The Firm

The Firm
Unrisky Business

Mark Wallace | 11 Oct 2005 08:03
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But the fact remains that while EA may, from time to time, produce the sleeper gem like Black & White, its apparent goal is to hit on the secret alchemical formula, the unfailing recipe that will enable it to turn brain-sweat and database tears into gold every time. Blockbuster after blockbuster, bringing EA yet more scads of cash, enabling the company to either fund a few more of those innovative little games or just look the other way entirely, thumb the Hit Stick and flatten the competition.

It's a lot like a big movie studio, in that sense. Or anyway, a big movie studio of 25 years ago - around the time Heaven's Gate was released.

I hear someone groaning in the back of the lecture hall. Fear not. I'm not about to tell you games are as important as movies and should be accorded the same due (though that's true, at this point, more or less). Games get compared to movies all the time - they're as popular as movies, we're told, they're as engaging as movies (or more, in many cases), they may or may not represent the next step in narrative entertainment, and some feel they offer better value for the buck. But what's often glossed over in these comparisons, however accurate or inaccurate they may be, are the parallels between the industries themselves, not at the level of design and development, which is usually what interests gamers (and where there are indeed striking similarities), but at the level of money and decision-making power.

The two industries haven't evolved exactly in parallel, but it's worth looking at what's happened in Hollywood to get a sense of where EA fits into what's happening in gaming. Because the truth is, we may not have as much to fear from EA as we think.

Unlike the gaming industry, the movies were controlled by cigar-chomping moguls from the beginning. Warsaw native Schmuel Gelbfisz got his start in the garment business in New York before going on - as Samuel Goldwyn - to found the company that would later become Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, aka MGM. Early on, someone got the idea that movies were glamorous. People wanted to be a part of the industry not just because they loved movies, but because some of the glamor of the movies rubbed off on anyone who was involved.

The moguls held on for decades, producing movies, good and bad. Some, like Irving Thalberg, were movie men from the beginning. Others, like Goldwyn and Harry Cohn, who was a pool shark and streetcar conductor before founding Columbia Pictures, got their start in very different businesses.

The end of the movie moguls is commonly dated to 1963, with the Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton epic, Cleopatra. Beginning with a $2 million budget, the production eventually ended nearly $50 million later, and three years behind schedule.

Cleopatra ended the age of epics, but it was only a matter of time before they were back. Before that could happen, though, the 1970s saw the rise of deep, personal, character-driven movies that were emphatically the embodiment of a director's vision, rather than a producer's desire for dance numbers and expensive costumes. The Best Picture Oscar winners of the decade, every one of them, are among the best pictures ever made (in this reviewer's opinion): Patton, The French Connection, The Godfather, The Sting, The Godfather Part II, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs. Kramer. Even the losers were great: M*A*S*H, A Clockwork Orange, Deliverance, Chinatown, Jaws, Taxi Driver, Star Wars, Dog Day Afternoon and many more.

It was The Deer Hunter that turned out to be the problem. It was The Deer Hunter - directed by Michael Cimino - that convinced United Artists, and Cimino himself, that the new age of the epic was at hand. All you had to do was give a great director unbridled control over their films - as the producers of earlier years had had over theirs - and you could spin celluloid into gold.

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