By Mark GobleOctober 23, 2018
Hollywood Math and Aftermath by J. D. Connor
The mythology of Thalberg and his mastery of Hollywood’s dark math is treated as a kind of gospel by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Last Tycoon, which famously drew on Thalberg for the fictional studio head, Monroe Stahr. The Last Tycoon is not as interested as Fortune in the numbers behind the man, but Fitzgerald still introduces Stahr as one of just a small handful of men, “not half a dozen,” who have been able “to keep the whole equation of pictures in their heads.” It’s not clear if Fitzgerald is speaking metaphorically here, nor whether we are supposed to see his hero as the greatest artist Hollywood can manufacture, or a just living, breathing spreadsheet who looks good in a suit. The answer is both: Stahr is the former because he is the latter and vice versa, and deciding where the numbers end and art begins is a mug’s game that writers have been trying to play with Hollywood almost since the birth of cinema itself. J. D. Connor’s terrifically provocative new book, Hollywood Math and Aftermath: The Economic Image and the Digital Recession, should end this game for once and all.
Connor also starts with Fitzgerald, but only as a way to change how film critics and historians, and even media economists, have always treated studio moguls as “the geniuses of the system.” This is a phrase that Connor borrows from Thomas Schatz who borrowed it himself from André Bazin. For Schatz and other film scholars concentrating on classical Hollywood in the studio era, looking at “the system” and its complex network of “equations” provided something of a corrective to the indulgences of auteur theory. But as Connor argues here — continuing lines of inquiry from his previous book, The Studios after the Studios — there are problems with conceptualizing studios, as Schatz and others do, as artistic enterprises in the first place. For critics such as Connor and Jerome Christensen, the decidedly post-classical studios and corporations that emerged in the 1960s — much less the media conglomerates that operate today — are simply stranger, more extensive and distributed in their strategies and interests than even the most vertically integrated monstrosities that once upon a time made movies by owning lots, talent, and means of marketing and distribution.
MGM, Fox, RKO, Warner Bros., Paramount: these were the studios that could be treated, by Schatz and more, as great houses competing for prestige and popularity within a bounded field of media (before TV, VCRs, cable, internet, streaming). They were still governed by midcentury protocols of corporate management and at least a spirit, if not actually an ethos, of concern for the integrity of corporate styles and ideologies. There are certainly ways in which the residual glamour of this epoch still haunts the corporate forms that Connor tracks in Hollywood Math and Aftermath, but the numbers — and the fully financialized reality they both register and obscure — are weirder now. Thalberg may have had a lot of moving parts to keep in mind, but most of them were finally costs that could be counted against returns on MGM’s investments. But in a cinematic universe made out of pre-production write downs, front-end tax credits, hedge-fund underwriting, and limited-partnership arrangements, the “whole equation” is quite literally a fiction of second-order variables and abstractions that, like the rest of what Connor calls “advanced capitalist culture,” is everywhere we look on screen but almost never in a form that we can see.
The particular genius of Connor’s criticism is that it embraces all the arcane details that distinguish the economics of Hollywood filmmaking as it features in the trades and in the business pages. But his fascination with these various transactions, corporate strategies, and financial instruments is just as surely conceptual and aesthetic. The numbers matter for Connor because they register the elaborate calculations of potential value and profit that filmmakers must contend with in a digital, multi-platform era where the cinematic commodity is increasingly diffuse. It is also the cultural and intellectual logic behind these calculations that inspire what Connor calls the “economic image” that comes to represent the signature of Hollywood film since the early 1970s, not merely in the iconography of symbols and surface details from the world of finance capitalism, but more profoundly in shots and scenes that try to show us what perception feels like when our very models of reality have been financialized as well.
