Talking with J.D. Connor
Hopkins alum dishes on the business of show business and why the stories Hollywood tells about itself matter
"Hollywood thinks about capitalism by telling stories about money," writes J.D. Connor, A&S '00 (PhD), in Hollywood Math and Aftermath: The Economic Image and the Digital Recession, an investigation into how financial decisions shape the films we see. Johns Hopkins Magazine caught up with Connor to talk about the business of show business, why the stories Hollywood tells about itself matter, and box-office bombs.
In Aftermath's introduction, you mention that this book and your previous, The Studios After the Studios: Neoclassical Hollywood (1970-20100) (Stanford University Press, 2015), are related in their focus on the economics of the industry, and I'm curious: Were you always planning on taking this kind of long view of movie economics, or did the research for The Studios point you toward this more intense dive into that side? I ask because I think you've been pondering rethinking the role of the studios from the 1970s on for some time.
I didn't plan it. There's an idea in Studios that the way that culture works is through precession: that people and institutions compete for cultural control by trying to get the jump on their competitors. Agents scheme against studios, studios against agents, distributors against content producers and vice versa. For a while, some group of players wins. But it turns out that vision of competition only makes sense if everyone thinks they're playing the same game, if they're thinking one or two moves ahead. And with the Great Recession, everything looked like it might be different. Like precession was beside the point. All of a sudden there was a more foundational question: What makes our business possible? It turns out there had always been a strand of Hollywood moviemaking that was attuned to that problem. It bubbled to the top with the economic collapse, and I wanted to describe it. These are some great movies: Performance, The Untouchables, Déjà Vu, The Big Short.
I ask because, and I mean this as a compliment, Aftermath is a rather insane book: You're tracking the business of moviemaking with the same level of influence tracking that a political reporter would employ following how policy gets shaped into a bill, and similarly wrapping that study inside a larger political and corporate economic picture of the country. What first drew you to recognize that a serious consideration of this business side of the industry required this level of scrutiny to understand better what we see on screens?
I think my favorite book about Hollywood is Lillian Ross's Picture (Da Capo Press, 2002). She got to be the fly-on-the-wall, but she was no stenographer and had a real sense of the interaction between the story of the movie and the story in the movie. She's also one of the greatest writers of American prose. These days, some of the most exciting academic work has been in what we call "media industries studies"—and some of that is deeply embedded, like Kristin Thompson's The Frodo Franchise: The Lord of the Rings and Modern Hollywood (University of California Press, 2007). I would certainly give that kind of work a shot. Still, most of that work assumes that the systems are more important than the individual movies (or TV shows). I disagree. In part because I still care about explaining the movies, and in part because in my account of the industry, creative people make sense of their lives—their work, their craft, the world—through the things they create. And in Hollywood they do it knowing that what they do will circulate widely and well beyond themselves.
That should be enough, right? It's a social theory of the most capital intensive cultural production in human history. But, and this is why the book likely is insane, all that is transpiring in the midst of a reckoning with the advent of big data, with what looks like an endpoint to the liberal democratic project, with the shift of the cultural center away from Hollywood or away from cinema to quality TV or various social media forms. In Studios, I had an idea about cultural change; now I needed an idea about cultural possibility. That idea is tricky, and I formed it by bouncing off the work of philosopher Gilles Deleuze. Well, him and the Chicago School of Economics.
Was there some movie or movies where your suspicions about studios turning films into brand messages came into sharp focus? I ask because reading Studios and Aftermath focuses the brain to be aware of certain things, and like suddenly catching the hidden image in the fractal mall art, once you see how brand messaging sneaks into that heinous term "content," it becomes difficult not to see it.
That's very nice to hear. I learned it at Hopkins, working with Jerome Christensen. I'd come from Harvard, where I'd worked with Stanley Cavell and studied social theory, to pursue similar work with Neil Hertz, Michael Fried, and Walter Benn Michaels. For all of these folks, the world just looked different. Allegory was its native language. There were a group of grad students in the Humanities Center [now the Department of Comparative Thought and Literature] and English Department in the '90s who ended up becoming more serious scholars of cinema and systems—Cathy Jurca, Michael Szalay, Abigail Cheever, Charles Dove, and Cathy Kerr were the most cinema-focused, but plenty of other people had absolutely decisive ideas about how cinema works, such as Dave Wittenberg, Deak Nabers, and Mark McGurl. And then there was Judith Butler's essential piece on Imitation of Life. My first attempt to see how this sort of reading would work was a piece on the great film noir Laura and advertising during World War II, then one on the largely forgotten Cold War movie Conspirator starring Liz Taylor and Robert Taylor. I published a big piece on Braveheart, where I think I figured out how this sort of stuff worked in (what was then) contemporary Hollywood. It took me a number of years to figure out how that allegorical relationship changed over time and to build a properly historical account of what I call Neoclassical Hollywood.
You joined USC in 2016. Has living and working in Los Angeles—on a campus that is, what, maybe six miles from Paramount studios?—provided any change of perspective on your research?
