The Terrors of Tinseltown

Think the VCR scared the motion picture industry? Peer-to-peer file-sharing, which enables users to swap digital content, could cut the major studios out of the distribution loop. Here's a look at the CFOs behind the Napsterization of Hollywood.

Prologue

Back in 1978, at the tender age of 24, I moved to Hollywood. I was an actor, you see, full of youthful bravado and convinced I was on a fast track to stardom. I had just wrapped the movie Meatballs, with Bill Murray, in which I co-starred as Crockett, the summer camp counselor with the big hair and cute girlfriend. The comedy, which wasn’t expected to do much business, turned out to be a sensation, raking in some $100 million in box office receipts — on a paltry $2 million in production costs.

Not surprisingly, I was suddenly hot property in Hollywood. My agent flaunted me all over town, billing me as the next big thing. Within weeks, I landed a gig with Norman Lear, then the hottest TV producer in show business, who signed me to star with former Brady Buncher Christopher Knight in a new sitcom, Joe’s World. NBC, banking on Lear’s magic touch, eagerly snapped up the first 13 episodes. The pilot went over like gangbusters, finishing in the top 10 of the Nielsen ratings. By that point, I was convinced it was only a matter of time before I was sticking my shoes in wet cement at Mann’s Chinese Theater.

Then, suddenly, inexplicably, my acting career hit a brick wall. In 1980, after weeks of declining ratings, NBC canceled my show. I didn’t even get a phone call from the producer telling me the bad news — I read about it in the paper (“I Lost My Job in the L.A. Times”). Soon, my agent was having trouble getting me in to see producers. I couldn’t even get an audition for a commercial for a used car lot — and I’d bought my car there. Out of work, I packed my things and moved back to New York. My days as a Hollywood up-and-comer were over-and-out. Like the man says, there are no second acts.

When all this happened, I couldn’t really make sense of it. All I knew was that in two short years, I had appeared in a hit movie, starred in a sitcom, and been summarily tossed out on my ear. Years later, it dawned on me just how powerless I was. The harsh truth is Hollywood is its own gravitational field — a glittering galaxy owned, operated, and marketed by the major entertainment studios. Granted, most of the studios are public companies. But in reality, the film industry is more monolith than governance. It’s a crank-’em-out celluloid machine — a machine controlled by some extremely powerful people.

To many studio executives and big-name producers, that power will never be threatened, never usurped. To these industry titans, the real business of show business — the marketing and distribution of motion pictures — will never change. In their minds, the movie business is a very private affair, which may explain the huge gates at the entrances to studio lots. The message is clear: Enter at your own risk.

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