How Hollywood Became the McDonald’s of Movies A new book considers the studios’ obsessive search for the Next Big Franchise.

The Big Picture: The Fight for the Future of Movies

By Ben Fritz (2018, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) 278 pages with notes and index

It is possible to imagine an alternate reality version of The Big Picture that does not hinge on the 2014 hack of confidential data from Sony Pictures’ servers. Ben Fritz’s wide-ranging survey of the dramatic shifts that have occurred in American studio filmmaking over the past decade or two–a volume subtitled, provocatively, The Fight for the Future of Movies–manages to construct a tidy narrative about the upheavals that have characterized the entertainment industry in the 21st century, all without leaning excessively and unnecessarily on the confidential Sony emails. Indeed, several of the book’s chapters profiling various Hollywood and new media power-players barely mention Sony at all, suggesting a state-of-the-industry work that may have existed in some half-finished form prior to 2014.

That said, it is easy to discern why the hack represented such an appealing point of entry for this multi-faceted subject. Fritz, who covers the film industry for The Wall Street Journal out of the paper’s Los Angeles bureau, sagely intuited that the unfiltered thoughts of Sony’s executives, producers, and various upper- and mid-level studio figures provided a fortuitous window into the recent seismic shifts that had occurred in American movie-making. Of the “Big Six” studios–the other five being 20th Century Fox, Disney, Paramount, Universal, and Warner Bros.–Sony has arguably felt the pains of those shifts most acutely. Boasting only a handful of potentially lucrative entertainment brands, many of which it has struggled to translate into profitable franchises, Sony has seen its fortunes decline as the “Disney model” of tentpole sequels, spinoffs, and remakes has risen to dominate the box office.

By way of Amy Pascal’s at-times agonizing struggles to effectually shepherd Sony through the emerging landscape of branded blockbusters, Fritz ably illustrates how public tastes, studio culture, and the financial peculiarities of the entertainment sector have evolved in the past ten or twenty years, incentivizing a certain stripe of cinema.

Fritz does not devote many paragraphs to the logistics of the hack itself, other than touching on the contentious possibility that the massive data breach was motivated by Sony’s release of the North Korea-skewering comedy The Interview. Instead, he focuses on the wider story of the studio’s 21st-century tribulations, dribbling in snippets of pilfered emails as idiosyncratic human flourishes on a somewhat inside-baseball saga of script development, budget overruns, and blockbuster brand management.

Fritz finds a fittingly tragic figure to chart Sony’s decline in Amy Pascal, who from 2006 to 2015 served as chairperson of the Motion Pictures Group within Sony Pictures Entertainment (SPE, the film and television arm of the Japanese parent corporation). Pascal certainly makes for a compelling character, one whose public persona does not appear to be dramatically divergent from the private individual revealed in her hacked emails. In addition to being one of the most powerful women in Hollywood, Pascal embodies the classical model of the garrulous studio executive, one who thrives on the more creative and people-centered aspects of the industry. Unlike many of her peers at the Big Six, she enjoyed getting her hands dirty in development and production; establishing and maintaining relationships with stars; and relying on her own instincts and experience to select projects. Always eager to snap up the rights to an engaging true story or a bestselling book, her most conspicuous passion was (and remains) prestigious low- to mid-budget dramas, the kind of reputable, “grown-up” films that courted awards and occasionally struck zeitgeist gold.

Unfortunately, those were not the sort of films that were ascendant in the 2000s and 2010s, at least in terms of box office success and the attendant interest of the studios’ parent corporations. By way of Pascal’s at-times agonizing struggles to effectually shepherd Sony through the emerging landscape of branded blockbusters, Fritz ably illustrates how public tastes, studio culture, and the financial peculiarities of the entertainment sector have evolved in the past ten or twenty years, incentivizing a certain stripe of cinema. That type is exemplified by the output of Walt Disney Studios, whose success at brand-to-profit alchemy–in which a library of reliable franchises is transmuted into an ever-bountiful wellspring of media and merchandise–is a model that the other five studios feel pressured to chase.

Fritz provides a clear, concise picture of Pascal’s fall, which culminated in her 2015 ousting in the wake of the data breach. (Although he preserves some of the chicken-or-egg ambiguity regarding the timing of the hack and Pascal’s firing, Fritz tacitly acknowledges that the leak gave the studio a convenient excuse to show her the door.) While The Big Picture neglects some of the more scurrilous, tabloid-ish revelations from the hack–such as insulting asides about stars or racially-charged comments from Pascal–this is largely to the benefit of Fritz’ thesis, which is overwhelmingly focused on Hollywood’s shift towards franchises. Indeed, the book positions Sony’s bungled Spider-Man reboot of the 2010s as one of the centerpieces of Pascal’s travails. While her outmoded faith in star power and original scripts may have contributed to Pascal’s downfall, her difficulty in capitalizing on the studio’s most recognizable and valuable brand illustrates that she was cognizant of what had to be done to turn around Sony’s flop-heavy record–she simply could not do it.

The Big Picture is undeniably enlightening as a semi-behind-the-scenes account of the shift that has been observed in the past two decades regarding the sort of feature films released by Hollywood studios.