No and yes. The no: Part of the reason USC was eager to have me is that the kinds of questions I ask about how Hollywood works are not that different from the kinds of questions that moviemakers are asking themselves. How can we turn this movie into something more systematic? How do I balance my need to serve the story with my need to make sure I get noticed enough to get another job? The yes is that there are just so many more opportunities to interact with people working in the industry than anywhere else. This summer, for example, we're doing a series for Marvel's 10th anniversary as a studio, and for each of the screenings, Kevin Feige—who is in charge of the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe—and the director are doing a Q&A afterward. So when Feige describes the ways in which they decided to launch the Universe on the back of Iron Man, that story is incredibly useful for me. Not because it is the unvarnished truth but because it's the story the studio tells itself (and others) about itself. Marvel had the rights to hundreds of characters but Iron Man looked like the sort of locomotive that might power what I would say is the single most important innovation in Hollywood storytelling in half a century.
I have to admit, after the Aftermath chapter where you follow Warner Bros. in the 1970s, which uncoils the double helix of studio and national politics and economics during that decade, part of me was kinda/sorta hoping to read an even brief interlude about Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate, the United Artist picture that you mention in passing a few times in Studios because of its "debacle" status. I'm guessing you've thought about this film some, and how does it fit into your understanding of what's going on, politically and economically, with Hollywood during this era?
I have! Stephen Bach was a key executive at UA back in the '70s, and his book Final Cut (Trafalgar Square, 1996), about the making of Heaven's Gate, is one of the great books about Hollywood filmmaking. It opens with an amazing description of TransAmerica's CEO telling Bach how the logo will change now that TransAmerica is going to assert its dominance. Bach is at a loss to explain, convincingly, why the logo matters, but he knows, somehow, that it definitely does. The movie is important in another way, too. Hollywood always makes flops—always has, always will. Usually, those have individual consequences: producers lose their jobs, directors go to "director jail," actors have to find work in smaller movies. But with Heaven's Gate, the story became an industry-wide parable about the dangers of directors as a group. It was another building block in the studios' reassertion of power. There was a longer version of the Heaven's Gate material in Studios but it got left on the cutting room floor. That book was long enough as it was.
Why does it seem like the bulk of what we call box-office bombs have happened in the past 20 years? Like, since 1998, at the tail end of the '90s boom and when the Fed lowered the interest rate, and when films such as Beloved, Hard Rain, and Sphere tanked spectacularly, we've read a lot about how so many films have lost huge sums of money. What gives?
Almost every summer I teach a course called Blockbusters and Bombs, which tries to answer this question. And as part of it, every student has to construct a flopography—a case study of a particular disaster. I've learned that there are as many ways for a movie to fail as there are movies. It's been great. The history of Hollywood flops is long and distinguished, so I don't know that it's concentrated in the 21st century. What is different is the media coverage of box office. I'd say the pivot comes in the 1970s when Variety stopped reporting rentals—what the studios actually received from exhibitors—and started reporting box office—a larger number that has only a vague relation to rentals in any given week. Once Hollywood's business became its own kind of theater it could become an essential part of its marketing. I bet you know what movie was tops at the box office last week. That's on purpose. As a result, though, flops become more public. Think how odd that is: Almost no one knows which car models are underperforming, which aisle at Staples isn't pulling its weight, how Campbell's soups are doing. But we think we know a lot about how Hollywood works—we certainly feel that way when we see a terrible movie. We can all say, with some mix of indignation and wonder: How did that get made? (A plug: that is the title of a terrific podcast.)
But there is another reason why flop stories are attractive: These are stories of economic or aesthetic justice—or even both mashed together. In the last chapter of Math and Aftermath I try to look at stories of accountability, particularly the story of the Great Recession in which essentially no one was held accountable: Wolf of Wall Street, Equity, Blackhat. In Hollywood today, the theater of blame for a movie's failure is great compensation for a broader economic and political system in which malefactors of great wealth get away with it. That's largely symbolic justice, but at the same time, Hollywood is also at the leading edge of the search for some real justice in the shape of the #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite campaigns.
What are you working on now or turning to next?
I have a couple of longer projects in the works that will take time. One big project is about world building. This is a hot topic in media studies, but it tends to be restricted to those sorts of texts that are somehow more about their worlds than others—Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, various genre exercises. I want to come at it from a different way and look at how films understand the very ideas of world and of building. These are big old Heideggerian ideas and my crucial example is Terrence Malick, who translated Heidegger's Essence of Reasons, his great text on the idea of world, and who has worked throughout his career with the remarkable production designer Jack Fisk. This is my usual hyper-literal, hyper-abstract approach. The second project is about the history of tape recording, from World War II to Watergate and the Walkman. In the Hollywood books I have been making the case for some aesthetic objects that might not seem to deserve the attention: The In-Laws, Ferris Bueller, Pacific Rim. I want to turn to some objects that obviously deserve it: Glenn Gould's tape documentaries, Janet Malcolm's journalism, the Nixon tapes.
Those will take a while. In the meantime, I want to finally do something smaller. On Twitter, I did a joke-by-joke analysis of Michelle Wolf's astonishing White House Correspondents Dinner routine that people liked. I think I might put a version of that together with a couple other pieces about contemporary comedy form in a little book. And I have an idea for a tiny book about those crazyboards you see where people use pictures and clippings and string to figure out conspiracies. We'll have to see.