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FIRST-PERSON: Hollywood of tommorrow

KANSAS CITY, Kan. (BP)–“Top of the world, Ma.” That frenzied declaration from James Cagney in “White Heat” also expressed the optimistic mood in Hollywoodland during the film industry’s inception and throughout the 1940s. But change was coming.

Walt Disney, for example — oddball, genius, visionary — saw his creations as having a life of their own even when the films were no longer in theaters. Replicas of Mickey and the seven dwarfs became occupants of every toy chest in America. Thus the concept of merchandising tie-ins was born.

Other changes morphed the film industry, including concern for content, antitrust suits, television, worldwide economics, distribution costs and perhaps the most altering metamorphose of all -– new ownership. Gradually the studios fell out of the hands of picture makers and into the hands of Time Warner, Viacom, Sony Corporation, News Corporation and perhaps the most ominous of all, General Electric.

These companies are so extensive that movies make up a relatively small portion of their income. Edward Jay Epstein, in his insightful book, “The Big Picture,” reports: “In 2003 Viacom earned 7 percent of its total income from its movie business; Sony, 19 percent; Disney, 21 percent; News Corporation, 19 percent; Time Warner, 18 percent; and General Electric, if it had counted Universal Pictures as part of its conglomerate that year, less than 2 percent. So while the film business may have held great social, political or strategic significance to each company, it was no longer the principal way any of them made their money.”

According to Epstein, the movies themselves were not the reason for corporate interest. “Even though they lost more than $11 billion in 2003 on movies shown in theaters, they more than made up that deficit from licensing products from those movies to the global home-entertainment market. They have now all come to realize -– as Disney did a half century earlier -– that the value they create lies not in the tickets they sell at the box office but in the licensable products they create for future generations of consumers.”

The subject matter of movies is now of little concern to these mammoth enterprises. Their sole objective is simply getting product available for new venues such as VCR and DVD rental and sales, electronic games, soundtracks, network, cable, satellite and pay TV, the Internet and computer games, retail chains, foreign release, fast-food restaurants and theme parks, toy and clothing manufacturers, etc., as well as future outlets not yet known to the public.

The “Star Wars” phenomenon of the late ’70s also changed the Hollywood landscape. Special effects became the new stars. And special effects just kept improving — a delightful prospect for the highly sought after demographic — teenagers.

The wizardry of George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic studio has replaced actors with special effects as the stars of many a story. Not only does Lucas bombard the audience with the latest in special effects (in scene after scene), but he has manufactured a new menace to the art of acting: computer editing. If the director was not satisfied with a look, expression or grimace in “Phantom Menace,” he found the correct one from another take, or scene, and with the advanced ability to computer cut and paste, he grafted the desired expression onto the actor’s face.

In 2001 computer graphics became so affordable that an entire film, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” could finally be realized. The created-people began to look remarkably like real humans. Three years later, Tom Hanks lent his voice and likeness to “The Polar Express,” which continued the trend of using digital animation to replace actors.

Billions of bucks are to be made -– but not by everyone. Is Hollywood experimenting with computer animation simply for the creativity of it all? Nope. By creating digital stars, the doors open for less expensive licensing than if real people were used. Ah, but they still need actors to provide voices and simulate action that the computer animators need for creating the fake images, right? Yes, but for how long? If actors can be replaced on screen by computer imagery, how much longer will it be before voices also are manufactured? Someday, it won’t be actors getting percentages of the gross, but digital programmers.

It isn’t just actors who face the possibility of replacement. So does the medium they appear on. And when film is ultimately replaced by digital projection within the next few years, say goodbye to projectionists’ jobs, not to mention studio delivery departments who cart reels of film to theaters, and several other occupations as well.

All the while, Hollywood’s citizenry have even less of a social or spiritual focus. The next time you enter a Cineplex, keep in mind that biblical guidelines have not changed and they apply to every part of our lives, including how we entertain ourselves. You think on that, because Viacom and GE won’t.
Phil Boatwright reviews films from a Christian perspective. For further information, go to his website at www.moviereporter.com.

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  • Phil Boatwright