Fritz does not paint her as an oblivious or incompetent manager, but rather as a victim of hubris and simple bad luck: a movie mogul who could see the locomotive packed with superheroes, wizards, and funny talking animals coming, but was not nimble enough to leap out of the way in time. The pathos of Pascal’s fate is only enhanced by her semi-pitiable, semi-charming, penchant for typographic errors and 3 a.m. attacks of professional anxiety, as evidenced in the emails Fritz excerpts. In private, she seems less like a hardball-playing executive and more like a teenager despairing about her unpopularity and bad grades. Still, one senses that this despair is just the emo shadow cast by her vigorous, movie-loving zeal. At her career’s zenith, that trait made her one of the most beloved studio executives–at least among actors, directors, and producers–but it did not have much currency when careful brand curation suddenly became more vital that sniffing out the next hit or Oscar-winner.

Pascal and other figures at SPE like former chairman and chief executive Michael Lynton and current Motion Pictures Group chairman Tom Rothman only figure directly in roughly 20 percent of The Big Picture, but the themes illustrated by their stories hover over the rest of Fritz’s book. Many of the later chapters have the distinct tenor of magazine profiles, with Fritz providing admiring, factual accounts of the rise of numerous (and frequently unlikely) industry figures. Among these are: Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige; IMAX CEO Richard Gelfond; Annapurna Pictures founder Megan Ellison; Amazon’s head of production Ted Hope; and Netflix’s Chief Content Officer Ted Sarandos. While brief, pithy, and light on substantive criticism, these profiles all ultimately relate back to Fritz’s central premise, highlighting the ways that studio and independent filmmaking have mutated (often unexpectedly) alongside the ascendency of prestige television, streaming platforms, and international markets like China.

Many of the later chapters have the distinct tenor of magazine profiles, with Fritz providing admiring, factual accounts of the rise of numerous (and frequently unlikely) industry figures.

The Big Picture is undeniably enlightening as a semi-behind-the-scenes account of the shift that has been observed in the past two decades regarding the sort of feature films released by Hollywood studios. Indeed, if one were seeking a succinct explanation for the forces that have enabled a superhero extravaganza like Avengers: Infinity War to rake in a quarter of a trillion dollars in less than two months, one would be hard-pressed to find a work that elucidates the pertinent dynamics as plainly and emphatically as Frisk’s book. His prose is brisk, clear, and approachable for the industry outsider, although an even more focused volume might have been achievable had he deigned to prune one of the more digressive profiles.

Befitting a journalist for the WSJ, Frisk betrays an affection for big, colorful personalities who exhibit cutting-edge business savvy, but he eschews the cheerfully vacuous, cynical voice adopted by many entertainment reporters (“Variety-ism,” for lack of a better term). Indeed, The Big Picture has a broad yet unmistakable viewpoint regarding the artistic fallout of the trends it chronicles, and that outlook is despairing. This dire tone lightens somewhat in the book’s final third, as Frisk examines the ways that select industry figures are finding success both within and outside Hollywood’s emergent blockbuster assembly line. However, the overall mood of the The Big Picture is despondent, even cantankerous, as Frisk repeatedly laments the proliferation of franchise films and the disappearance of low- and mid-budget original features from studio release slates.

The aesthetic values that The Big Picture proclaims as being underserved are solidly middlebrow, and the low- to mid-budget original features that the book exalts are often as mediocre as the blockbuster action, fantasy, science-fiction, and animated films at which it sneers.

If there is a nagging gap in The Big Picture’s thesis, it is Frisk’s failure to articulate an intelligible reason that these trends might be alarming, beyond the Manichean notion that superhero sequels are bad and original adult dramas are good. While it succeeds impressively as a work of business and cultural analysis, The Big Picture is on much shakier ground when it makes aesthetic assertions, typically without any justification. Frisk is, admittedly, not a film critic, but in the absence of more artistic-minded arguments about what is and is not good cinema, he is obliged to rely on a banal, awards-season conventional wisdom that despises explosions and esteems costume dramas. The aesthetic values that The Big Picture proclaims as being underserved are solidly middlebrow, and the low- to mid-budget original features that the book exalts are often as mediocre as the blockbuster action, fantasy, science-fiction, and animated films at which it sneers. Under Frisk’s questionable formulation, hackneyed and forgettable Oscar nominees like The King’s Speech, The Help, Silver Linings Playbook, Dallas Buyer’s Club, Philomena, The Theory of Everything, Hidden Figures, and The Post are self-evidently superior to any franchise feature.

It may be that Finding Dory or Wonder Woman are inferior works compared to La La Land or Darkest Hour, but Frisk’s approach does not allow for such scrutiny, instead appealing to what he presumes are the reader’s cursorily high-minded, but ultimately pedestrian tastes. (Those tastes are, perhaps ironically, also those expressed by Amy Pascal, at least in Frisk’s account.) The absence of this deeper aesthetic analysis does not significantly diminish The Big Picture’s value as a work of historical exegesis and near-future prognostication about the movie business. However, given that Frisk frames the upheavals he documents as a “war,” it is perhaps worthwhile to understand the underlying conflicts–other than those revolving around the almighty dollar. Absent a clear and convincing aesthetic viewpoint, The Big Picture is comparable to an exhaustive account of World War II’s origins that never bothers to explain why fascism is bad.

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