It is impossible to understand the intricacies of how to sell a movie today without understanding how the film industry has developed and changed over the past several decades. And because the history of film distribution is so directly tied to the development of the film industry itself, I thought it might be a good idea to start at the beginning. And so here, gleaned from my studies of Chinese civilization at Yale in the 1960s, is a short history of the world, by Lloyd Kaufman.
A few thousand years ago, God created the heavens, the earth, and, most important, the Chinese. And God so loved the Chinese that he gave them the divine privilege of inventing the motion picture. That’s right, friends—the most important invention of our time was actually developed by the Chinese thousands of years ago. It all began early in the fifth century b.c. when a young, hairless Chinese boy by the name of Sam Levine was born in a manger in Shanghai. There weren’t many Levines in Shanghai, however, and young Sam was better known by the nickname Mo-Ti. What the hell Mo-Ti means, I have no idea. I can only assume the moronic nickname came about because he was a very thirsty child, and everyone knows that Chinese people love tea. My mother used to call me Mo-Popov, so who am I to judge?
Alas, as little Mo-Ti grew up in the slums of Shanghai, he began to notice something strange. Using careful observation, Mo-Ti noticed that when light shined through a small hole in a wall, the image of whatever was in front of that light would be projected, upside down, on the opposite wall. Now, I bet you are scratching your head out there and thinking, “Wha??” But you see, Mo-Ti was a smart little guy, and what he discovered that fateful day would change history in ways that no one could have guessed. Using what he saw, Mo-Ti began to understand properties of light and accurately described a “camera obscura,” which everyone knows is a rare type of obscure Chinese camera.
Now, from this revelation, it was a simple step from still camera to motion picture camera, and Mo-Ti and his Chinese brothers took that step boldly, inventing the modern 35mm film camera in 476 b.c. With this intellectual leap, Chinese society was thrust out of the Dark Ages and into an enlightened period that we now call the Renaissance. When Chinese travelers to Europe first showed the ignorant natives their films, the Europeans were amazed. Word of the magical Chinese moving pictures spread across the land. The Last Temptation of Toxie: The Toxic Avenger Part III became a particular favorite of the Gauls, while the Romans preferred lighter fare such as The Wedding Party, staring Robert De Niro’s great-great-great-greatgreat- great grandfather, Silas De Niro.1 The slow-witted Europeans quickly came to worship the Chinese as gods, which kind of pissed off the real God who had created the Chinese in the first place, but at that point, there was really nothing he could do about it. With Europe, and later the rest of the world, conquered without bloodshed, humanity entered the Golden Millenia, a period of peace and brotherly love that has lasted for more than 2500 years, right up to the modern day, so named because Chinese people like the color gold. All hail Mo-Ti, our lord and savior.
But, of course, none of this really happened. It did get me a D in Chinese History and Culture 1011. I was able to graduate, however, so it can’t be completely untrue. Maybe I should have spent more time studying for my Chinese classes instead of watching movies and frolicking naked with Thomas, my roommate. But then I wouldn’t be the distinguished and respected film director that I am today, so there’s an upside to everything.
There was, in fact, some guy named Mo-Ti who looked in a glory hole and saw an upside-down image on the other side. And anyone who can look in a glory hole and be more interested in the properties of light than the three-inch penis on the other side deserves more than a passing mention here. But unfortunately, there was never any leap from theoretical camera to motion-picture camera, and poor little Sam “Mo-Ti” Levine died, penniless, after choking on some egg foo young. And so it is written.
For the next 2200 years or so, nothing much happened. Some buildings were built, some people were born, some people were killed. Zoos were created for the entertainment of the rich, Haiti made a pact with the devil, and lots of Indians were murdered with smallpox blankets. I mean, this was really uninteresting stuff, and I feel like, even in this short paragraph, I have already devoted too much time to it.
And then, finally, after a long period of worthless pursuits, someone decided that the world was kind of a drag. That someone was Thomas Edison, inventor extraordinaire. And so, he started inventing a shit-ton3 of stuff like light bulbs and phonographs and disposable underwear. The guy was a genius! You know why? It wasn’t because he invented stuff like shoelaces and mochaccinos. It was because he paid other people to invent things and then he put his name on them4 and applied for the patents. And once he had the patent, he got all the money. So, of course, Edison was mafia-like with his patents. He was the James Cameron of his day! Which actually makes his invention of the Kinetoscope all the more interesting. Let’s get it out of the way up front that Edison did not actually invent the Kinetoscope, which is Greek for “magic box that you can watch porno clips in.” But he put his famous name on the patent and that’s all that really matters. That is, he put his name on the U.S. patent. For some bewildering reason, unbeknownst to me or www.edisonfunfactsforkids.com where I am getting the bulk of this information, Edison neglected to get an international patent for his one-man proto-film projector. Now, you may be thinking to yourself, “Wow, that Edison guy was a real dummy! How did he ever manage to invent Cadbury Eggs and umbrellas?” But you would be wrong. Cadbury Eggs weren’t even invented in America. I would think if you, dear reader, were an expert in anything, it would be Easter chocolate. I mean, as a self-loathing Jew, even I know a little something about Easter food. Frankly, I’m a little disappointed in you.
