The Movie Business Book, 4th Edition
edited by Jason E. Squire

This textbook opens with an unsupported claim: “More historic change has occurred in the movie business recently than in any decade since the coming of sound.” Perhaps it has, but I think competition from television in the 1950’s or the shift in the studio system in the 1960’s, or the coming of blockbuster economics in the 1980’s were larger historic changes than the addition of sound. But anyway, yeah, the internet has changed some things. Anyway, this book’s strength is not in telling movie history.

Even if the book’s introduction does not make a strong a case for why the pages that follow are worth reading, I will attempt to point out the elements in its pages that filmmakers may find useful. The Movie Business Book is best used to get a Rashomon-style view of the industry. Each chapter in the book is written by a real filmmaker, and the roster includes some heavy-hitter names: Doug Liman, Jay Duplass, Kevin Feige, David S. Goyer, Alan Horn, Harold L. Vogel, Linda Benjamin, David V. Picker and more. They give their own specific vantage point, from which a larger picture begins to emerge.

This book is ideal for people who are interested in the movie business, but who are unsure of what area to focus on. As you read through, you may find yourself drawn to the descriptions of producing or screenwriting or distributing. It focusses more on the business side than the “creative” side, so you won’t find essays from cinematographers or editors or costume designers.

The Chapters

Producing/Directing (I Resent The Section Titled ‘The Creators’ Did Not Include Screenwriters)

Michael London provides a dry but informative overview of the responsibilities of an entrepreneurial producer, the type of producer who finds a movie story, secures the rights, hires a screenwriter and shops the property to financiers.

Director Doug Liman sketches out the duties of a director on both an independent film and a studio movie. He drops some nice bits of wisdom along the way. “No decision has greater impact than casting,” he advises. He works long days but warns: “Sleep deprivation is a form of torture.” Perhaps surprisingly, he views studio executives and even marketing teams as valued collaborators. “Filmmaking is a team sport.” While you should be open to good ideas, he does say you should stick with your gut in the end, hinting that he threatened to walk during the filming of The Bourne Identity.

Jay Duplass talks about finding his voice as a filmmaker. (He and his brother started out wanting to imitate the Coen Brothers.) “Our advice? Make movies, not meetings.” This advice is repeated many times in the short article, which feels like it might have been repurposed from a film festival keynote speech. (But it’s still worth reading.)

Screenwriting/Story

Screenwriter David S. Goyer goes through his working methods. I was expecting something with a bit more pizzazz from a writer, but it clearly communicates his process. He has some good advice about breaking down studio notes into three categories: good notes you can implement, good or neutral notes that are lower priority and notes you strongly disagree with.

Screenwriter Manager Jewerl Ross talks about the philosophy of developing film projects from the manager’s side. Managers always feel the need to make the case that they add value beyond what an agent provides, and this essay is no different. (Not all screenwriters have managers.) Ross talks about the power of passing in a negotiation, which can be counter-intuitive to a writer (or director or actor, etc.) who is desperate to work.

Universal SVP of Story, Romy Dworman, lays out how a development or story department runs. Dworman recommends several websites, including johnaugust.com, for a broader view.

Lit manager Joel Gotler talks about intellectual property rights for books, video games, news articles and screenplays and how they are secured to adapt into a movie. I liked this essay because it uses actual numbers. For example, did you know audiobook rights typically sell for $5000-$15000?

Financing (aka Money)

Peter J. Dekom, an entertainment lawyer, addresses where the profit lies in the movie business. The major studios used to make as much as a 100%+ return, but are now down to 10-25%. That’s averaging over a number of years, because the business is risky. A studio could easily lose 20% or more in a given year. What the heck are tax incentives, and why do studios structure so many films around them? This is actually a big part of how they make money at present.

Market Analyst Harold L. Vogel writes from the perspective of someone researching a stock. To him, what makes a movie company valuable is “management of failure and risk.” He has his own book, so the article is brief. But it ends with a diagram of the interrelationships between various media companies which would be useful to any entertainment journalist.

