The Studios after the Studios
Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-2010)
J.D. Connor



“Like every Hollywood movie, on some level it was about the business,” Peter Biskind says about Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (Hugh Hudson, Warner Bros., 1984).1 It sounds like hyperbole—every Hollywood movie?—but Biskind explains that Greystoke is “about” the business because Tarzan represents “defenseless screenwriter” Robert Towne, threatened by “ferocious carnivores” in the industry. He leaves it at that, and if “every Hollywood movie” were about the business in that general way, we could leave it at that as well. We would not need to attend to the economic and institutional details of a film’s production in order to understand it. But if it turns out that Hollywood movies are fundamentally about the business, then we have been doing the business of criticism wrong. We have failed to take our hyperbole to heart. While critics find it easy enough to demonstrate that movies are about many things, and while historians have done prodigious work tracing the operations of the business itself, with very few exceptions we have not explored Hollywood’s peculiar sort of self-representation in sufficient detail, and we have not committed ourselves to reading films as corporate and industrial allegories as deeply as we should. As a consequence, and despite nearly a century of sustained effort, criticism has only barely begun to come to terms with the actual significance of Hollywood movies. We know that movies are at the center of the culture, or very near it; we know that years of labor and millions of dollars go into making and marketing them; we know that they solicit and often reward extreme levels of attention; yet somehow we don’t quite know how labor and capital are transmogrified into story and style—or, how this labor and this capital become this story spun this way. And whenever we do discover a path that leads from the production to the narrative, or from the story to the backstory, that path seems contingent and willful, a desperate mark left by a “defenseless” individual protesting a “ferocious” institution.

Where Biskind suggests that movies are about the business because they capture the experience of particular individuals working in it, I propose that movies (Hollywood movies, in this era) are about the business more intensely—both more personally and more collectively. They are representations of experience, yes, but they can be much besides: scenarios, strategies, suggestions, pleas, business plans—there is no ruling out the role of the motion picture in the lives or careers or histories of its creators. The pressures that individuals, groups, guilds, professions, and corporations face can be channeled through their collective work on films. The balance between competing potential authors can be worked out on the page, on set, and on the screen far more precisely than criticism typically admits. Working out the correct balance among differing accounts of the system and the individual’s role within it required the efforts of highly talented participants. And in the period I am discussing, from about 1970 to about 2010, those participants were guided by the conventions of their crafts and the imperatives of their industry toward classical values of necessity, continuity, and complementarity even when elements in the writing, or design, or effects were riotously excessive. Against those forces that would dissipate individual or corporate identity, Hollywood neoclassicism was in large part an effort to brand movies and their studios, and in the cases of the major franchises, it succeeded. In the process, movies became more intensely “about the business” than ever.

As a hypothesis, this yields immediate results. To return to Biskind’s example, Greystoke’s allegory of contemporary screenwriting is fuller than he implies. In Towne’s 1977 script, Tarzan masters speech and becomes something of a killer for hire, doing away with a man-eating lion in exchange for his passage to England. There, he inherits a title (authorship) and an estate (studio), but, new to the civilized world, he nearly dies of a childhood disease. When he recovers, he returns, again, to the jungle. To stay? The script is ambiguous—it trails off in outline form; certainly Towne would have changed much of the ending.2 As allegory, though, it captures the fundamental late-seventies quandary of the screenwriter-auteur: Is he the proper heir of the great studio heads? (Jack Warner had only left the studio in the early seventies.) Will the foundling writer take his “rightful place” in the empire, or will he head off into the jungle? Towne didn’t know, couldn’t have known. He hadn’t seen what direction the project would take.

If the script was open-ended, Towne hoped to work it out by directing it himself. But his plans were dashed when he ran over budget on his debut, Personal Best, and was compelled to sell Greystoke outright to Warners.3 The studio made drastic changes to the story, reshuffling its timeline and rebalancing the narrative. Towne pulled his name from it and substituted that of his dog, P. H. Vazak. (The dog was nominated for an Oscar but lost.) Yet the screenplay did not become “less” about the business as a result of these changes. Like Towne, Warner Bros. didn’t quite know how the story would end. It did know that “the old boy” (as director Hugh Hudson calls the elder Greystoke) was on his way out, and it certainly knew that turning the place over to some half-wild screenwriter (like Towne) was crazy. At the same time the studio also knew that the emotional turmoil generated by the conflict between dependence and autonomy was useful to it. Warners, in other words, knew that it needed screenwriters, and when it took control of Greystoke, it continued to build on Towne’s allegorical foundation, reconfiguring it as a think piece on studio control. The hired-killer aspects were cut, and the tale of the lone screenwriter fighting off a band of angry carnivores became, more or less, Act I, just as Towne’s struggles were Act I in the allegory of the film’s production. At this point in the new narrative, the industry arrives, as literally as possible: A British expedition comes chugging down the river on the Lucy Fisher, shooting almost randomly (an evil version of cinematographer John Alcott), slaughtering apes in the name of science, inflating their carcasses with a bicycle pump in order to take more realistic pictures of them (an evil version of creature-crafter Rick Baker). As Hudson explained, the boat was “named after the executive Lucy Fisher at Warner Bros. at the time, [who] looked after the production of the film from the studio point of view.”4 The production had reason to feel fondly toward its producer. She had worked on Hudson’s Chariots of Fire (Fox, 1981), and when she moved to Warners, she brought Hudson, some of the crew, and several actors along for Greystoke.

