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The response to 9/11

19.01.2011

Many Hollywood films became more overtly political in the wake of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but it took Hollywood five years to come to terms with the tragedy itself. Paul Greengrass’s United 93 (2006), which preceded Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center by four months, faithfully and painfully re-creates the events of that dark day, in which the hijacked passengers fought a group of terrorists to bring down their plane over a Pennsylvania field before it could do significant damage elsewhere.

 Despite the emotional subject matter, Greengrass’s direction is a model of restraint, and his use of nonprofessional and unknown actors heightens the realism of the film, which emerges as an effective response to our shared need to understand the motives behind the worst terrorist attack on American soil.

Controversy seems to fuel many films in the post-9/11 era. Michael Moore’s provocative documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) dissected the Bush administration’s reactions to the attacks and its subsequent conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; it became the most profitable documentary of all time. In the same year, actor Mel Gibson used his own money to fund the religious drama The Passion of the Christ, which also generated record returns in the face of apprehensions that the film would spark a rise in anti-Semitism. Actor George Clooney took on the McCarthy era with the technically ambitious Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), which documents the fight of veteran CBS newsman Edward R. Murrow against Senator Joseph McCarthy, a leader of the Cold War anti-Communist witch hunts; the film was an obvious comment on the responsibility of journalists (among others) to speak out against powerful government forces even in an age of fear.

The last thirty-five years of twentieth-century American cinema have given birth to a wide variety of films and filmmakers, with the line between independent films and studio productions often being blurred. In addition, a wave of mergers, corporate takeovers, and buyouts have shaken the industry, starting with Universal’s purchase by the talent agency MCA in 1962, and then moving through Paramount’s takeover by Gulf & Western Industries in 1966. The case histories of several of the major studios during this period exemplify the trend toward hyper-conglomerization, in which the studios became just cogs in a larger wheel of media organizations that controlled vast empires of television, print, and Internet outlets. It was either adapt or perish, and the major companies realized that in changing times they had to ride the new wave of corporate takeovers.

Universal would change hands several times, sold to Japanese electronics giant Matsushita in 1990 and in 1995 to Seagrams, a Canadian liquor distributor. In a head-spinning series of subsequent negotiations, the French media company Vivendi acquired Seagrams in 2000, to become Vivendi Universal. But mounting debt proved too much, and Vivendi sold off Universal’s studio and theme parks to General Electric, the parent company of NBC Broadcasting. Now known as NBC Universal, the studio functions as a production arm for the television network, in addition to making films for theatrical release. Paramount went through an equally turbulent series of corporate identities after its acquisition by Gulf & Western; in 1994 Viacom, owner of the CBS television network, purchased the studio outright. However, Viacom announced in 2005 that it would split into two distinct entities: one for the CBS television and radio networks and another for production of programming, which is now home to Paramount Pictures.

Warner Bros. was purchased by Kinney National Services in 1969 and began concentrating on big-budget co-production deals with major stars of the era, such as Paul Newman, John Wayne, and Clint Eastwood. In the 1980s, Kinney abandoned its other interests, which included a chain of funeral parlors and parking lots, to concentrate solely on film production, and in 1989 merged with Time, Inc., publishers of Time and Sports Illustrated. In 2000, Internet service provider America Online (AOL) took over Time Warner, and the firm was briefly known as AOL Time Warner, but when AOL’s stock took a hit in the dot-com crash, the company became known simply as Time Warner. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation now owns Twentieth Century Fox, after a series of equally Byzantine transactions.

Columbia Pictures was purchased by Coca-Cola in 1982 and announced a new slate of family pictures that would include no R or X rated films; the rule was quickly broken when John Badham’s action drama Blue Thunder and John Carpenter’s horror film Christine both appeared with an R rating in 1983. A complex series of negotiations and alliances followed, until the failure of Elaine May’s multimillion-dollar comedy Ishtar (1987) caused Coke to spin off Columbia Pictures as a stand-alone operation. In 1989, Columbia was sold to Sony.

MGM, once the ruling studio in the business, went through a series of humbling takeovers that stripped it of its film library, which went to media mogul Ted Turner; Turner used the collection as the backbone for his Turner Network Television (TNT) cable channel and later Turner Classic Movies (TCM). Turner had actually owned MGM/UA (MGM bought United Artists in 1981) for a brief time in 1985, but less than three months later he sold back the MGM name and United Artists to financier Kirk Kerkorian, while the famed MGM lot itself, home to studios for nearly a century, was sold to Lorimar Television. More heartbreak followed, as the Italian financier Gian-carlo Paretti purchased MGM/UA, minus the film library; eventually ownership of MGM/UA passed to the European banking firm Crédit Lyonnais because of financial problems, and then Crédit Lyonnais decided to sell MGM/UA again, once more to Kerkorian. In 2004, after a typically complex series of transactions, MGM was sold to a consortium of investors headed by Sony, Providence Equity Partners, and the Texas Pacific Group, resulting in a super conglomerate that now combined MGM, UA, and Columbia all under one corporate umbrella.

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