August 02, 2004

Arts and Commerce

I found (and ordered) a not terribly pricey copy of the Upton Sinclair book on William Fox that I mentioned immediately below. Probably not ideal beach reading, but I'm looking forward to getting it. Sinclair, I hope, may well provide the macro-economic picture that's somewhat lacking in William Fox, Sol M. Wurtzel and the Early Fox Film Corporation: Letters, 1917-1923, which gives a decidedly micro view of the nascent film industry. Wurtzel, who managed the Fox Film Corporation's Los Angeles studios, wrote his boss about all sorts of fascinating details, from the cost of renting props to the salaries of directors, stars and bit players, to what the company paid for scenarios, to the cost of wood and paint for building sets. "We have two grips and one electrician with each company," Wurtzel writes in one lenghty 1919 letter, "and we estimate that the labor of the electrician and grips amounts to about 15 percent of the total technical cost of each picture." No matter how detailed the expenditures, Fox was often unsatisfied. In one particularly noteworthy letter, he wrote to his L.A. studio head,

It is enough to break a man's heart to think that he is working day and night in the hopes of trying to earn a fair profit or return on his investment, only to be confronted with costs, as above stated, which rob me of the possibilities of not only making a profit but guaranteeing a loss before I start.

The "above stated" costs were for a pair of films with price tags of, respectively, $69,346.67 and $36,377.79 -- within four years, Cecil B. DeMille would spent $1.4 million to make The Ten Commandments (and no doubt breaking the hearts of his Paramount bosses in the process). The tension between art and commerce in Hollywood is not a new revelation of course, nor has it by any means disappeared:

"The rest of the world appreciates our movies as art," says [screenwriter and documentary film-maker Peter] Brosnan. "We look at it as business. When Hollywood sees a way of making money out of this, then they'll have some interest."

Brosnan wanted to raise money to excavate the "Lost City of DeMille -- the massive Egyptian set that DeMille built in the California desert, then demolished once he was done shooting -- in order to keep rival companies from poaching his set.

lost city.jpg

The demolished site is still there in the California desert, complete with five ton sphinxes, statues of Ramses, and what not. I googled around a bit, but couldn't find any updates beyond 2002, at which point it seemed that not enough money had been raised to either excavate and preserve the site or to make Brosnan's documentary of the process (I may, however, be wrong).

And then again, I wonder. In Diamonds Are Forever, James Bond -- or Sean Connery -- reminds Felix Leiter that the fictional Howard Hughes character, Willard Whyte, isn't the president, and that his hotel, the Whyte House, isn't the real White House. DeMille's lost city isn't the real Egypt, but rather plaster casts made to look like Egypt. Yet, nevertheless, preserving what's left of it -- or even restoring it to its original grandeur (a no-no for serious archaeologists, but something in this case that seems warranted) seems a worthwhile endeavor.

Posted by Ideofact at August 2, 2004 11:22 PM