AFI ( Again)

Kino International Corporation (kinoint@infohouse.com)
Thu, 2 Jul 1998 17:04:40 -0500

I should have posted this weeks ago but I was busy ranting on two other
listserves about the AFI list. I think this is the best article by far.

The Chronicle of Higher Education, June 12, 1998, page B8

A Eulogy for Hollywood Cinema
By Robert C. Allen

Even though I've taught American film history for the past 20 years or
so (or maybe because of that fact), I won't be among the tens of
millions of people the American Film Institute hopes will be watching a
three-hour CBS special on June 16, during which Brooke Shields,
Sylvester Stallone, Ben Stiller, and other Hollywood legends will
announce the institute's definitive list of America's 100 Greatest
Movies (check your local listings for time and station).

By the same token, I won't be joining many of my colleagues in academic
cinema studies the following morning when they zip off e-mail screeds to
the cinema-studies listservs denouncing the A.F.I. for producing a list
that is transparently self-serving, excludes all documentaries and
experimental films and almost all independent feature films, and just
happens to coincide with the release of the winning 100 films on video
by the Hollywood studios that collaborated with the A.F.I. to produce
the list.

There is so much to dislike about this whole enterprise that I'm sure my
e-mail rant won't be missed. Maybe I could muster more of a sense of
professional and moral outrage if the whole thing weren't so
predictable, given the A.F.I.'s well-known (at least within film
studies) and long-standing commitment to cheerleading for Hollywood.

Even though you'll have to wait until next week for the institute's
blue-ribbon panel of experts to tell you whether the films you most like
are really good or not, you can already find out which films _won't_
make the list. The institute's World-Wide Web site
(http://afi.100movies.com/) provides a list of the 400 American films
from which the winners were chosen. That larger list was culled, we are
assured, by A.F.I. historians, whose chief criterion was that all the
films be feature-length (that is, more than 60 minutes) fictional
narratives.

The list therefore excludes all documentaries and non-narrative films,
and- because the feature film did not become standard until the 1910s-
virtually all of American film history before 1912. 1 guess calling the
television special The A.F.I. Presents One Way You Might Choose What Are
Arguably the Best 100 American Feature-Length, Fictional, Narrative
=46ilms Made Since 1912 wouldn't fit in the TV Guide listing.

The criteria seem also to exclude all films not made in English, but
they do not exclude films made outside the United States, as long as
they involved significant creative elements and/or financial support
from this country. This allows the A.F.I. to claim as American such
films as A Clockwork Orange, Chariots of Fire, Tom Jones, and The
English Patient. Those are not hypothetical examples; they are actually
on the Top 400 list. I wonder: Will the Japanese Film Institute make
Godzilla (the American Godzilla) eligible for its list of the best 100
Japanese films of all time because Sony owns the studio that made the
movie?

Among the other A.F.I. criteria for selecting the Top 100 are a movie's
popularity over time as measured by box-office receipts adjusted for
inflation; revenue from television broadcasts and syndication, as well
as from home-video sales and rentals; and awards from cinema
organizations and major film festivals. I suppose those last two
criteria explain why- according to the A.F.I's list- the first seven
years of the 1990s produced more excellent American movies than were
made between 1912 and 1930: Hollywood didn't get around to serious
self-congratulation until 1927 (the first year of the Oscars), and video
rentals were pretty slow in the silent-film period. This gives Pretty
Woman a real edge.

The actual selection of the 100 greatest films was made by a
"blue-ribbon panel" made up of "more than 1,500 influential artists and
executives in the film community," the A.F.I. says. The voters included
actors, directors, screenwriters, producers, talent agents- it's a long
list, with "film critics" and "film scholars" appearing near the bottom
and, presumably, accounting for only a handful of the 1,500 voters. If
this contest were a movie, film scholars would appear in the credits
somewhere between "Animals trained by..." and "Any resemblance to any
person living or dead...." To make sure that the judgments of film
scholars didn't weigh too heavily on the outcome, "the public" is
represented by randomly selected A.F.I. "national members"- that is,
subscribers to the institute's magazine- one each from the 50 states and
Washington. And President and Mrs. Clinton and Vice-President and Mrs.
Gore have been invited to vote as well, which the A.F.I. explained was
appropriate "given their roles as leaders of the nation that most
influences the world with its movies."
This is going to give Jay Leno fodder for his monologue on June 16:
"Hey, did any of you catch the CBS special tonight on the Top 100
American films of the last century? President Clinton was one of the
voters, but, unfortunately, his ballot had to be thrown out: He was
supposed to vote for 100 different films, but he voted for Fatal
Attraction 100 times."

No doubt, some of my younger cinema-studies colleagues, as well as
academics in other disciplines with an interest in film, will be
incensed by the list's equation of American cinema with mainstream,
commercial, Hollywood film making. Others will understandably resent a
selection process that is the equivalent of asking the Beef Council to
compile a list of the 100 all-time best recipes and that credits film
scholars and talent agents with equal critical acuity.

