‘The $11 Billion Year’ by Anne Thompson
It’s not exactly an original observation to say that various forms of media are in a state of turbulent flux. But mainstream coverage of the radical changes reshaping how we consume information has tended to focus on journalism and book publishing (understandable given their troubles in recent years) at the expense of another gigantic industry that is rapidly undergoing its own tectonic shift: movies.
So “The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System” by Anne Thompson, founder and editor in chief of the blog Thompson on Hollywood and a veteran film correspondent, could have offered the uninitiated a great introduction to how Hollywood works and how it is handling the digital revolution.
Unfortunately, Thompson doesn’t quite pull this off, largely because her whirlwind tour is a bit too whirlwind. Despite the interesting nuggets sprinkled throughout, “The $11 Billion Year” reads more like an under-edited compendium of blog material than a fully fleshed-out, organic whole of a book.
To begin with, Thompson writes mostly in the form of quick, insidery dispatches from festivals and other industry gatherings. That kind of thing may make for good blog posts, but a collection of discrete pieces like that can’t be simply stitched together as a book for a general audience. All too often, “The $11 Billion Year’’ reads like a collection of only semiconnected observations and vignettes.
From a top-down perspective, the book’s structure makes little sense. It just doesn’t look like much thought was put into how to give the book a workable arc. Some of the chapter titles refer to months, one to a season (spring), and others to themes. We jump from movie to movie, from snippet of scuttlebutt to snippet of scuttlebutt. Some of it’s interesting, to be sure, but some of it isn’t.
Thompson mentions that during her time at South By Southwest, “[a]t one indie film distribution seminar, a music business insider raised his hand and shared distribution tips that could apply to the film side,” but tells us nothing more. What were these tips? Why do we need to know this? It’s not the only time Thompson offers a tantalizing peek at an interesting subject but doesn’t do the work of unpacking it.
For instance, she writes that the global film market “has outstripped North America and now represents more than 50 percent of the film industry’s annual grosses. Much of the decline in quality of American pictures can be laid at the door of the studios’ push to please foreign markets with big explosions and simple formula plots.”
This was news to me, and it’s an intriguing argument, but she doesn’t explore how or why this is. Wouldn’t one assume Americans, too, are into this big-budget stuff?
That’s not to say there aren’t some fascinating segments. Thompson is, it should be said, a well-sourced expert on the industry. So the segment on Hollywood’s woman problem — “While there are plenty of women who produce and function in behind-the-scenes roles such as editing, casting, and costume and production design, there are fewer movies made for women, written by women, directed by women, or starring women in the lead role” — is thoughtful and insightful.
So too are some of the examinations and analysis of how certain films were made, particularly “Lincoln” and “Zero Dark Thirty.”
But this is all the kind of stuff one could get from Thompson’s blog. The whole here is definitely not greater than the sum of its uneven parts. It’s hard to see what value, exactly, “The $11 Billion Year” adds.