Management

Alan Horn, the Walt Disney Studios honcho, formerly Warner Bros. Entertainment president and COO, provides a mix of a shareholder presentation and a Harvard Business School speech. His motto is “Always tell the truth,” or, more colorfully, “Hit them with the fish in the face.” He believes the script phase is critical both creatively and financially. After a movie goes into production, a studio has much less control over the final result.

Kevin Feige works alongside Horn, managing Disney’s Marvel Studios. He says, “Director and casting can be the most important decisions made on a movie” and argues that Marvel doesn’t cast movie stars. Right. He provides an overview of how Marvel Studios has developed their interlocking Cinematic Universe.

Retired movie exec David V. Picker breaks down how the dollar you pay at the box office gets divvied up among profit participants in a film. He laments how the business has changed since the days of United Artists: “Today it’s really not a motion picture business; it’s a product business.”

Barbara Boyle, former president of Sovereign Pictures (My Left Foot, Cinema Paradiso, discusses the independent side of the business. She gives an overview of the history of independent film companies, including another angle on the history of United Artists. I recommend reading this one before you read Picker.

Dealmaking

Linda Lichter is a top entertainment lawyer. Her chapter walks through the duties of an entertainment lawyer, including negotiation, contract review, working with agents and managers, and profit structures.

Business Affairs are the people at movie studios who deal with contracts. Stephen M. Kravit has worked on both sides of contract negotiations, as an agent and as a business affairs exec. He has seen the cycle where short-form deal memos become cumbersome long-form contracts and then go back again.

What happens if a movie gets into trouble during production? A completion bond ensures that someone will step in to finish the movie so there is something to sell, or pay back investors some of their losses if the movie never gets made. Completion guarantors are mainly used on the independent side, says insurance guy Steve Mangel. This article is dry, but worth reading if you plan to produce a film at a high-enough level to need a completion bond.

Agent and producer Jessica Tuchinsky takes you from the mailroom up through the ranks of a traditional Hollywood agency. The focus is mainly on being an agent for acting talent.

Production

Hollywood journeyman Michael Grillo talks about the type of producers who actually get their hands dirty: UPMs and Line Producers. As befitting the job, it contains some very useful lists of key steps in the filmmaking process.

Allen Kupetsky, 2nd AD on The Social Network runs down the duties of the Director’s Guild members: Assistant Directors & Unit Production Managers. It contains a facsimile of a scene from the shooting script of The Social Network along with production breakdown documents that correspond to it.

Marketing

Warner Bros. marketing VP Blair Rich walks through the job of a studio marketing department. She lays out a lot of options, but there is no secret sauce to be found in the article. If you want more movie marketing theory and illustrative stories, I recommend “The Cobra” in The New Yorker by Tad Friend.

Kevin Goetz, CEO of Screen Engine/ASI, covers the topic of movie market research from the researcher’s perspective. Much of this material overlaps with Rich’s, but Goetz does offer some further historical context.

Steve Montal, educator and producer, tackles the subject of Film Festivals and Markets. This is a really solid breakdown of how to pick festivals and craft a festival strategy; highly-recommended reading for independent filmmakers.

Revenue Streams

Former Relativity Media exec Linda Benjamin talks about release windows and the problems with old windows models in the age of online, available-worldwide content. The breakdowns of the different distribution platforms are brief, but it is clear that Benjamin knows her stuff.

Forensic accountant Ilamn Haimoff tackles studio accounting. Rather than talk about real movies (those figures are Hollywood’s best guarded secret) Haimoff provides several made-up examples. These are actually quite instructive, and show a deal that is negotiated slightly differently can make a big difference in profitability. Producers who are in on negotiations with talent and distributors will get a lot from this chapter.