Thus while Connor situates the films he talks about within the context of production processes and economic histories that unfold deep beneath the movies they inform — stories not so much ripped from the headlines as scavenged from the trades — he looks to Gilles Deleuze to ground his most bracing theoretical insights. Deleuze’s major works on film are capaciously ambiguous and inventive. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image have been read as arguments against the psychoanalytic semiotics of French apparatus theory, as extensions of a radical rethinking of the history of philosophy, or as reflections on the fate of radical culture in Europe after the cataclysm of World War II and the upheavals of the ’60s. But no one, I think, considers Deleuze as a model of empirical analysis and hardcore economics. The “economic image” is, for Connor, a philosophical proposition on the order of Deleuze’s “movement-image” and “time-image.” As he writes near the start of Hollywood Math and Aftermath, it “displays the internalized relation of the film to money, to people and institutions, to the times and places — actual and virtual, literal and conventional — of its production, distribution, and exhibition.”
What forms might these economic images take? Sometimes they’re altogether literal. Connor is, not surprisingly, an ideal critic for exploring films about what might be called philosophies of high finance. Movies like Moneyball (2011), The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), The Big Short (2015), Blackhat (2015), and Equity (2016) let him trace a compelling imagery of spreadsheet montages, Bloomberg terminals, and close-ups on pixelated stock prices as they condense into the markers of a period style for post-financial crisis American cinema since 2008. These are films that Connor treats not just as narratives about the overt cultural and social consequences of recent economic history, but also as more tentative visions of how financialization itself — with its complex math and models, its language of derivatives and equity — comes to represent the very idea of what it means to think, as if the whole of human ethics was a calculus of leverage and incentives.
Even when characters in post-crisis cinema try to take a stand against, or at least expose the economic systems that define them, they tend to fail. The Oakland A’s of Billy Beane and Moneyball lose to the Yankees despite their canny algorithms; Mark Baum, the self-righteous trader played by Steve Carell in The Big Short, voices his belief that the crash means “the party’s over,” only for Ryan Gosling’s more knowing voice-over to confirm that “Mark was wrong.” Connor suggests that these moments might appear as simple beats of irony in films that want to perform their political commitments with Hollywood sophistication. Yet Connor sees a deeper play in how these films promise to show their viewers what things look like “inside” the workings of otherwise opaque and always predatory economic systems. “The turn inward,” he argues, “rescues recessive thinking from itself and installs the story inside a new economy of justice, one in which the savvy audience has learned something while the responsible parties are held to narrative account.” Sure, only a single banker really goes to jail in the wake of the financial crisis, but millions of moviegoers learn to think like the bad-guy bankers thanks to the good-guy bankers who are good because they at least feel sad that they have helped destroy the world. Everybody, or rather, nobody wins.
In this sense, Connor proposes that we can see the financialization of Hollywood film not just in its recent turn to imagery of spreadsheets, numbers, and various types of calculation. He also traces more intriguing and suggestive intimations at the level of editing, production design, and even genre that tell us a lot about how Hollywood, since the 1970s, has worked through ideas of economic value and art’s relation to it. This means that the economic image can appear in many guises, and must reflect a shifting context of corporate machinations, auteurist drives, and engagements with contemporary history. In a film like James Cameron’s Titanic, for example, whose exorbitant production costs forced Fox and Rupert Murdoch into a deal with Paramount that cut Fox’s share of the expenses but cut their profits even more, Connor points us toward shots within the film that aestheticize anticipation. An artistic commodity’s eventual exchange-value of course cannot be known — like nine-10ths of an iceberg, it looms out of sight, beneath the surface. In the case of Titanic, the price was finally worth it, but in the anxious months before release, executives at Fox were facing fears that they had maybe backed an expensively beautiful venture that was headed for disaster. Connor shows that Titanic is not only structured around questions of short-term expense and long-term value, but functions as an argument in favor of, well, the sunk cost fallacy. Through a series of shots along the way, Cameron tries to dramatize the greater risk of hedging on the desire for “quality” as such, which lets “everything — the art and the industry, the beauty and the business — end up on screen.” When we see the faces of Bill Paxton and the salvage crew, for example, looking right at “us” as the elderly Rose begins her story in Titanic, the film is trying to show that the experience of art is not about the bottom line. We all know, after all, where the RMS Titanic will end up. But the power of a work of art like James Cameron’s Titanic — which, as Connor amply demonstrates, Cameron refused to ever see as a commodity — is the way that it invites an audience to make elaborately affective and emotional investments in a corporate venture that might give them a lot in return, but will give Paramount and Fox even more.
