Manuel Betancourt

The $11 Billion Year, or How 2012 gets the play-by-play treatment

March 24, 2014 · in Books, Film

The $11 Billion Year; From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System
by Anne Thompson

Despite its subtitle, there’s little that feels diagnostic (rather than anecdotal, though of course not for that any less true) about Thompson’s “inside look.”

Anne Thompson is a great read online. I have been a longtime fan of her blog, “Thompson on Hollywood” (TOH!) which is endlessly readable, chock full of keen industry insight, interviews that occasionally branch out of PR sound bites as well as an at times needed earnest foot-on-the-ground Oscar watching that seems to me unrivaled in an era where stats (never a great bellwether), passion (so wily and bias-inducing) and cynical detachment (so easy to write, so fun to read, so immediately disposable) have cornered the market. Met with The $11 Billion Year, I was hoping to get a continuation of Thompson’s bread and butter and indeed that is all one gets. The book has a great conceit. “What if I focused on one calendar year of film business?” (xii) Thompson asks herself in the introduction, framing what will follow as an attempt to offer the type of “reflection and portraiture” (xi) that online report seldom allows for. Thus the book’s structure is revealed; we’ll follow Thompson through the year, “from Sundance to the Oscars” as her subtitle informs us.

Unfortunately, most of the book, while littered with great interviews and film industry inside baseball, never quite emerges as a cohesive whole. Thompson’s decision to break up the book in calendrical order offers the type of neat structure that allows readers to delve into the world of film festivals, red carpets & press screenings as Thompson’s own plus-one, but whatever narrative one is supposed to glimpse from this yearlong journey (the film world as we know it is slowly caving under its own weight?) becomes an oddly toothless platitude given Thompson’s decision to focus on the Davids of Hollywood and their success stories while only side-eyeing the corporate greed that’s clearly at work. It’s a close study of a handful of films and festivals and PR machines, but the attempts at contextualizing and zooming out feel half-haphazard. Part of this has to do with Thompson’s tone and writing style. She is no film critic like David Denby whose Do The Movies Have A Future? narrowly escapes being an old-fogey’s tirade at young film fans in his lawn because of its critical acumen in describing the cinematic power of Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker as well as the eloquent screenplays of Allen and the Coens brothers. She is also no cultural critic like Mark Harris whose Pictures at a Revolution follows a similarly structured book (on the five films nominated for the Oscar in 1967) and is more robust not only because of Harris’ historical perspective (which Thompson inevitably lacks given her decision to write on 2012) but because of his insightful prose which ably shifts from anecdotes to analysis. Harris offers an interwoven mosaic, Thompson a calendar.

There’s much to enjoy here but I wish Thompson had taken a step back and had been better able to both explain and break down her own talking points. Let me give you an example. In discussing the Golden Globes, Thompson spends some time talking about the choice of having Bill Clinton present the Lincoln reel at the ceremony: “The ex-president unexpectedly shows pops in to introduce big-league Democratic donor Spielberg’s film about the world’s most famous president. But that unexpected power move — bringing in the Washington Beltway heavy-hitter and Hollywood outsider to remind everyone that Spielberg is a friend of Bill’s — doesn’t have the effect Dreamworks has in mind. It carries a whiff of condescension. It seems to say ‘You may not realize the historic significance, the sheer gravitas of what we have accomplished. This U.S. president gets its. What’s your problem?'” (227). I’d brush aside the odd syntax that runs through the entire book (an effect of the continued use of the present tense to further underscore the way we’re slowly moving through the calendar year) were it no so distracting in moments like this where the insight arrives as both an immediate thought and a retrospective analysis. More to the point, here as in other parts of the book, it’s hard to discern subject and object because of Thompson’s journalistic impulse to use the passive voice structure which elides any specificity to the issues at hand: who says it carries a “whiff of condescension”? Is this Thompson’s reading of the room, a personal observation, or as the syntax suggests, an uncontroversial fact? That the distinction doesn’t seem to matter to Thompson (and clearly shouldn’t matter to her reader) is but one example of the way the book’s strengths get burdened by the project’s own insights. In presenting these as facts, one loses the nuanced readings that are clearly produced by Thompson’s years of working in the industry and which deserve a stronger and more engaging platform, though perhaps that’s already available at “Thompson on Hollywood!” Indeed, Thompson’s blog is a must-read for its immediacy and its ear-on-the-ground buzz, but her musings here collected, while valuable, feel like a lightly edited collection of her year’s worth of blog posts (at times I kept wondering whether I’d read the entire book already, as so many of her chapters clearly echo and lift things from her great press work during 2012 which I read avidly; perhaps someone less familiar with her work might find novelty and insight where I merely found oft-repeated truths?). The $11 Billion Year makes for an amusing, entertaining read, but it never quite delivers on its strong conceit and larger conversations about the industry except in specific name-dropping asides that amount to little else than well-trodden soundbites about the industry.