Regardless of his reasons, the fact that Edison had no legal claim on the Kinetoscope in any place other than the United States was actually a boon5 to the motion picture industry that was about to be born. This freedom meant that other people, some of them even smarter and more passionate about film than Edison, were able to tinker and improve on Edison’s invention. What began as one dude paying 25¢ to jerk off to Annabelle Whitford Moore’s Butterfly Dance became hundreds of people at a time paying $12.50 to jerk off to Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. See how great technology is?
We’re Going to the Jersey Shore , Bitch !
Here’s a fun fact for you: Do you happen to know where Thomas Edison, the grandfather of the film industry, chose to build his empire? New Jersey! Not New York or Los Angeles, but lovely New Jersey. His state-of-the-art film studio, the Black Maria, stood on what is today Toxie’s shack. In fact, Michael Herz and I had such great respect for Thomas Edison that we decided to establish our own empire of Tromaville in New Jersey. It wasn’t because we liked the smell of garbage and despair or because stuff is cheaper over there. Certainly not! It was because we wanted to honor the proud history and legacy of Thomas Edison. Being able to claim Snooki was just a bonus! Forget Los Angeles—New Jersey is where it’s at, bitches.
Now that I think about it, however, Thomas Edison was kind of a dick. As the inventor of the modern power grid, he electrocuted animals to prove that AC current was more dangerous than the DC current that he was selling.6 He also founded the company that would become General Electric, which became a megaconglomerate corporation that seeks to control all media, even the stuff that no one pays attention to, like NBC. And NBC fired Conan O’Brien, who is fantastic. So you know what? On second thought, fuck Thomas Edison too.
Once motion picture cameras and projectors were invented, it was only natural that buildings would spring up to display these amazing marvels called movies. And thus, the movie theater was born. At first, anyone could own a movie theater. All you needed was a little cash and some gumption. There weren’t very many movies to play, so it may not have been the best business investment, but you could do it. When the major studios started coming up, they wanted to get in on the action, so they bought their own theaters. This vertical integration was absolutely perfect—the big studios owned the talent on the screen, the costume and set designers, the costumes and sets themselves, the cameras, the editing equipment, the editors, the cafeterias, the musicians, the press relations, and, finally, the theaters. Now, at this point, keep in mind that most people could not go out and make their own damn movie. There were no small, cheap cameras like there are today, and there were no computers on which to edit. So the major studios made all the movies, and then they showed them in the theaters that they owned. It just sucked for anyone else who owned a theater or anyone who didn’t want to work for the studio boss. You know who else didn’t like it? The U.S. government. Apparently, it was illegal.
The United States v. Paramount Pictures, Inc, in 1948, changed everything. The Supreme Court decided that the major studios could no longer own movie theaters. They also couldn’t force the owners of other theaters to buy and show a bunch of shitty movies for every decent one. This decision didn’t just change which movies were shown in what theater—it actually contributed to the destruction of the studio system. When a studio could no longer count on a theater having to play its cheap movies, it had to start being a little more selective about the movies it chose to make. This led to higher production costs. Within a few years, the era of the major studio was over, and the rise of the independents had begun. And that is when I, Lloyd Kaufman, became a man.
A Glimpse of Realty
I am sitting in an Irish pub on 23rd Street. The music is loud and a large group of frat boys is causing loud havoc at a table near me. I glance up and make eye contact with one of them. He smiles at me. I smile at him and nod my head slightly. He knows I am one of them. My co-writer, Sara, scribbles furiously in a notebook, straining to capture every word of brilliance that I am spilling. I sip my vodka tonic.
“That’s great,” says Sara. “I can probably get part of the first chapter from your Chinese stuff.”
“Great, great,” I say, pleased with myself. This book is going to be a breeze. “So, what more do you need?”
“Well,” Sara pauses. “I guess if you just talk a little bit about how to sell a movie?”
I put down my vodka tonic. “You can’t sell a movie these days. It’s all fucked.”
“Well, yeah,” she says. “But I mean just something about how to sell a movie today, since you’ve talked about the history.”
“It’s impossible! The whole thing is fucked. We can’t even sell Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead, on which we spent $500,000. We haven’t made a cent on it!” I’m getting really worked up now, which I think is getting the frat boy across the aisle a little excited. “How is someone supposed to sell a movie when the theaters are tied to major megaconglomerate corporations that own everything. Poutlrygeist played in one theater in New York for what, two weeks?”
“A week and a half, actually. Indiana Jones opened on Wednesday and kicked out your fowl movement.”
“That’s right! We were the highest-grossing screen in the country, but no matter how well you do, they’ll kick you out for Step Up 2: The Streets.
“Damn right, yeah. Did you want to get an appetizer?”
There is silence at our table. I take another sip of my vodka. A Chinese woman walks up to me holding a handful of DVDs.
“Movies, movies,” she says, hauntingly.
I brush her away.
“DVD. Movie,” she says again as she wanders away.
I take another sip.
“Maybe I should have seen what she had,” I say, jokingly. Suddenly, I am hit with inspiration. I slam the glass of vodka down.
“That’s what this book should be!” I exclaim, triumphantly.
“Hmm?” says Sara.
“Piracy. Anticopyright. That’s the future!”
I sip my vodka, and I wink at the frat boy.