Connor situates this daring reading — and all of the early chapters of Hollywood Math and Aftermath — as explorations of “Precession” cinema, a term that doesn’t name a single period in economic history (there were recessions before the Great Recession, after all) so much as an intellectual and cultural era that was, from the end of the Bretton Woods financial order in the early 1970s, confronted with a seemingly far more derealized economy that was oriented around what Marx once called “fictitious capital.” This is not to say that films stop being commodities in the early 1970s, nor that labor in the culture industry wasn’t labor then or now. But Hollywood studios, Connor demonstrates with considerable ingenuity, were uniquely poised to reckon with such transformations because their own ways of doing business had long depended on insisting that money came from filmmakers’ imaginations — especially when effectively channeled and constrained by producers and executives.
Connor’s early chapters observe the emerging contours of Hollywood’s post-studio economy in such Warner Bros. movies of the 1970s as The Exorcist, All the President’s Men, and The In-Laws. Warners was, in Connor’s account, “at the forefront of […] the drive for synergy” that turned Hollywood studios into bizarrely diversified holding companies in the period. Under Steve Ross, Warners developed some of the most aggressive strategies for seeking profits by releasing movies whose production costs had already been written down as losses on the corporate books, a mix of “financial legerdemain for the business pages,” as Connor writes, alongside “strong studio control” and “a commitment to the work of new or independent voices.” This unholy union takes grisly form in Regan’s demonic possession in The Exorcist, which Connor reads as an allegory for how studios could make money by controlling properties that they did not own. This argument might feel like something of a stretch — it’s a real headturner for The Exorcist, so to speak — if Connor did not immediately offer an even more brilliantly adventurous and convincing discussion of All the President’s Men, where he tracks the film’s paranoid sensibility and fetish for the procedures by which knowledge is extracted and distributed. Considering details as granular as the film’s sound design and as contextual as Warners’s brief employment of Charles Colson as a lobbyist in 1973, Connor revisits the film as an allegory of capitalism and the state, a relation that must be continuously imagined as a conspiracy when it is, in fact, so obvious that it feels almost stupid to say it out loud. Better to have some “Deep Throat” whispering like a secret that gives us power we don’t really have.
It is particularly fun to follow Connor’s arguments when they turn to films that we would least expect to figure as complex financial instruments — though of course, by definition, this is precisely what they are for Hollywood studios in the 1970s and later. Connor devotes a chapter to Tony Scott’s resplendently nonsensical Déjà Vu (2006) and Duncan Jones’s surprisingly morbid Source Code (2011), two action thrillers with time-travel plots whose logistics are all but impossible to summarize. Connor illuminates how these movies work as vehicles for a particular mode of sci-fi puzzling about temporal paradoxes and free will. They do so, Connor suggests, not only to frame their heroes’ sacrifices in their respective wars on terror in a post-9/11 framework of perpetual threat and trauma, but also to lend cinematic form to the various tax credits that brought their filmmakers to locations in New Orleans or Montreal in the first place. The subsidies that studios receive from states like Louisiana, or in provinces like Quebec, means that they are making money in the future while they are spending money in the present — effectively using the movie itself to produce the spreadsheet fiction that the money was never spent in the first place.