The identification of the studio with British imperial aristocracy was enticing. For the filmmakers, the decision to shoot the jungle scenes in Cameroon made them cinematic “pioneers,” just like the members of the expedition. The mapping of historical context onto production context proved irresistible, and in their DVD commentary Hudson and his line producer cannot help themselves, effortlessly slipping back and forth between descriptions of British imperial adventures and their own. But the movie takes its imperialism seriously throughout. The film delays its credits until after a jungle prologue. Only then do we see the Warners logo, followed by “Warner Bros. Presents” over a long shot of the Greystoke manor. It looks like a studio, and it functions like one—it sends out expeditions (productions), it commissions paintings (pictures), it supports museums (film libraries), and it is handed down across the generations (perhaps). It is also filled with strategic talk. Much later, the Sixth Earl, played by Ralph Richardson, will take his grandson to look at the estate wall and will explain the principles of studio rule: “I’ve seen other fellows sell off bits of theirs. . . . Never sell. Never, ever sell. Do anything to keep it whole. You understand me? Yourself whole.” After the old earl dies, Tarzan replays this speech to himself.

Figure I.1. The industry arrives in the form of the Lucy Fisher. Greystoke (Hugh Hudson, Warner Bros., 1984)

This was rubbing Towne’s (dog’s) nose in it. Forced to give up his dream project, he could only watch as Warners endorsed his anxieties. Perhaps the studio understood writers after all. Despite all its talk of inheritance and baronial integrity, the film utterly forgets to sort out what happens to the title and the estate once Tarzan goes back into the jungle. Late in the floundering Act III, Tarzan’s benevolent tutor and his imperial nemesis face off in a common room nature/nurture debate. The tutor (D’Arnot, “the humanist,” Hudson calls him) declares that Tarzan is “what the jungle has made him.” The nemesis (Sir Evelyn Blount, “the rationalist”) responds that Tarzan must not only “be greater than the accident of his childhood” but “must be seen to be so.” It is all so much pointless disputation, and we are meant to side with Jane, the American ward of the manor, who declares through her tears, “He must be allowed to decide for himself. . . . We want for him only what he wants for himself: to be whole.” Yet there is no wholeness to be had—“Half of me is Greystoke; the other half is wild,” Tarzan declares. Stay or go, he will always be divided. The ending will never make sense for him. It is Jane who exemplifies the Greystoke commitment to integrity and wholeness, Jane who lives the family motto: “Yielde to None.” During production, there was some question about whether she would go with him in the end; she doesn’t. And though her path to the inheritance is complicated by her gender and the distance of her relationship, she is the rightful heir. She is the enlightened studio exec. She is Lucy Fisher.

The screenwriter’s story becomes the executive’s story, but both are part of the studio’s story. The movie is named for the house, not the man; Greystoke, not John Clayton. Towne’s understanding of his role in the system becomes one part of the system as a whole, alongside Hugh Hudson’s imperial dreamings and Lucy Fisher’s affective inheritance. Hollywood movies are sites of conflict and collaboration, but they are just as readily sites of individual and collective self-reflection. In this era, those reflections are put to work across scales as studios strive to create and maintain both conglomerate corporate identities and the broader industrial framework—a context in which films might serve as mirrors of and figures for collective work. To have a reading of a film—even a partial reading such as this account of Greystoke—requires a detailed account of the business of which it is a part. But the converse is also true—the business would not exist in the same way without the stories it tells. This is the neoclassical balance between story and backstory.

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The case of Greystoke suggests the following general form: allegory emerges where industrial pressures intersect and where creative actors are able to imagine symbolic solutions to real problems. As we trace the overarching question of the relationship between particular movies and the particular financial and labor relations underpinning their making and marketing, broader questions arise. There are questions of prevalence and significance, history and possibility, method and epistemology. How widespread are these allegories? And how important are they to the operation of the system? How and how intensely are movies about the business? On what occasions does that intensity wax and wane? Is there a history to the very possibility that a movie might be about the business? If movies are, “at some level” about the business, what are the contours of those levels? And if it is simple enough to say that movies are about the business, why don’t we take that idea seriously? How could our culture continue to elude our attempts to understand it?

