Media Circus : Bronfmania!

Entertainment journalism's power lists and box-office fixations make every fan a mogul.

By James Poniewozik
Published April 29, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

If there's one thing magazine list features are good for, it's fruitful interdisciplinary cross-comparisons. Take the classic opportunity that arose when Premiere's Power 100 issue (May 1998), listing Hollywood's most influential actors, auteurs and suits, hit newsstands around the same time as Fortune's You-Know-Who 500 (April 27).

If hubristic, overweening blockbuster director James Cameron (No. 9, Premiere) were a major corporation, for instance, he'd be hubristic, overweening cancer merchant Philip Morris (No. 9, Fortune). Conversely, dependable, staid, academic annuity provider TIAA-CREF (No. 30) is the direct analogue of dependable, staid family entertainment provider Ron Howard. Meanwhile General Motors sits atop Fortune's rankings and, likewise, as we all know, what's good for Michael Eisner ...

The most telling revelation, though, is within the Fortune list itself: How well does the actual economic impact of entertainment and media companies justify the vast amount of ink that articles like the Power 100 devote to their balance sheets?

The stats are indeed impressive. When you're talking, say, about Viacom -- the film, TV and publishing powerhouse whose Sumner Redstone generates business-press coverage with every hiccup -- you're talking about a company the size of ALCOA Aluminum. When you talk about Time Warner, whose management shifts are treated as dynastic struggles on the scale of Shakespeare's histories, you're talking about a company that's -- OK, not quite as big as Walgreen's, but getting darn close.

Granted, making movies, one of the last few remaining highly individualistic and passionate businesses in an age of bean-counting bloodlessness, is sexy in a way that processing bauxite isn't. But how sexy, no offense, are Q-ratingless Hollywood movers like Ed Limato, vice chairman of ICM (No. 56), attorneys Tom Hansen and Craig Jacobsen (No. 87) or market researcher Joe Farrell (No. 99)?

Sexy as Viagra, apparently. Thus it is that today's box office and front office-fixated entertainment writing reads like coverage of the Citigroup merger; that Mike Ovitz spawned rivers of saliva among the New York media recently by closing a penny-ante Broadway deal; and that the tedious dealings of Edgar Bronfman pere and fils become, in Slate, a "Once Upon a Time in Canada" saga of generational conflict and Judaism in the New World. The Power 100 -- like Entertainment Weekly's near-identical list -- is only one of the more blatant examples of how entertainment mags reflect the mercantile outlook of bull-market America, serving as tip sheets for a nation of armchair moguls.

Having long since turned cynical toward our cash-ridden civic institutions and sports leagues, it was only a matter of time before we adopted the same rotisserie-league attitude toward the one aspect of our culture supposedly reserved for carefree enjoyment. Office Oscar pools suck scarce gambling dollars away from the Super Bowl (now principally important as a launch pad for the summer movie season and for stunt-casted sitcom episodes); we watch the Academy Awards and Golden Globes and yuk it up over the jokes about opening weekends and back-end points as if we were machers scarfing onion tartelets at Spago; and friends who couldn't tell you the current variable rates on their own MasterCards can quote you Jim Carrey's typical payday or tell you how, for your information, Waterworld wasn't such a flop at all once you factor in foreign sales and video.

It's funny: Every election year we hear about how political coverage has become a "horse race," focusing on who's up and who's down to the exclusion of serious issues (as opposed to the Athenian glory days of the 19th century, when candidates were free to decry their opponents' illegitimate children and international papist conspiracies unhindered by noise from the Harris Poll). But at least there's good cause to fixate on the numbers in a derby where the first-place pony ends up controlling the nuclear arsenal. Isn't it a far more damning comment on America's values that we can't even look at the movies anymore without fixating on shareholder return and ROI?

Take "Titanic," which from the get-go read more like a Wall Street than a Hollywood story in the entertainment press. Replace the movie's title with "Netscape" or "Lycos" and the narrative arc of the coverage, starting around last summer, would be indistinguishable from that of a big-deal IPO. Isn't this thing horrifically overvalued? Will the underwriters ever recover if it tanks? Then: Will the money ever stop coming in? Have you bought your shares yet? Have the very rules of business changed? It's no wonder every able-bodied human on the planet is dutifully marching in for a three-hour dose: By the time the tulipmania crescendoed, you'd have practically thought the health of the global markets depended on it.

It makes one nostalgic for the naive age when all we asked of the entertainment press was that it out the occasional leading man and let us know who was popping which prescription painkillers. Nowadays that sort of fluff is ancillary filler alongside international grosses and 30-second commercial rates -- celebrity-prostitution-bust stories may be tawdry, but more important, what do they tell us about whether Bronfman Jr. will finally snap Universal's losing streak? Small wonder that it's teenagers who are driving "Titanic's" continued box office: They may be the only uncorrupted fans left out there, the only ones who leave a movie daydreaming about being Leo's lover. The rest of us, frankly, would rather be his agent.

How else to explain the cover story in this week's EW (May 1), "Hollywood's Greatest Records," 10 pages on the best-sold, -watched and -remunerated shows and movies of all time? "No matter how you felt about the window-steaming romance," reads the intro, "you couldn't help being riveted as ['Titanic'] plowed through record after record."

Well, actually you could help being riveted, fairly easily -- watching Fox Searchlight roll around naked in its weekly box-office receipts was hardly the triumph of the human spirit equivalent of the moon landing or Michael Johnson running the 200 in 19:32. What you couldn't help was hearing about it. As EW's package shows, size is not only its own justification in entertainment these days, it's also its own best publicist. A behemoth price tag becomes the main reason to check a movie out, not least because the very size of the studio's bet turns us from mere customers into players in a drama of egos: cruel arbiters casting our verdicts, eight bucks at a time, on the fates of o'erreaching mortals -- vain Costner! Wouldst thou be a god?!

Moreover, through the magic of such hype our mundane Thursday-night couch-riding becomes participation in history. Why are we all going to watch "Seinfeld" this May? Because it's the greatest sitcom of all time! Why? Because it's going to pull in $1.6 mil for a 30-second spot! Why? Because we're all going to ...

And certainly by giving us the skinny on Hollywood's mightiest and crassest, Premiere and EW flatter our self-conceptions as mini-insiders. Which is all well and good if it keeps us reading, but it's just as likely that these assessments aren't particularly meant for us at all, but for actual insiders. Just as Fortune brilliantly linked its own brand name to the corporate esteem of its annual 500, a list like the Power 100 guarantees its host magazine will be passed around the industry and blared on TV newsmags. However generally dull a rundown of the quirks of talent managers may be (kooky CAA prez Richard Lovett "stayed fluless last winter by avoiding door handles"!), if it gets the attention of no one else besides the 100 personages named, well, that beats a half million of you all.

Which might lead you to wonder, Mr. Six-Pack, whether that isn't more or less the same reason so many publications run media-oriented features like, well, magazine-review columns. Um, we hardly have time to get into that today -- but let me assure you, Joe, we're pleased as punch you're reading Under the Covers!

All the same, would you mind forwarding a copy to Tina or Rupe while you're at it?

James Poniewozik

James Poniewozik is a Time magazine columnist on TV and media.

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