of America to furnish the combined global take of the major studios in 2004. The six major studios submit their revenue reports to the MPAA, which, in turn, compiles the total revenue received from theatrical distribution, video sales (now mainly DVD), and television licensing. These data are then circulated among top executives in the All Media Revenue Report. (Click here to read the actual report.)

Instead of supplying the New York Times with the actual numbers, the MPAA sent bogus figures. Hollywood’s DVD revenue alone was inflated by more than $33 billion, possibly to make the MPAA’s war against unauthorized copying appear more urgent. Of course, the reporter had no way of knowing these impressive-sounding numbers were inaccurate and published them in an otherwise accurate story on film piracy. Such are the perils of Hollywood reporting. Since Hollywood is an industry dedicated to perpetrating illusion, its leaders often assume they have license to take liberties with the factual elements that support the movies they make. This practice is euphemistically described by marketing executives as “pushing the reality envelope.”

The way in which Hollywood crosses the boundary between the make-believe and the real world takes myriad forms. Consider, for example, 20th Century Fox’s creation of an “Extraterrestrial Highway” in Nevada. In 1996, in preparation for a publicity campaign for the movie Independence Day, Fox executives persuaded Nevada Gov. Bob Miller to officially dedicate Nevada’s Highway 375 as a safe haven for extraterrestrials who landed their spaceships on it. Fox then placed a beacon on the highway near the town of Rachel, Nev., pointing to “Area 51”—which it described in a news release as the place where the U.S. military operates “a top secret alien study project.” To make sure that the story received wider circulation than just Fox News, the studio arranged for busloads of reporters to see the putative periphery of “Area 51.” Even though there is no such military base or “Area 51,” the “Extraterrestrial Highway” resulted in hundreds of news stories about alien visitors. Not only did this help publicize Independence Day, but it fed into the long-standing paranoid fantasy about government machination to conceal space invaders from the public. (A fantasy that Steven Spielberg, for one, has brilliantly mined in such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, E.T.: the Extra-Terrestrial, Men in Black, and the miniseries Taken.)

Hollywood has pushed the reality envelope in other creative fashions, ranging from a studio creating a fake corporate Web site, as Paramount did with the Manchurian Global Corporation for its remake of The Manchurian Candidate, to counterfeiting a film critic, as Sony Pictures did with the nonexistent “David Manning.” It’s a given that studios will alter the off-screen lives of stars, as in the case of the unmarried actor Raymond Burr, whose official biography included two imaginary dead wives and a dead child. There’s also the common practice of scripting fake anecdotes for stars to recite on talk shows, as, for example, Lucy Liu’s vivid description of her co-actress Drew Barrymore clinging to the hood of a speeding car going about 35 miles an hour without a safety cord during the making of Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle.

Nor is it surprising that the culture of deception is so deeply entrenched in Hollywood. The industry, after all, derives much of its wealth and power from its ability to get audiences to suspend disbelief in movies and television programs—even so-called reality shows. Further, to realize full profitability, these illusions must be convincing enough to be sustained in other products—such as videos, theme-park rides, games, and toys—for years, if not decades. So, pushing the reality envelope is simply seen by the entertainment press and the players themselves as just part of show biz.