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Book Review: The Master Switch

Book cover of The Master Switch by Tim WuThe Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires
by Tim Wu

I did not think I would be reviewing this book for this site. After all, this website is about filmmaking, not information empires. But it turns out, one of the central information empires examined in Tim Wu’s gripping history of modern communications is the empire of American moviedom. And Wu argues that the developments in the field of motion pictures have a lot to say about the rise of telephones, radio, television and the internet, and vice versa. In fact, the history of filmmaking in the United States shows both how an industry can fall prey to vicious censorship and how, through the rise of independent voices, that censorship can be broken.

How Restrictive Copyright Created Modern Hollywood

Wu is not the first person to tell the story of how the Edison Trust (that’s ‘Edison’ as in ‘Thomas A.’) drove filmmakers from the East Coast with heavy-handed enforcement of patents. Edison himself was not the first-mover in motion pictures, but thanks to a strong position from controlling the phonograph (audio recording) industry, he and his confederates in the Motion Picture Patents Company were able pool sixteen key patents, forcing would-be filmmakers to pay license fees, and block foreign film imports, which were quite competitive in an era where films were silent.

This is an example of what Wu dubs “the Kronos effect,” after the mythological titan who consumed his own children. You can see the Kronos effect at work all over the place today: it’s what happens when Google or Facebook uses their financial advantage to gobble up a promising start-up rather than worry about being gobbled themselves down the road. Edison and the Film Trust did this with film technology patents, and for a time they forced distributors to buy their films by the foot, with no regard for quality.

A couple upstart producers wanted to break away, and California offered a sunny climate far from the political and legal influence of the Trust. That’s right, Hollywood itself was founded on intellectual property violations. (TCM has an upcoming documentary series called Moguls and Movie Stars about just this chapter of film history.)

How Vertical Integration Led to Censorship

Wu speculates that the independent producers of Hollywood ended up beating the Trust simply because their business model generated much better films. Regardless of why they won, the industry quickly morphed from little independent producers into big Hollywood studios, and the few remaining companies began to consolidate all aspects of the movie business. The main skirmishes were over who would control distribution and exhibition. Hollywood studios would force a theater owner to screen several inferior films in order to rent a print of a big star vehicle from the same studio. Theater owners cried foul at this practice of “block booking” and Hollywood responded by buying their own theaters. Anti-trust actions by the US government would later set limits on this so-called “vertical integration,” but not before The Code came into being.

Wu emphasizes the Production Code (often called the “Hays Code”, after William Hays, President of the MPPDA, a fore-runner of the MPAA) could not have been so effective at censoring Hollywood films had the industry not been so consolidated. If the Legion of Decency, a private group affiliated with the Catholic Church, had had to achieve compliance from hundreds of producers and distributors, the task would likely have proved too difficult. Instead, one man, Joseph Breen, could set up an office and have the scripts for every movie in America funneled through it. Never before or since has one man’s sense of morality so influenced mass media.

The Rise of the Indies

In 1948, the United States Supreme Court sided with an anti-trust action by the Justice Department, declaring Hollywood “an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade” and forbade the Studios from owning theaters, the so-called “Paramount Decree”. This split caused economic turmoil in the industry and old and new models of filmmaking battled through the 1960’s, with idiosyncratic films made with a personal touch competing against cookie-cutter commercial films (something analyzed in the book Pictures at a Revolution using the five nominees for Best Picture in 1968, a watershed year after which the independent voices became predominant).

Wu points out that the pornographic film Deep Throat in 1972 played in the same theaters and made the same kind of money as a studio blockbuster. It was a far cry from the days of the Hays Code. You can argue that the ratings that we have today can be used by MPAA censors to marginalize films. An NC-17 is often considered a commercial kiss of death. However, the fact remains that by forcing exhibition out of the control of the major studios, the Justice Department made room for bold fiilmmakers to deliver films like The Godfather, Bonnie and Clyde, Midnight Cowboy, Chinatown and so on, which never would have been permitted under the heavy-handed Production Code, nor greenlit by studios who didn’t have to compete for audiences by offering new cinematic stories.

The lesson to today’s filmmakers is the same. Wherever the studios aren’t serving audiences, an opportunity exists to both make money and great art. What I learned from reading The Master Switch is that all information empires are doomed to fall eventually (although AT&T seems to have reanimated like a splintered broom in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”). By understanding the mechanisms of the market, an upstart inventor (or filmmaker) can avoid the Kronos Effect and one day wrest control over the megaphone that is the Master Switch.

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The Master Switch comes out November 5, 2010. It can be pre-ordered from Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the insightful review…it sounds as if Edison et al, represented a Goliath and the upstarts in Hollywoodland a David but that once some power was wrested from the Goliath, the David began to grow and look more and more like the parent from whom it had fled…looking forward to The Master Switch.

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