Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Terminator Up For Sale: A Note On Culture

I WAS BUZZING THROUGH THE NEWS, AVOIDING WORK like the plague. Or, as I like to think of it, fertilizing my brain for future productivity. I came across this article in the Globe and Mail. The rights to the Terminator film franchise are being sold off to cover the debts of the bankrupt production company, Halcyon. As you can imagine the franchise will likely go for very big bucks. Apparently the rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise went for US$60 million. Terminator 3 grossed triple the TMNT film box office.
The first thing this brings to mind is how screwed Hollywood is as a result of the financial and economic crisis. Throughout this decade a new model of hedge fund type of investment poured unbelievable amounts of cash into the Hollywood dream factory. Unfortunately, lots of investors and banks have discovered that much of Hollywood is built on the same quality materials as the housing industry - hype and horseshit.
More than that, Hollywood companies have become diversified entertainment conglomerates. Sony is but one example. With revenues close to $80 billion/year, Sony is "one of the leading manufacturers of electronics, video, communications, video game consoles, and information technology products for the consumer and professional markets."
Sony moved into the film industry in 1989 when it purchased Columbia Pictures Entertainment for $3.4 billion. And in 2005, Sony and its equity partners picked up MGM for a cool $5 billion. And for all those who still hold a soft spot for Indie films, Sony has that base covered too with Sony Pictures Classics. They also own Triumph Pictures for those cheapo straight-to-video films, Destination Films - a niche market film company bought by Sony in 2001. And, leaving no inspirational stone unturned, Sony owns Affirm films, which specializes in Christian and Gospel films. One wonders what the fundamentalists think about a Japanese company supplying them with propaganda films. Sony Pictures is responsible for Zombieland, District 9, Seinfeld, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, et al ad infinitum. This is a very big company.
So, even if it was ever true that Hollywood did well during recessions and depressions - something that is dubious in any case - it is certainly not possible today. Hollywood is a series of corporate divisions of larger, global corporations. When the economy is hit, they are hit as well. At the end of 2008, Sony announced that it was laying off 16,000 employees in an attempt to save $9 billion. And it announced the layoff of 300 staff at Sony Pictures, shortly after Warner Bros had announced the layoff of 10 percent of its workforce.
Back to Terminator, I was struck by the fact that what they are selling is an idea. It's not even a story. It's the template for the creation of other stories that use certain characters and fictional histories. But this is bizarre to me - and I say this as a screenwriter who makes a living from selling and reading stories intended for the screen. Once upon a time stories were understood as part of the community, as a means of transmitting the values of the community by the example provided through a narrative - whether it be the story of Jesus, Odysseus or Shiva. It is a common property for the simple reason that it is created out of a common experience of living in this world and experiences its potential, both good and bad; its values; it technological development, etc.
But the privatization of story becomes not only a criminal act, in my mind, it is also truly bizarre. It is an open secret that it is possible for a writer to make a living in Hollywood, writing scripts that will never be read. Paramount development executives might read a story, think it's good but not feel that it fits into their strategic development plan for the coming period of however many years. However, they don't want MGM to get the script, produce it and then it turns out to be a massive success. Instead, they buy it and bury it. The writer gets their script fee, the studio execs don't look stupid for passing on a gem and the script rots in a drawer somewhere.
The central theme of the Terminator film series is that there is danger in the alignment of high technology and corporate greed and governmental power. It is ironic that the franchise is being sold for some of those very reasons and will be bought, likely by a megastudio like Sony, as part of the concentration and centralization of the Dream Factory. Back in 1988, Billy Bragg put out an album entitled Workers Playtime that had stamped on the bottom of it: "Capitalism is killing music". The same could be said for films.
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