I assume there will be resistance to this sort of account, for several reasons. One is a general wariness about allegory, and it is worth treating first because it may be the most long-standing way of acknowledging and then denying the relationship between films and their production. If it is difficult enough for a Hollywood movie to tell one story properly, it seems greedy to expect it to tell at least two and foolish to expect those two stories to sync up sufficiently that they might be necessary for each other. What is worse, if we were to attempt to trace the allegory, the more the details of our reading began to pile up, the more those compelling bits and pieces would threaten to reduce the film to its allegories or to promise a secret key to a narrative that was compelling in its own right. Thus, when we do find the idea of allegory popping up in criticism, there we usually find a hasty denial of its importance. Implicit meanings are suggestive and fun to play around with but ultimately, for some reason, unbelievable. You don’t build a history of cinema out of inside jokes. Here, for example, is Peter Wollen backing away from his own reading of Singin’ in the Rain:

It is tempting to try to interpret Singin’ in the Rain in terms of the political climate in which it was made: to note, for example, that the story hinges on the thwarting of a plot to blacklist Kathy Selden, launched by an informer and enforced by using the media to pressure a weak-willed studio, which ultimately puts profit before principle, until finally the situation is resolved and virtue triumphs in a wishful happy ending. Or perhaps the “Singin’ in the Rain” dance sequence represents Kelly’s determination to be optimistic in a miserable political climate, insisting that he may have behaved in an unorthodox, uninhibited way, but that basically he is joyous and generous and American whatever the law may think as it holds him in its disapproving gaze. Perhaps.5

The reading is tempting enough that Wollen cannot resist publishing it, but not so tempting that he can admit to believing it or, more important, that he can admit that MGM, or the Freed Unit, or Gene Kelly believed it. Even so, once we have begun moving down the path of temptation, we may also notice that the film is about “making stars talk,” that it recognizes that this new force is not a passing fad, and that the sustained analog for this new situation is the decapitative violence of the French Revolution, from its tumbrils to its dummies to its display window filled with cloche-capped heads.6 You can see why Wollen was tempted; you can also see why he applied the brakes.

One reason he is wary is specific to the era of the blacklist: the sort of subversive storytelling he sees in Singin’ in the Rain is uncomfortably close to the subversive notions of Hollywood that the members of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) indulged in. And if one feels that the blacklist was a horrible squandering of American artistic talent and potential in the name of a paranoid delusion, as Wollen does, then it is hard to endorse the hermeneutic process that attended it. But the local reason for Wollen’s self-doubt is only magnified when we wonder not simply whether a particular film has a hidden political meaning but whether movies in general depend on allegory in order to constitute themselves as a system. You may not want to believe that movies are up to something implicit, but you can certainly be tempted that way. You may not be able to believe that something as jury-rigged as an allegory could result in the consistencies we find in the Hollywood system—it seems impossible. That is, critics are wary of allegorical systems because they seem too intentional to account for systems that seem to exceed anyone’s ability to master them. Even if we grant that the folks making these movies know what they are about, we don’t credit the idea that this is one of the things that they know.

A second reason that industrial allegory has not been taken seriously as an underpinning for the Hollywood system is that there is too great a gap between the needs of the corporation and the power of the individual film. Individuals like Robert Towne might make a film mean what they want it to, but they can’t do as much for Warner Bros. But if we are thinking this way, we are already endorsing the defenseless individual in the land of carnivores understanding of the industry, and that understanding is a reading of the industry, not a neutral description. We might change our premises by acknowledging that the overwhelming “real problem” of the contemporary entertainment conglomerate is the need for an ever-larger market. Paul Grainge runs directly into the gap between system and instance as he traces the ways in which the major conglomerates scour the globe to extend their brands, chasing down fugitive entertainment experiences in an effort to monetize them. As he puts it, that marketing effort—the “practice” of branding—necessarily entails image making and storytelling—the “poetics” of branding. Further, he argues that the logo is the essential trope of that corporate poem, the lever by which a dispersed audience is gathered together to be sold to. Logos “demonstrate industrial attempts to affect, or allegorize, the gestalt of total entertainment.”7 Grainge begins from the “postclassical” situation in which both the cinematic experience and the studio origin have become fragmented—hence the corporate anxieties, and hence the need for aggressive inclusion. Thomas Elsaesser concurs with Grainge’s “focus on branding and the logo” as “a principle of homeostasis . . . a chief strategy for capturing and managing these volatile masses and markets.”8 But while Elsaesser can believe that logos are part of an essential strategy of brand extension, the notion that these efforts are worked out allegorically seems implausible to him. The elaboration of the poetics of branding into full-blown corporate allegorical readings results in interpretations that are, he says, “suggestive rather than persuasive, and perhaps too narrowly framed to lend themselves to generalization.”9 No matter how intense the corporate interest in its own brand of poetics, it cannot make the leap from the narrow frame to an account with systematic power.

