The cinema and video industries make two things: films and, more importantly, money. Shed-loads of it and over a long period. In the 1920s The Birth of a Nation cost United Artists $110,000 to produce; it eventually grossed sixty million (thanks due to L. Menand in the 7 February issue if the New Yorker for that and some other facts in this article). More recently, Titanic took in $1.85 billion at the box office – many times what it cost. Of course some films don’t make money and some even lose it. But overall Hollywood, Bollywood and lesser-known ’woods are oligarchies designed for the enrichment of the oligarchs.
It isn’t just the movie business that seeks and makes a profit from movies. The key to the system is marketing. A lot of money is spent on creating “buzz” – a diffused sense in the public that a particular movie is on the way. Previews are part of “buzz”, as is “coverage” of forthcoming movies in media outlets that are often owned by the same conglomerate that owns the studio. The makers of Jurassic Park sold a hundred licences for a thousand dinosaur products.
The content of the films and videos reflects conditions in the world of which they are part. Soon after 9/11 Hollywood temporarily abandoned the hyperviolent spectacles that dominated cinema in the late 1990s. The public was thought to be in need of escape from such horrors. However, by 2003 it was a return to business as usual. Daredevil, Cold Mountain, Gods and Generals and The Core offered spectacles of contemporary, futuristic or historical destruction and carnage.
A recent British study of blockbuster audiences (by M. Jancovich, and L. Faire, ‘The best place to see a film’, in Movie Blockbusters) indicates that at least some audiences are not happy with the conditions in which they are paying customers. Apparently a fairly common complaint is that the cinema is an emotionally cold place. The audience is a mass but not a community. There’s no place to interact with one another or talk about the film afterwards.
What of the future of the cinema and the video in socialism? To some extent I go along with the safe but insipid view that “the people at the time will decide”. But I’d like to be a bit braver (or more foolhardy?) than that. I endorse Menand’s rejection of films that include any combination of wizards, slinky women of few words, men who can expertly drive anything or leap safely from the top of anything, characters from comic books, explosions, a computer whiz with attitude, or an incarnation of pure evil. I hope there will be more films like Mike Leigh’s Vera Drake, a moving and beautiful depiction of British working-class life in the 1950s.