movie star drool · stuff I read

The $11 Billion Year: From Sundance to the Oscars, an Inside Look at the Changing Hollywood System

Summary from Goodreads:
This chronicle of 2012 is a slice of what happened during a watershed year for the Hollywood movie industry. It’s not the whole story, but it’s a mosaic of what went on, and why, and of where things are heading.

What changed in one Hollywood year to produce a record-breaking box office after two years of decline? How can the Sundance Festival influence a film’s fate, as it did for Beasts of the Southern Wild and Searching for Sugar Man, which both went all the way to the Oscars? Why did John Carter misfire and The Hunger Games succeed? How did maneuvers at festivals such as South by Southwest (SXSW), Cannes, Telluride, Toronto, and New York and at conventions such as CinemaCon and Comic-Con benefit Amour, Django Unchained, Moonrise Kingdom, Silver Linings Playbook, Les Misérables, The Life of Pi, The Avengers, Lincoln, and Argo? What jeopardized Zero Dark Thirty’s launch? What role does gender bias still play in the industry? What are the ten things that changed the 2012 Oscar race?

When it comes to film, Anne Thompson, a seasoned reporter and critic, addresses these questions and more on her respected daily blog, Thompson on Hollywood. Each year, she observes the Hollywood machine at work: the indies at Sundance, the exhibitors’ jockeying at CinemaCon, the international scene at Cannes, the summer tentpoles, the fall’s “smart” films and festivals, the family-friendly and big films of the holiday season, and the glamour of the Oscars®. Inspired by William Goldman’s classic book The Season, which examined the overall Broadway scene through a production-by-production analysis of one theatrical season, Thompson had long wanted to apply a similar lens to the movie business. When she chose 2012 as “the year” to track, she knew that box-office and DVD sales were declining, production costs were soaring, and the digital revolution was making big waves, but she had no idea that events would converge to bring radical structural movement, record-setting box-office revenues, and what she calls “sublime moviemaking.”

Though impossible to mention all 670-plus films released in 2012, Thompson includes many in this book, while focusing on the nine Best Picture nominees and the personalities and powers behind them. Reflecting on the year, Thompson concludes, “The best movies get made because filmmakers, financiers, champions, and a great many gifted creative people stubbornly ignore the obstacles. The question going forward is how adaptive these people are, and how flexible is the industry itself?”

We’ve all been there – sitting in the full-to-overflowing movie theatre, having forked over our $10-12 (or more, depending on your market), and wondering how the heck the movie we’re watching, and had been anticipating for some time, got made?  Or the reverse – a movie we anticipated never seems to appear in a movie theatre anywhere, except maybe in a second-run theatre months later, then very quietly appears on streaming and DVD and is probably the best movie made that year?  The motion picture industry seems a bit like a crapshoot sometimes and is a mechanism that I don’t quite understand very well.  When It Books offered me a copy of The $11 Billion Year by Anne Thompson I immediately jumped on it.  Thompson is an excellent film critic and reporter – cf. Thompson on Hollywood – and has been doing her job long enough that she can write with authority (and get the good interviews). 

Thompson chronicles the 2012 year in film starting more-or-less with Sundance in January, skipping over the March 2012 Oscars (a reflection of the 2011 year) to head to Cannes, and then the summer blockbusters and conventions before heading into the serious Oscar contender season and holiday family movies.  She ends the book with the outcome of the March 2013 Oscars and how specific events during 2012 helped shape the eventual outcome of the ceremony.  Along the way, the 2012 domestic box office year was stuffed to overflowing with nearly $11 billion (only a few thousand shy, so just round up) – a fact that Thompson could never have predicted when she started the year.  That fact is actually what makes the book so interesting.  Motion picture financing and distribution is changing as so much of the world goes digital and forgoes the purchase of physical media, as evidenced by declining DVD sales and what had been a declining box office.  Blockbusters (aka summer tent-pole movies) take so much more money to make that a failure could ruin a company (i.e. John Carter – Disney was lucky to have both other revenue flows and also distribute The Avengers, because they had another tent-pole turkey in 2013, The Lone Ranger).  Independent filmmakers may choose to release via on-demand services after a festival premiere if a distribution deal isn’t ideal or forthcoming.  Streaming services can either offer original content or do exclusive pre-DVD/blu-ray release rights.  And then there’s the angling and scheduling releases to get the best coverage in awards season.

It’s enough to make your head spin but Thompson does a great job at presenting all the information in a very balanced and readable way.  You do get her opinion on quality of movie on occasion but you can tell she is a film lover and wants good films to find their audiences.  I learned quite a lot – like the fact that a film must gross twice its production budget just to break even.  Who knew?  A glossary is provided in the back of the book but I found it rather selective (though funny in her examples).  A side effect of reading the book was the reminder of why I have trouble finding movies I want to watch in the theatre: I (25-39, female) am not the target demographic (male, 18-24).  A definite recommend for those who want to know more about the motion picture industry.

Dear FTC: I received a finished copy of this book for review from the publisher.

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