If logos, which are everywhere, are a “chief strategy,” but individual allegorical accounts of films like Greystoke are too narrowly framed, how might such readings achieve the sort of saturation that logos have? One way would be to look to genres, not individual films or studios, as the source of industrial allegory. Vivian Sobchack takes up the case of the grand historical epics of the fifties and sixties to do just that. Pursuing an account of audience experience in the last moments of the classical era, she argues that “the genre formally repeats the surge, splendor, and extravagance, the human labor and capital cost entailed by its narrative’s historical content both in its production process and its modes of representation.” With the films standing as mirrors between the masses on-screen and the masses in the theater, “the genre allegorically and carnally inscribes on the model spectator” the sense of being a subject in and of History, but a history where she might recognize the excess on-screen as part of her experience of “a historically specific consumer culture.”10 That is, the historical epic says to its model audience that all this—all this money, all this blood, all this labor—has been expended for you, you as the inheritor of millennia of history, you as the audience for this monumental motion picture.

Compelling as Sobchack’s account is, it remains partial. Genre is not the sole way in which industrial allegory comes to occupy the center of systemic self-reflection. Two other critics, John Thornton Caldwell and Jerome Christensen, have attempted to make clear how it is possible for corporate or industrial self-representation to result in something as durable as the system we have come to know. The emblem of this self-regard is indeed the logo, but the homeostatic operation of the logo, like the allegorical and carnal suture of the epic, is but one example. In Production Culture, his largely ethnographic account of the contemporary film-and-television system, Caldwell describes the postclassical system from the labor side outward rather than from the audience side in. For him, the ever-more-fragmented and -flexible industry of the last two decades requires ever-more-intense self-reflection. “Within the nomadic labor and serial employment system now in place, any area that wishes to remain vital—in the face of endless new technologies, increased competition, and changes in production—must constantly work, through symbolic means, to underscore the distinctiveness and importance of their artistic specialization.” At most levels of the industry, these symbolic means are deep texts—demo reels, trade shows, producers’ script notes. They are the “native theories” of practitioner groups at various levels of the hierarchy. The system is manic and anxious, and the results are self-reflexivity: “Film and television companies, in particular, acknowledge image making as their primary business, and they use reflexive images (images about images) to cultivate valuable forms of public awareness and employee recognition inside and outside of the organization.”11 Allegory thus wends its way through the industry, pushed along by everyone from below-the-line workers up through the executive ranks.

At the top of Caldwell’s organizational hierarchy are “industrial identities” and “industrial auteurs,” and they exist both as the accumulated sediments of thousands of individual participants and as independent categories. This is closer to the framework that would make something like my reading of Greystoke possible, but the industry here is always the integrated film-and-television industry, not “the movie business.” And as a corollary to Caldwell’s democratization of reflexivity, none of the symbolic means through which those industrial anxieties are processed holds pride of place. A digital effects bakeoff is as revelatory as, say, Spider-Man (Sam Raimi, Columbia, 2002). Motion pictures have no special place in this media ecosystem—they typically draw more labor and capital and have higher production values, but what makes the system a system is the generalized anxiety.

This is the point at which Christensen parts ways with Caldwell. In America’s Corporate Art, Christensen makes the most sustained case yet that movies are about the business.12 Early on, he notes that Caldwell is less interested in “the movies themselves” than the situation of workers in a “post-network industrial world” and proceeds to offer stunning accounts of individual films as a way of renormalizing film history around the idea that studios matter.13 The distinction he draws has two aspects, though, and they ought to be separated. First, there is the apparent difference between someone interested in films-as-texts and someone interested in labor arrangements. Yet that difference seems to fall by the wayside when we realize that Caldwell and Christensen fundamentally agree that the texts are the locations in which corporate policies are worked through. The relationships between text/corporation/worker/union/and so on are ever shifting and certainly warrant investigation from each side, but Caldwell and Christensen share the sense that these relationships are of such intensity that they can generate industrial allegories. Which brings us to the second difference, between someone who conceives of the industry as fundamentally “the movies themselves” and someone who considers “cinema within the diverse contexts of electronic media,” that is, between someone who appears to be an old-fashioned studio cinephile and someone for whom cinema no longer holds pride of place now that the labor situation has been flexibilized and the corporate situation has been conglomerated beyond recognition. Who is correct?

