GITLIN: The Entertainment Blob
April 26, 2000
Independence Day, the movie, is an allegory, all right. Look up, and the spreading shadow surrounding the earth, planting attack stations over the world's great cities, taking aim at monuments on all continents, is not the work of embittered critters from other planets. In culture, the real onslaught comes from the entertainment blob, and it's ticking off conquests faster than you can say "synergy."For the second time this year, a Hollywood mover and shaker has eased into the top chair of a major publisher of books.In April, Citizen Rupert Murdoch appointed Anthea Disney president and CEO of HarperCollins. Ms. Disney, 49, the downmarket Tina Brown, edited Self and US, exec-produced A Current Affair, and edited-in-chief TV Guide. She expressed an interest in Internet-written multiple-author novels and gave a Christian Science Monitor reporter a glimpse of her publishing philosophy: "You're up against people needing to work and have time with their children. They're....working out, going to the store, doing shopping. How much time is there left? The only way to cut through that is to create a message that stands out and is remembered." [Source on Anthea Disney: Christian Science Monitor, 4/25/96] Such is the buccaneer realism that in Hollywood and at TV Guide is called by the low name "high concept," meaning, as a top ABC executive once told me, being able to tag a TV movie with a ten-word blurb in the weekly listings. (Say, "Puritan babe gets knocked up by preacher.") No War and Peace if this is the dispensation that dominates. No Brothers Karamazov. ("Lose this Grand Inquisitor guy, he gets in the way.") No loose baggy monsters by Ralph Ellison. None of that other Independence Day, the one by Richard Ford, for that matter. (You can hear the sound that would have made as it landed on the HarperCollins slush pile. "What is that thing, anyway? A spaced-out realtor maunders on about mid-life and takes his kid to Cooperstown? Sounds like its concept is scraping bottom. Pass.")Now comes Michael Lynton, 36, Harvard MBA '87, just named by parent Pearson Ltd. chairman and CEO of Penguin Books, which includes Penguin, Viking, Dutton, Signet, Dial, Plume, and in Britain, the hoary houses Michael Joseph and Hamish Hamilton. Lynton's business experience as a top cast member for the Disney enterprise? Unlike Ms. Disney (no relation to the Mouse enterprise), Mr. Lynton has (briefly) worked in books, heading Disney's Hyperion. Before that, he founded the comic-feature magazine Disney Adventure and Family PC. Touted as "elegant" and "literary" when he moved to Disney's Hollywood Pictures in 1994, possessed of what at least one producer thought suspiciously fancy taste, he told an interviewer that Forrest Gump and True Lies were examples of good movies.Under Mr. Lynton's regime, Hollywood Pictures was responsible for such cultural monuments as Crimson Tide, Judge Dredd, The Rock, and most memorably, perhaps, the $50 million purloined bomb released under the alias The Scarlet Letter, "Freely Adapted from the Novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne." About this amazing disgrace, the linguistic philosopher Demi Moore opined at the time: "In truth, not very many people have read the book, or if they have, it's been so long ago. So if they get caught up in the notion that it is some sort of betrayal of classic literature, then it's never going to work for them." Indeed it didn't, melting through America's multiplexes last year in near-record time. [Sources on Lynton: New York Post, 8/6/96; L. A. Times, 8/17/94; Demi Moore quote from Sunday Telegraph, 10/22/95.]In Independence Day and Hollywood Pictures' Scarlet Letter, happy endings are guaranteed. But publishing books is, or was, a game of a different color. Not that the good old days were allergic to pulp or pop. Not at all. Book publishing observed a traditional deal, and that is what is passing. The deal was that the mass-market fluff would subsidize the real stuff. You would publish beach books in order to take flyers on books of significant value if chancy marketplace prospects. You published these latter because they deserved to be out there, because you believed in them, and if they failed -- Moby-Dick sold fewer than 500 copies in Melville's lifetime -- well, c'est la vie, you could still feel proud, pass on a sense of pride to your heirs, and not have to worry about Wall Street value. Now and then, a serious writer would also turn out a commercial success -- Hemingway, Bellow, Roth, Updike, Morrison, Doctorow. But for the most part, in the days when they believed in books, a publisher took up a pied terre in Mammon in order to take care of business before going home to a residence in Valhalla.Conglomerate publishers have less and less need of Valhalla. They are in the business of providing content that moves. All the better if the movie division of the conglomerate can be tied into a pre-sold novel that has been published by the hard copy division. Better still if subsequent novelizations and auxiliary product [NOTE: "PRODUCT," SINGULAR CASE, IS CORRECT.] can be spun off. You've read the paperback, now wear the T-shirt, buy the toy, play the game. This is not to say that serious books go lacking publishers. For now, they do find markets, often remunerative ones. But when a manuscript comes up for discussion at editorial meetings, every last one must be a plausible profit-maker. God help the poor thing if the author is obscure and the manuscript is difficult; if the style is cerebral or unfashionable, the characters unpleasant, the plot not a recombination of the last six bodice-rippers. After all, their time to reach readers is decidedly limited. Even commercial books are going to get a few weeks on superstore shelves before they get revolved through the door straight back to publishers' warehouses.Which is not to say that the investment decisions the new moguls make are brilliant ones. Remember, they don't have to pay off, only make a plausible case that they'll boost stock value. As in Hollywood, they overspend with aplomb on acquisition and marketing, only to fail with multiple thuds. As the New York Times reported last week, many of publishing's marketing geniuses are spending the summer digging out from under the piles of returns from overprintings of what they expected to be hot books. Let the signs go up around the offices of HarperCollins and Penguin: Remember Judge Dredd and The Scarlet Letter, The Movie.