This might seem dubiously literal at first glance, accustomed as we are to discovering a text’s engagement with its mode of production not in the boldest contours of its plot and genre, but in the almost hidden textures of its style, in the manneristic details that we make into symptoms of what the movie doesn’t know about itself but wants to tell us anyway. Connor is bold enough to take films at their word, if you will, when they scream out loud that they’re made out of money, and bolder still when he insists that we have nothing to lose as critics by seeing them as the allegories that they are: “communicating channels,” as he puts it, “between the deep textual situations of workers and the marketing efforts of the executive corps; between the discourses of authorship and the ideals of viewership.” Hollywood movies might be other things as well — narratives and cognitive experiments; fantasies of bodies, time, and kinesthetic pleasure; technological displays of power, politics, and identities — but it is hard to argue that they aren’t also exactly what Connor says they are. Hollywood Math and Aftermath makes strong and startling claims about how movies think about and visualize the experience of capitalism. That, by the end, they feel altogether true is even more outlandish.
Stories about Hollywood are always about the numbers. In a recent GQ profile of True Detective and Maniac director Cary Fukunaga, most of the figures have little to do with movies or TV. We see him in one picture wearing a sweater that sells for $1,075, and in another, a belt that retails for $690. Some Tom Ford boots sound expensive at $1,890 until we see him a $4,900 necklace or a $32,980 Patek Philippe watch. The price of some especially luxe coats — an Alexander McQueen in suede and shearling, a Dior trench — are only available “on request.” If these were really Fukunaga’s clothes, the magazine wouldn’t tell us what they cost, since it would be rude to let us know exactly how much money he has made in the 15 years since he was a professional snowboarder; or since he made Jane Eyre when was he was 32. He is perhaps most famous for a “virtuosic, six-minute long tracking shot” in True Detective, and now regularly plays polo with a vaguely quantified “bunch” of hedge fund guys. These numbers tell us even less than those Fortune counted up and accounted for in its profile of MGM in 1932, but this is not surprising since capitalism is what this profile of Fukunaga is, not what it is about. Still, there is one moment in the piece that proves why we need critics like J. D. Connor to remind us just why numbers matter so much to Hollywood and to the audiences that consume its digital content at the movies, or on monitors, phones, and iPads. When asked about the process of completing Maniac, Fukunaga confirms that Netflix is a different kind of studio, even as they act just like a studio. “Netflix is a data company,” says Fukunaga,
they know exactly how their viewers watch things. So they can look at something you’re writing and say, We know based on our data that if you do this, we will lose this many viewers. So it’s a different kind of note-giving. It’s not like, Let’s discuss this and maybe I’m gonna win. The algorithm’s argument is gonna win at the end of the day.
This all sounds very cutting-edge and stylish, but Connor would no doubt caution us that this is also quite a bit like the financial bravado of Relativity Media funding slate or Sony Picture’s “Moneyball Initiative” — doomed data strategies that Connor revisits, but now dressed up by Netflix in this year’s silhouettes and colorways. As Connor reminds us in the opening pages of Hollywood Math and Aftermath, “new forms of data analysis” have been central to the business of the studios for much of the 21st century. Relativity promised to deliver profits to investors by co-financing films regardless of their perceived “merit or quality,” and with “indifference to their stories” so long as the right variables “tracked” according to their “young-turk statisticians.” Sony tried something similar just a few years later, while Relativity was on its way to going bankrupt twice. But as Connor points out, it wasn’t necessarily the case that Sony thought that it had better numbers and would survive where Relativity had failed. The studio simply needed numbers — any numbers — because it couldn’t proceed to do what it was doing anyway as a media company without them. So it’s not exactly accurate for Fukunaga to say “the algorithm’s argument is gonna win” as if it had some skin to put in the game. Netflix wins the argument because it is a massive corporation — just like charismatic talent such as Fukunaga, and not the data he assembles in the form of Maniac, wears Hermès on the pages of GQ. Hollywood needs both sides of these equations to do business, and numbers are a language that they share. Netflix probably does its best to keep these numbers secret since they are, figuratively speaking, money in the bank. In Hollywood Math and Aftermath, Connor makes the case that we already see them. Find a screen. There they are.
Mark Goble is associate professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and the author of Beautiful Circuits: Modernism and the Mediated Life.
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