Either might be, and given that possibility, we ought to reformulate the question: Who is correct now? If we take the position that broad industrial continuities are at the same time subject to contingent rearrangements in the service of corporate strategies, we might see the opposition between Caldwell and Christensen as a historical question, and we might ask how someone could hold Christensen’s position—that films are the privileged objects of interpretation—in Caldwell’s world of diverse electronic media. Here is Sony America’s chairman and CEO Howard Stringer, speaking in the summer of 2001, offering his explanation for why movies matter even when they are parts of conglomerates as far-flung as Sony:

You could make the case that the movie is the most fundamentally symbolic piece of content that any media company develops. It drives all your content. It’s the most visible. It’s the most conspicuous. It’s the most dangerous. It’s the most exciting. And as the world becomes ever more aware of content, movies will go wider and wider. When the digital world is really here, movies can be disseminated from satellite direct to homes and direct to small theaters in Mongolia and northern Russia and obscure places that the market for movies is going to grow and grow and grow. And it’s really the flagship of your content. It’s not the most profitable part at the moment. It can be profitable. But it drives everything else that you do and it lives forever.14

Stringer here is engaging in a bit of industrial reflection, as befits a CEO when asked to weigh in on the importance of a particular division. But he is in agreement with his contemporary CEOs across the industry—with Barry Diller and Michael Eisner and Steve Ross and Gerald Levin and others—that what is decisive about this period is the sense that movies remain the center of the conglomerate even within a post-network configuration of electronic media. If the practical project of this book is to justify the allegorical interpretation of individual films, and the theoretical project is to explain how those allegorical intentions add up to and drive the Hollywood motion picture industry, then the historical project is to show how that sort of self-representation was also self-enabling, how movies retained their hold on the center of the entertainment mediascape. How do motion pictures sustain their corporate prominence when the industry is no longer underwritten by the economic structures that supported the classical Hollywood studios? Why does Howard Stringer sound like Christensen in Caldwell’s world?

When Christensen explains that movies embody corporate strategy, he is ever so close to Stringer explaining that movies “drive everything” (that’s the strategy) and “live forever” (that’s the corporate). And when Stringer unites critics, companies, and employees in a universal second person—“you could make the case,” “drives all your content,” and “drives everything else that you do”—he is close to Christensen’s notion of movies as corporate speech. Christensen’s version of corporate authorship goes like this: “There is no interpretation without meaning, no meaning without intention, no intention without an author, no author without a person, no person with greater right to or capacity for authorship than a corporate person, and finally, no corporate person who can act without an agent.”15 Since this book has such obvious similarities to Christensen’s work, I want to pay particular attention to the difference between his fifth claim—“no person with greater right to or capacity for authorship than a corporate person”—and the other five. The other links in the chain are a set of absolute entailments, but this one is a qualitative judgment. That difference hides an awful lot of history. If studios become speaking subjects—become authors—because the legal regime recognizes them as such, then the crucial transformations in the nature of corporate subjectivity will be those moments that lie just outside the system as a whole. Movies will make sense of, say, the Miracle decision or Citizens United or the battle between QVC and Viacom for control of Paramount, but the history of corporate subjectivity will lie, importantly, outside the films themselves. This seems to mistake the precipitates of corporate behavior for its causes, and by taking the results in this way, we give up what our new modes of critical attention have found. Christensen looks at the studio system, and it shatters into its constituent parts, but by regrouping the studios, he risks underselling the particularity he has uncovered. The Hollywood system is a complex bundling of contingency and regularity, and the actions and actors that shape and are shaped by it are always being rearranged, reinterpreted, reorganized. The corporate allegory that emerges under such conditions is not merely a unified text but the result of the “jurisdictional conflict,” as Rick Altman calls it, between the myriad forces that have come to bear on the production.16

Consider, for a moment, a “natural person” with at least some “right or capacity for authorship.” Now enfold this person in an environment in which dozens if not hundreds of others seek to exercise similar rights and demonstrate such capacities. Who among them believes that the corporate person that employs them enjoys greater rights and capacities? Christensen’s answer is that “corporate employees become effective executives insofar as they are able to discern a [strategic] pattern” to the corporation’s actions and are able to “make a decision consistent with the operant intention of the whole.” That is, the effective executive believes what Christensen posits and serves as the corporation’s necessary agent. One difficulty with this account is that when someone steps forward to serve as the corporation’s agent, that identification is one “that people may recognize, but not one to which anyone must consent.”17 The battle over the interpretation of corporate strategy continues.

In Christensen’s theory, our interpretations need only the text in order to build the world of agents and intentions that make the allegory run. But in his practice, Christensen toggles back and forth between text and production history, providing readings that are contingent upon the differing economic arrangements and organizational imperatives at each studio. And it is, again, the practice that is worth following. The smoking guns of agents’ intentions exist—not in every case, but in enough cases that we are able to coherently trace out the conflicts and cohesions between interests, programs, needs, and aims that underlie these collaborative creative works. We move back and forth between texts and actors not simply for hermeneutic reasons but because the texts that capture the interlocking agendas of their contributing authors are coherent and fractured, depending. A studio’s self-reflections are essential—there is no denying that returning the studio to the category of necessary authors is an enormous leap forward in critical capacity—but within Hollywood, self-reflections are distributed across innumerable levels, from the lowliest term-contracted computer compositor to the studio production head to the conglomerate CEO; from Robert Towne to Hugh Hudson to Lucy Fisher; from union work-to-rule campaigns to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) lobbying efforts. In a context of potentially overwhelming anxiety the movie becomes the home of collective reflection, where competing visions of the current industrial configuration can play out.

