All Those Joe Blows and Jane Does
In movies and markets, real power lies with the unwashed masses
JULY 17, 2014 by ROBERT ANTHONY PETERS
Editor’s Note: Actor Robert Anthony Peters is filling in for columnist Sarah Skwire, who is on vacation.
A few years ago I had a fantastic audition. I didn’t get the role, but I did come across a script that captures a love for markets that is much like mine.
Moonlight and Magnolias by Ron Hutchinson is a farce imaginatively based on the true story of the men who wrote the film adaptation for Gone with the Wind. Let me set the scene.
David O. Selznick, producer, is displeased with what is happening with his script of Margaret Mitchell’s bestselling novel. He pulls the plug and calls into his office Ben Hecht, acclaimed screenwriter, and Victor Fleming, who was, only moments before, directing The Wizard of Oz. He locks them into his office for a marathon work week (five not seven days, as Hecht, an avid union man, was quick to emphasize) to create what would become the brand new script for this cinematic classic.
Clearly, Selznick grasps the concept of sunk costs. As Mises mused in Human Action, “Errors committed in the past in the production of capital goods available today do not burden the buyer; their incidence falls entirely on the seller. In this sense the entrepreneur who proceeds to buy against money capital goods for future production crosses out the past.” In Selznick’s words, “I’m not shooting another foot of film until I have a scenario I can believe in.” Better to scrap production than to continue with something that will not work.
As the week goes on, the audience experiences the mounting stress of the deadline, the close quarters, and a strict diet of peanuts and bananas, which Selznick insisted were “brain food.” At one point, Hecht and Fleming begin to argue about who has the tougher job, the writer or the director. At the peak of their bickering, Selznick interrupts with this monologue:
In the beginning was The Deal. You don’t get to write the words—you don’t get to shout action—until somebody puts the money together. Now that’s an art form. You want to talk about being creative? Take a look at the studio’s books. That’s real imagination. You’re disappointed in me, Ben? It’s a free country, anybody can make the movie they want. You want to make your Gone with the Wind—go ahead—as long as you can raise a million dollars and control the rights. You have a million dollars? You have the rights? No? Then maybe you’re here to help me make the Gone with the Wind I want to make. I pay you to write it the way I want it written and somebody like Fleming to direct it the way I see it. That’s called collaboration.
Selznick clearly captures an appreciation for the division of labor (and one for intellectual property that we can leave aside for now). Again from Human Action: “Experience teaches man that cooperative action is more efficient and productive than isolated action of self-sufficient individuals. The natural conditions determining man’s life and effort are such that the division of labor increases output per unit of labor expended.” Or, as Selznick goes on to say, “I can taste this movie but I need your help to get it on the screen.”
Selznick also expresses admiration for capital investment, which is all but unheard of in Hollywood outside those who provide the capital.
Again, Mises’s Human Action provides support for Selznick:
Yet bare labor produces very little if not aided by the employment of the outcome of previous saving and accumulation of capital. The products are the outgrowth of a cooperation of labor with tools and other capital goods directed by provident entrepreneurial design. The savers, whose saving accumulated and maintains the capital, and the entrepreneurs, who channel the capital into those employments in which it best serves the consumers, are no less indispensable for the process of production than the toilers.
Hooray for the film producers and those who supply the capital for their efforts.
Nearing the end of the script-writing ordeal, the collaborators are truly at their wits’ end. They begin to discuss global politics. Hecht compares studio producers to Hitler and Mussolini and what he perceives as their similar positions of power. Selznick counters by identifying the photograph of a crowd at a film premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, pointing to all the individuals one by one, and summarizing:
You want to talk about power? You know who has the power in the end? The real power? ... All those Joe Blows and Jane Does, the guy with the lunch pail, the broad in the elevator, all those little people who have nothing in common except they go to the movies three or four times a week and every time they go they buy a ticket and every ticket is a vote for my movie or a vote against it. They’re the people who hand out the ulcers, pal, they’re the ones who run this town, the world, they have the power, the real power. Mayer? Me? Hedda Hopper? Gable? We don’t amount to anything if they give us the thumbs down. Princes of Hollywood? America’s royalty? We are down on our knees sucking the collective dick of the Great Unwashed.
It’s a (significantly) coarser version of something Mises described in Human Action:
The direction of all economic affairs is in the market society a task of the entrepreneurs. Theirs is the control of production. They are at the helm and steer the ship. A superficial observer would believe that they are supreme. But they are not. They are bound to obey unconditionally the captain's orders. The captain is the consumer. Neither the entrepreneurs nor the farmers nor the capitalists determine what has to be produced. The consumers do that. If a businessman does not strictly obey the orders of the public as they are conveyed to him by the structure of market prices, he suffers losses, he goes bankrupt, and is thus removed from his eminent position at the helm. Other men who did better in satisfying the demand of the consumers replace him.
Producers are entrepreneurs like anybody else. They rise and fall at the will of the moviegoer.
Variety summed up Moonlight and Magnolias very well, writing, “It’s the hell-bent determination and entrepreneurial insanity of the independent producer to which Hutchinson pays tribute.”
Not only is Moonlight and Magnolias a beautiful tribute to the entrepreneur; it is an homage to markets. An avid theater goer, Mises would have enjoyed it. If it comes to a theater near you, I hope you’ll get a ticket.
And maybe, just maybe, I will finally have gotten cast in it.