LAY-READERS who purchase Anne Thompson's The $11 Billion Year will learn some interesting and sometimes disturbing stats about “the changing Hollywood system” — including the rise of Video-On-Demand (VOD), the decline of DVDs, the cost and occasional misuse of 3D — and the abiding truth that Harvey Weinstein is a gallumphing, goonish genius, the Karl Rove of Oscar politics. In the book's most perceptive and engaging passages, Thompson excoriates studios for their ruinous obsession with the young-male demo, an obsession that begets endless franchise reboots and marginalizes both innovative youngsters and women directors. These are losing strategies for the money men (remember John Carter?), but the money keeps enabling the same tried-and-tired tropes: a new Spider-Man for each generational subset, and so on.
On Oscar Sunday, the Los Angeles Times and the Atlantic ran numbers before the broadcast that should have surprised no one: voting members of the Academy are 94% white and 76% male, with a median age of 63. Thompson cites similar statistics and writes well about how an insular AMPAS warps “insider” wisdom about what will sell and what will not. Thompson's chapter on Kathryn Bigelow and Zero Dark Thirty, titled “Women in Hollywood,” is full of perception and urgency, skewering “conventional” tautologies as noxious and shortsighted — the notion, say, that “women will watch men but men won't watch women,” which will only perpetuate itself until the right people intercede. As we learn in chapter seven, the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media (est. 2004) is doing just that, and Cate Blanchett summarily dismissed this market-blind prejudice after taking the Oscar for Best Actress last Sunday: “Female films,” Blanchett said, are not “niche pictures” and (by the way) “they make money.” Producer Nina Jacobson (The Hunger Games) frames the problem rather beautifully in her chats with Thompson: “The remedy for a lot of the issues that afflict female representation in movies is also the same remedy for the marketplace.”
Thompson makes a strong case for this proposition, and the book hops merrily from one film to the next, in direct imitation of William Goldman's dissection of Broadway economics in The Season (1969). The problem with The $11 Billion Year is that it overpromises. We're supposed to accept the notion of access and then trust that with it comes insight, two premises that more often work against each other; horse-race journalism is no different in film than in politics, and the race itself is chief among Thompson's concerns. Her title suggests a subaqueous survey of some massive current sea-change: “What the public knows about the entertainment industry is the tip of the iceberg,” Thompson writes, but she doesn't go much deeper.
Here’s a fun drinking game to play with The $11 Billion Year:
These are funny vignettes, and Thompson disarms her reader with a sense of humor about her role in the book (if not necessarily her role in the industry). It would be silly for a critic of Thompson's stature to avoid such moments of overt fabulousness — if you got a smooch from an old pal who happens to have written and directed Django Unchained, you'd be a fool not to put it in your book. The humor here is always honest and usually warm, and the fabulousness also helps characterize the actual nature of the book: The $11 Billion Year is a bouncy, sometimes slipshod diary of one year in the life of a jet-setting film critic, loosely structured — like a studio budget —around tentpole events: Sundance, SXSW, Comic-Con, and so forth.
The chief pleasures of this approach, and of Thompson's very real access, are the human ones: Hugh Jackman going on a 36-hour no-water diet so his skin will look “parchment-thin” in Les Mis; novice Suraj Sharma's remarkable preparations for his role in Life of Pi (“learning how to work a boat, tie rope, act, do yoga, and speak Mandarin”); a loving, moving series of emails with Emmanuelle Riva; and a great extended sketch of Tarantino. Whole pages, and even chapters, proceed on the bing-bang-boom, this-then-that principle; for every stylish prose turn (describing Hooper's reliance on “moist close-up” in Les Mis, say), we get peculiarly triumphant pronouncements about firmly established Hollywood icons — indeed, for all its rhetoric about “the changing industry,” the book feels at times like a relic from 1999.
On Daniel Day-Lewis: “The British actor may not be a marquee movie star, but audiences are starting to get the idea that when he does a movie — and he picks them carefully, willing to wait years between roles — they should check it out.”
On Tarantino: “A rare bird.”
On Wes Anderson: “Someone with vaunted auteur status ... Anderson comes out ahead ... He has been entered into the ranks of Cannes auteurs. He'll be back.”
Leaving aside the rather excessive freight that “auteurism” carried in 2013, even casual movie buffs will find such remarks a little tone-deaf. Meanwhile, the Toronto International Film Festival offers crême-types “a relaxed summer camp atmosphere;” heady airspace where Thompson chills with Ken Burns, Alexander Payne, Werner Herzog, George Lucas, Gael García Bernal, and Laura Linney. For every critique she offers the academy, Thompson adds a pat on the back, an inevitable cost of the “access” trumpeted in the title. Provocative if incomplete as a study of inflection points in the industry, the book is at its heart a celebration of knowing the system perfectly, of access leveraged not always for the reader's benefit. We can argue that this type of reporting is in effect part of the problem, the same way that political beat-reporters who prioritize “optics” over questions of policy encourage bad behavior in politicians. Thompson's proximity to her subjects sets certain limits on her larger critique, just as the insularity of the Academy tends to regulate the range of available talent through outdated allegiances and an emphasis on short-term benefit.
There is an ironic complicity, of course, on the part of the reader. Civilians, too, rage over the homogenization of film while getting all hot and bothered over the Oscars. The larger disappointments of the book cannot detract from Thompson's indisputably fun and sharpshooter journalism, on the Indiewire network and her own blog, Thompson on Hollywood — and most of us will prefer Thompson's brand of insidership over Nikki Finke's any day of the week. If The $11 Billion Year writes a check it can't cash, take heart: as Wes Anderson might say —“she'll be back.”