The theoretical question of whether the meaningfulness of Hollywood movies depends on their being examples of corporate speech (Christensen’s legal/textual version) or the outcome of conflicts and cohesions among workers (Caldwell’s labor/ethnographic version) can be similarly directed back into the historical project. How were the diverse interests of different laboring groups turned toward self-theorization? How were those theorizations harmonized so that they might serve even larger, transpersonal ends? How were those larger ends made to serve a particular corporate and industrial framework in which conglomerated entertainment companies could pin their identities onto particular texts that could nevertheless continue to provide possible avenues for workers’ self-reflection? The opposition between corporate speech and labor struggle is the opposition between the movies themselves and the film/video industry. And the history of that opposition will be one in which studios compensated for the lack of balance in the work lives of their employees and the economic arrangements of their conglomerate owners by seeking balance in various ways on-screen.

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In the chapter that follows, I lay out the interpretive protocols for the remainder of this book. Operating under the modern “package-unit” system of production—where each film is mounted by a new and one-off collection of talent rather than assembled from studio labor already under contract—studios face a great deal more uncertainty about their continuity as creative enterprises. Companies in creative industries, as economist Richard Caves argues, are uniquely dependent on their standing in the “creative community” for access to talent. As studios have become “mere” financiers and distributors, anxieties about identity and reputation have grown as well. In order to guarantee that their movies bear the corporate stamp, studios have allowed logos to bleed into the opening scenes of selected films: The WB becomes the Bat shield, the ice cap on the Universal globe melts to open Waterworld, and MGM, attempting to return to studio-level production after a decade of floundering, matches the lion’s roar—the most famous studio logo of them all—to the StarGate itself, that portal to the good old days when MGM had “More Stars than there are in Heaven.” Logorrhea is the most explicit and commonplace moment of branding within the cinematic experience.

In a time of remarkable mergers and a relentless drive for synergy, studios regularly sought the corporate control of the classical Hollywood era. “We’re a new version of the old studio system,” Jeffrey Katzenberg said of Disney (and then of DreamWorks).18 But in an economic context radically different from the one that underpinned the classical studio system, the new classicism of the studios could never actually reconstitute a bygone era. Unable to restore the pillars of the past, studios aspired to that form of classicism they could achieve. It would be classicism at one remove, an idea of a studio, and it would be part of an economic strategy that would always be pre-aestheticized.

Once the framework is in place, the history proper can begin. The first section of the book investigates the paranoid narratives of the seventies. A generation of scholars regarded the paranoia of the New Hollywood directors as the cinematic realization of Watergate-era social unease. But a subsequent wave of writing has looked more closely at Hollywood’s prolonged economic slump. For these critics, the financial successes of the movie brats somehow “saved” the old Hollywood—either by directing hits (as Biskind contends) or by replenishing the stock of genres and formal moves available to the system (as David Bordwell and Geoff King claim).

To be sure, in the late sixties and early seventies, studios turned to a variety of new directors in a rather desperate attempt to return to profitability. Still, no critic has yet suggested that in addition to providing a return on capital and a revivification of American film style, these self-conscious auteurs reinvented the studio as a powerful entity in its own right.19 Yet every paranoid allegory of a large corporation crushing the “independent”—whether that was the independent crop duster in Charley Varrick (Don Siegel, Universal, 1973) or the independent surveillance man in The Conversation (Francis Ford Coppola, Paramount, 1974) or the independent truck drivers in Sorcerer (William Friedkin, Paramount/Universal, 1977)—added to the mythology of corporate power. And the major studios were only too glad to have someone fear them again. For directors of the New Hollywood, the readiest embodiments of the Watergate era were the studios themselves, and the auteurs’ assertion of structural equivalence gave the studios the courage to be brands again.

To understand how that complex circulation of paranoia, allegory, production, and narrative might get under way, I begin with the most paradigmatic instance, Steven Spielberg and Universal’s Jaws (1975). Jaws lies at the heart of most analyses of the New Hollywood for narrative reasons, but I show how the film’s production and distribution gave rise to a particularly robust allegorical architecture that could serve the industry as a whole. If allegory is a method of reading that requires us to distinguish and then reconcile surface and depth, Jaws is a film positioned precisely where surface and depth meet. Its act breaks are confidently managed and insistently demarcated, a narrative assurance that carried over to its marketing. Universal and producers Richard Zanuck and David Brown were particularly attuned to the management of deep interpretations over its long run. That Universal drove the hardest bargain possible when negotiating with exhibitors is further evidence of that assurance.

