Los Angeles and New York are the entertainment capitals of America, but it’s hard to imagine a more dissimilar set of twins. Both claim dominance, which makes for a certain hostility between them, and yet like most twins each is unthinkable without the other.
On the most superficial level, Los Angeles is the undisputed sovereign of Pop Entertainment: motion pictures and television, Top 40 popular music, theme parks, and game shows. New York still holds sway over Elite Entertainment: live music and theater, the price-fixated ”Art World,” publishing — especially publishing. The middlebrow novel published in New York for a readership computed in the tens of thousands will be reshaped in Hollywood for an audience of tens of millions.
This is an important consideration, particularly when we’re calibrating degrees and types of power. The money in Pop is infinitely greater than in Elite, and the size of the money has everything to do with the way in which power is seized, conferred, and exercised.
I make this point to emphasize that comparisons about power in the entertainment world oblige us to set apples side by side with oranges. Once , upon a time, it might have been instructive to compare CBS’ William Paley with, say, a Louis B. Mayer — two ruthless builders of empires predicated on giving the public what it thought it wanted. Today such a comparison doesn’t really work: Holding up Laurence Tisch of the shrunken CBS against Disney’s thrusting Michael Eisner — or even against superagent Michael Ovitz, the paradigmatic Hollywood figure of the ’90s and Mayer’s heir in influence and style — just doesn’t tell us very much.
Which is not to say that New York has lost its clout. Hardly. For if Los Angeles is where ”it” gets done — where film and television and recording deals metamorphose into product — New York is where ”it” gets measured, talked about, pushed into the awareness of the market. New York is the capital of word power: Manhattan decides what gets published, reviewed, gossiped about, broadcast, exposed, previewed. Anyone in any form of entertainment will tell you that the make-or-break is ”word of mouth.” New York is where the mouth chain starts, and at the end of the mouth chain are the platinum albums and the $100 million grosses that make the world go round and keep the game alive.
Every atom of our culture aches to achieve its Warholian moment of fame, but in the entertainment world the hunger is more acute because bankability as well as celebrity is at stake. Those who disburse such moments are the real entertainment powers in New York. Who are they? People with a byline and a following, like syndicated columnist Liz Smith or the editors of People, Rolling Stone, and a handful of journals that commingle celebrity with haute life-style, most particularly Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown, whom I believe to be the most influential media person in entertainment today. Vanity Fair sets the agenda for agenda-setters elsewhere; its ripples surge wide.
Before I get carried away, however, I should note that the only feet at which Brown has been known to grovel have been those of Ovitz. Not long ago Spy published a leaked letter from Brown to the mega-agent requesting an interview on terms that effectively granted him prepublication approval of any article. Pride goeth before the franchise, as they say; to have ”Michael Ovitz Talks!” appear on the cover of a competing journal would represent a serious setback to Vanity Fair’s supremacy. This, along with recurrent rumors that Brown is considering a move to Hollywood, suggests that even as she bestrides her world she recognizes the existence of an even greater world to conquer.
I suppose, in the end, the difference between the two power centers comes down to a nonmonetary distinction between Pop and Elite. New Yorkers never stop letting the rest of the country, the West Coast especially, know how grown-up and cosmopolitan they are, how little time they have for common arts and childish things. You stay home and watch Roseanne, we’ll be at the opera. This condescension toward the world beyond the Hudson is a clever and reasonably profitable con, and wonderful for the self-esteem. So long as New York continues to formulate the social, cultural, and life-style judgments that are accepted as the very definition of the public interest, Los Angeles may be where the money’s made, but it will have to share the throne of perceived power with the city of many waters.
Michael M. Thomas is a columnist for The New York Observer and the author of the novel Hanover Place.