Theatrical Distribution

Warner Bros. exec Daniel R. Fellman talks through a studio distribution org chart. There are some good tidbits in here, including a discussion of marketability vs. playability. Sometimes studios know they have a movie audiences will like, but they can’t figure out a way to market it to take advantage. The chapter ends with ranking of the top 50 North American film markets (#1. New York, #2. Los Angeles, #3. Toronto).

Tom Quinn, co-president of RADiUS and formerly v.p. Acquisitions at Magnolia Pictures, gives a telegraphic overview of his many jobs in the world of indie film distribution. His advice: Decisions by committee don’t work; go with your gut. Indie producers will find a lot of value in Quinn’s discussions of various deal structures and the incentives it creates for the distributor.

Theatrical Exhibition

Shari Redstone writes about the exhibition business. Her family’s exhibition company, National Amusements, has endured thanks to owning their own real estate, she says, allowing greater flexibility in changing market conditions. She laments US laws against engaging in bribery in foreign markets, even where it is common.

Robert and Greg Laemmle talk about the independent side of exhibition. They make a good point about how internet ticketing has changed the game: “If a specific specialized movie is sold out, the consumer can shop around online for another choice or simply be discouraged from going out to a movie at all. In the days before internet ticketing, if customers arrived at our theatre to find a first-choice film sold out, they would typically opt for a second choice, perhaps discovering a gem.” They don’t do assigned seating, because they want audiences to see trailers for films that can’t afford any other form of advertising.

Home Distribution

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment president, Ron J. Sanders, unpacks the history and current state of home video. iTunes gets a lot of attention. They treat it, in some cases, “almost like a broadcast network” rather than a retailer. Netflix and Amazon are treated similarly.

VHX.TV co-founder and CEO Jamie Wilkinson breaks down online distribution. This is like a really useful blog post, with lots of tips and names of services and strategies.

DIY Filmmaking

Jason E. Squire, editor of the book, returns to talk about DIY models. This is a welcome topic, although a bit out of keeping with the rest of the book, which is more oriented toward the studio system. Squire does a good job of referencing films and books that will let someone interested in this topic dive deeper.

Producer Eric B. Fleischman lays out the job of the low-budget indie producer. He’s done a lot with very little and has a lot of clever tricks for moving up the indie movie ladder. For Making the Movie readers, this is one of the must-read chapters.

Consumer Products

Al Ovadia, CEO of LABS, talks about licensing and merchandising. There isn’t much here for filmmakers until the end, when he briefly discusses how product placement works in films.

World Cinema

Rob Aft, a media finance and distribution consultant, dissects film distribution by market: China, Germany, United Kingdom, France, Japan, Latin America, Russian and Eastern Europe, Spain, Australia & New Zealand, Italy, Benelux and Scandinavia, Korea, Asia (Other), Middle East and South Africa etc.

Film professor Shaoyi Sun provides an overview of the Chinese film industry. Why does China get its own chapter? For very good reason, as it is not only one of the largest world markets, it is one of the fastest-growing.

The Future

Dan Ochiva, founder of NYC Production & Post News, has a very basic breakdown of technical terms and formats. It’s not a particularly forward-looking chapter and probably belongs near the beginning rather than under the heading ‘The Future’.

Overall

This book is kind of a bloated gumbo. You can get more coherent overviews of the business side of movies from Entertainment Industry Economics or Hollywood Economics. However, there are some strong essays about individual jobs, and I can’t think of any other movie book I’ve read that offers such so many unique windows into the studio and executive side of the movie business.

The book comes with a thorough index, so even though it isn’t formatted like a reference book, that might be its best use. I recommend creative filmmakers be at least broadly familiar with the business side. This is a book that will help with that, but also provide a jumping off point if you need to dig further into a particular topic.

If you are on the business side of filmmaking — or aspire to be — then I recommend this book to you without hesitation. It not only provides solid, up-to-date information but also some great role models of top people in the industry. Read up, then come back and help me make a movie!

Full disclosure: This review is unpaid but a copy was provided by the publisher.