The neoclassical era begins not with its full flowering in Jaws (or Star Wars) but piecemeal, spread across films and studios. I trace Paramount’s version in part because in its deal to launch the Directors Company, it grappled more directly with the problem of institutionalized auteurism than its fellow studios did. Paramount was part of a typically seventies conglomerate, Gulf + Western; it had a charismatic CEO in Charlie Bluhdorn; and it clawed its way out of the industry slump by relying on the talents of key auteurs (Coppola, especially). Along the way, it installed design as the heart of the new system.

Paramount (and Warner Bros.) began the process of leading the studios out of the postclassical wilderness, but it was the rise and dominance of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) that set the terms for industrial success. Led by Mike Ovitz, the powerhouse agency achieved an unprecedented degree of authorial control over the projects its clients pursued. CAA represented more than simply a challenge to studio authority, though. Through Ovitz’s particular fascinations—with Japan, with Armani, with pop art—the agency helped broker a certain Nipponization of the American economy.

In Part II, I survey several instances in which studios had to respond to radically changed contexts, some brought on by mergers, some by drastic shifts in the industry more generally. The inevitable gap between the development of a film and its reception, and the even longer gap between development and profitability, forced studios to imagine their films into a future they could not entirely control. Yet if they could not control the results of any particular film, the studios were living through an era of remarkable prosperity backstopped by cable, video, and eventually DVD revenues. Those bulwarks of profitability encouraged the studios to take on the task of projecting the futures of their corporate parents.

While the Directors Company was a financial fiasco, alongside it Paramount installed a new studio chief, Barry Diller. Diller and his fellow executives (Dawn Steel, Michael Eisner, Don Simpson, etc.) brought drastic change to the studio when they imported television-style discipline over both budgets and narratives. The “Killer Dillers” attempted to give the paranoid auteurs something worth fearing and agencies something to reckon with. At the same time, their vision of high-concept storytelling freed creative executives to concentrate on the allegorical relationships between the stories on film and the stories on the lot. The highest of the high-concept films showcased a hyperindustrial production design, usually at the expense of characterological depth. As Justin Wyatt has noted, these films and the stories they told emphasized style above all—the way one dresses, or takes pictures, or dances, or flies fighter jets, or fights crime, or practices medicine.20 The ascendancy of production design capitalized on the paranoid gaze that the seventies auteurs had cultivated. And that combination not only opened the film to downstream markets that would reward repeated viewing; it also created space within the narrative for display, whether of stars or placed products mattered little. In other words, high-concept filmmaking was the formal antecedent to the emerging dominance of ancillary revenues.

Finding the correct balance between story and backstory required the efforts of artists and artisans, above and below the line. If they worked in contexts that undermined narrative coherence or encouraged design to run wild or pushed effects to extremes, the standards of their crafts pushed back. The formal bargain that was struck amounted to a cinema of controlled or motivated excess, and that bargain served as the baseline of the allegorical relationship between a studio and its conglomerate in the neoclassical era.

High-concept filmmaking invented the formal and narrative armature of neoclassicism, and studio resistance to agents spurred on the new ranks of creative executives in their efforts at control. The studios may have been merged into integrated conglomerates, but as publicly held companies, they were all answerable to their boards of directors and their shareholders. This and the culture of “suits” made studios notoriously risk averse. Some adopted risk-minimizing strategies on the financial side (Paramount and Disney most notably), while others believed that only enormous blockbusters might keep the studio profitable, however risky (Columbia and Warner Bros.). One genre to emerge from this endless quest to conquer risk I call the “chaos film.” In these films, which stretched from Groundhog Day and Jurassic Park to Pocahontas and The Butterfly Effect, a popularized version of the sciences of nonlinear dynamics—chaos theory—served as a model and an alibi for Hollywood’s negotiation with unpredictability and feedback. Studios later adopted certain nonlinear economic models as they attempted to predict their hits, but in this case as in others, the case for the economic strategy was made on-screen before it was made in the boardroom.

In Part III, I examine what may be the passing of the neoclassical era. In the wake of the AOL TimeWarner debacle and the implosion of Vivendi Universal, the case for the ever-more-integrated media company became harder to make. As these two companies learned their lesson the hard way, the films they created continued to serve as arenas in which they could imagine competing, yet plausible, accounts of their histories and their futures. That imagination has taken the form of rigorous questioning of expanse—of plans too great to attempt. At Universal (on its way from Matsushita to Vivendi Universal to GE to, now, Comcast), the expanse was the sea, the world of water. At Warners (on its way from TimeWarner to AOL TimeWarner and back), there were similar seaborne misadventures (Poseidon), but the studio was far more interested in personification: the Danny Ocean of Ocean’s 11 (and 12 and 13). With Steven Soderbergh serving as its in-house auteur, Warner Bros. thought its way through, and beyond, the merger with AOL, ultimately finding itself in agreement with eventual CEO Jeff Bewkes, that synergy “is bullshit.” However differently Universal and Warner Bros. reckoned with the megamerger gone bad, the studios’ motion pictures continued to represent the studios to themselves, even as the conglomerates they thought for no longer believed in them.