What is especially galling to some of my colleagues in film studies who
are old enough to have dealt with the A.F.I. for most of its 30 years is
the prospect of anyone's thinking that the institute's proclamation of
the 100 greatest American films means that it somehow must have earned
the right to speak on behalf of academic film culture in the United
States. Let's just say that most scholars of film would not list
credibility on the Top 10 list of the A.F.I's strongest assets. Many of
us think it wouldn't take a three-hour CBS special to showcase Thirty
Years Of A.F.I. Contributions to Film Culture.

But I gave up railing against the A.F.I. a decade or so ago. What I find
fascinating about this whole process- the list, its announcement on a
television special, its use as a marketing tool to sell videotapes, its
elaboration as a TNT cable series, and its promotion on a Web site- is
that it can be read as an unintended, but effective, eulogy for the very
form of entertainment that it sets out to celebrate. In other words:
Hollywood cinema is dead.

Now, before you (and the A.F.I.) start whining that this is
self-evidently not the case, let me explain what I mean. For 80 years-
from roughly 1910 until the late 1980s- the principal business of the
Hollywood film studios was making movies for movie theaters. But by
1987, non-theatrical, so-called "ancillary markets" provided fully
one-half of studio revenues; by 1990, studios received $3.2-billion from
video sales alone. As late as 1980, domestic box-office receipts
represented 80 per cent of studio revenue; by 1992, the box office was
good for no more than 25 per cent. By the early 1990s, Jack Valenti, the
film industry's long-time chief cheerleader and lobbyist, had started
speaking of theatrical exhibition not as the core business of the film
industry, but rather as a "platform to other markets."

Of those "other markets," video rentals and sales clearly have become-
forgive the term- paramount, equaling all other sources of revenue
(including that from movie theaters and broadcast, cable, and
pay-per-view television) combined. In 1996, the U. S. box-office take
for domestic films was approximately $5.9-billion. Yet that year, U.S.
consumers spent $8.7-billion renting videos and an additional
$7.6-billion buying recorded videotapes. Theatrical distribution of
movies accounted for only 23 per cent of American movie studios'
domestic revenue that year, while video sales accounted for more than 55
per cent.

=46urthermore, with the value of licensed merchandise (those Titanic
commemorative plates and Godzilla bedroom slippers) now dwarfing that of
the theatrical-film business, George Lucas is in the product-licensing
business as much as he is in the film-making business. The Star Wars(tm)
films function as part of a complex corporate strategy, the goal of
which is to keep the Star Wars(tm) license viable as a merchandising
asset indefinitely. Each Star Wars(tm) film becomes the basis on which
old licenses for related consumer items can be renewed and from which
new licenses can be harvested. A pajama manufacturer once astutely
assayed An American Tail: Fievel Goes West, an animated film produced by
Steven Spielberg, by saying: "We think American Tail will be strong in
sizes 2-7."

Increasingly, what film companies (or the companies that operate them)
own as assets are licenses or brands, and what they control, attempt to
control, or leverage is access to the markets where those licenses and
brands can be exploited. They are no longer in the film business or the
television business or even, arguably, the entertainment business but,
rather, in the business of "synergistic brand extension." As Disney's
Michael Eisner put it: "If you don't have synergy, you have nothing but
new products.... If you have synergy, it goes on and on."

But, obviously, the movies aren't dead, and the first two weeks,
especially, of a motion picture's release to movie theaters continue to
exercise considerable economic and symbolic influence. To stand the
words of the cultural theorist Walter Benjamin on their head, in a way,
what the movies continue to possess as a lingering residue of their
connection with old-fashioned cinema culture is the promise of creating
an aura for products, people, and experience- that is, of elevating them
above the level of the quotidian and the mere commodity.

Hollywood and the A.F.I. still want to claim that the movies are the
original, authentic experience, in relation to which licensed products
and videotape copies are souvenirs. Or, to put it another way, the
movies desperately try to retain the power to enchant, to transform
human beings into celestial bodies, labor into dream work, agglomerated
corporations into magic factories, the release of run-of-the-mill (if
indictably expensive) movies into "events." This enchantment is the
"value" that is added by the embodiment of a licensable asset in a film
and that distinguishes the A.F.I.'s list of the greatest American films
from a list of the 100 best interstate-highway rest stops.

The delicious irony, of course, is that a movie theater is the one place
you won't be able to see any of the A.F.I's 100 greatest American films
of the past century. The hype about the list is in support of a tv
special, a cable series, and, most of all, rerelease of these films for
sale on videotape. If you want to catch Citizen Kane as a result of
seeing the A.F.I. special on the 16th, rush to your nearest Wal-Mart,
not your local multiplex. I'll be watching Godzilla in those Taco Bell
commercials.

Robert C. Allen is a professor of American studies, history, and
communication studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel
Hill. He is the co-author, with Douglas Gomery, of Film History: Theory
and Practice (McGraw-Hill, 1985).

=A9 1998 The Chronicle of Higher Education

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