In the recent cycle of empire films, the tight alliance between activist filmmaking and corporate critique that gave rise to neoclassical Hollywood in the seventies returned, inverted. The cycle took off following the success of Gladiator (Ridley Scott, DreamWorks/Universal, 2000), a neoclassical product par excellence. Gladiator hinged on the powers of entertainment, but with the attacks of 9/11 and the launch of the Iraq War, the imperial film took on new cultural and political relevance and provided certain filmmakers (Oliver Stone, Antoine Fuqua, and Ridley Scott again) with a chance to advertise their politics.

Yet where Gladiator did roughly equal business domestically and abroad, the next several imperial films were increasingly lopsided, taking in three or four times as much abroad as in the United States and Canada. For empire films, there appears to be a direct trade-off between the critique of American politics and success at the American box office. As such movies became more dependent on foreign box office, they became more dependent on the corporate distribution empires that could open a film around the globe. Filmmakers were forced to reconcile the critique of American military imperialism with their reliance on American cultural imperialism. As a result, the moment of retreat became central to the aesthetic and narrative aims of the empire films. The paranoid auteurs dreamed the studios back into power in the seventies; the imperial auteurs cleaved to them only long enough to dream them out of existence.

If 1970 serves as a rough beginning to a neoclassical era that had largely consolidated by 1975, 2010 is a similarly ragged end. Something different seems to have been at work in the industry since 2005—a move away from the confident assertions of economic, formal, and corporate integrity of the previous decade. It is always a risk to proclaim the end of a period, but if there has been an integrity to the system, such forecasts of its relative disintegration should seem less prognostications than answers to questions raised by the prior analysis: If the industrial configurations remain largely consistent, how might Hollywood filmmakers imagine their studios around the next corner? How, indeed, does any aesthetic formation so dependent on capital, so durable in its division of labor, so prevalent in a culture, pass away? If neoclassicism allowed the Hollywood studios to once again imagine themselves into the center of a mediascape they did not dominate, then this book might be taken as both a tribute to that imagination and a forecast of its ceremonies of abdication.


1. Peter Biskind, Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999), 392.

2. The Towne draft is dated August 4, 1977. For a discussion of the original structure, see Elaine Lennon, The Screenplays of Robert Towne, 1960–2000 (PhD diss., Dublin Institute of Technology, 2009), 317–37.

3. The story of Towne’s troubles is available in Biskind, Easy Riders, and in a more lurid version in Tom King, The Operator (New York: Random House, 2000), 332–36.

4. Hugh Hudson, Greystoke DVD commentary.

5. Peter Wollen, Singin’ in the Rain (London: BFI, 1992), 51.

6. This extended reading is Charles Dove’s. Along with Kathy Kerr, he was part of the first generation of Christensen students to begin to explore the possibilities of corporate allegory in Hollywood cinema.

7. Paul Grainge, Brand Hollywood: $elling Entertainment in a Global Media Age (New York: Routledge, 2008), 16.

8. Thomas Elsaesser, The Persistence of Hollywood (New York: Routledge, 2012), 338.

9. Ibid., 337. Elsaesser is discussing Jerome Christensen’s work and mine in this passage, including, most graciously, an unpublished version of the subsequent chapter. It is rare to find someone generous enough to tackle such work in draft form, much less someone willing to publish about it.

10. Vivian Sobchack, “‘Surge and Splendor’: A Phenomenology of the Hollywood Historical Epic,” Representations 29 (1990): 24–49, quote on 29.

11. John Thornton Caldwell, Production Culture: Industrial Reflexivity and Critical Practice in Film and Television (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 21, 20.

12. Jerome Christensen, America’s Corporate Art: The Studio Authorship of Hollywood Motion Pictures (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2012).

13. Ibid., 15.

14. Stringer, interviewed for “The Monster That Ate Hollywood,” Frontline, June 2001,

15. Christensen, America’s Corporate Art, 14.

16. Rick Altman, “Deep-Focus Sound: Citizen Kane and the Radio Aesthetic,” in Perspectives on Citizen Kane, ed. R. Gottesman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), 94–121, quote on 107.

17. Christensen, America’s Corporate Art, 20, 21.

18. Aljean Harmetz, “Who Makes Disney Run?,” New York Times Magazine, Feb. 7, 1988, 28–30, 49, 51; Robert La Franco, “The DreamWorks Machine,” Wired 13:6 (June 2005), The quotation from Wired is “With a legendary thirst for power, Katzenberg has developed DreamWorks into a high tech version of the old studio system, a centralized organization in which talent is kept under contract and often shuttled from project to project.”

19. For an exception, see Christensen, “Saving Warner Bros.: Bonnie & Clyde, the Movements, and the Merger,” in America’s Corporate Art, 245–79.

20. Justin Wyatt, High Concept (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1994).