Gone Hollywood

Last updated : 27 July 2007 By Editor
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Association football is older than the movies, but not by much. A mere thirty years separates the 1863 founding of the FA, and the establishment of the Black Maria "Kinetographic Theater", the world's first commercial film production studio, in East Orange, New Jersey. You can credit that to the British, too; although officially the creation of Thomas Edison, it was really the brainchild of his assistant, the Anglo-Scottish William Dickson. And on the face of it, that was as much as the two had in common (unless you count the connotations of police vans.) Football became the world's most popular sport; cinema, the world's most popular artform. And, of course, the most profitable. The question of profit, perhaps, explains why their histories for many years appeared so different - and why, with hindsight, they are starting to show curious parallels.

Football has, since the inception of the modern game, been about many things: entertainment; civic, regional or national pride; politics, and political interference (just ask the Catalans about Barcelona and Real Madrid, or watch the BBC's excellent documentaries on both communist and fascist manipulation in the game). Anyone looking for an age of innocence in football will be hard pressed to find one. Not only violence, but corruption (hello, Arsenal), subterfuge and prejudice are as old as the FA itself. Not that the FA itself would be guilty of any of those things, of course. Ahem.

Cinema, on the other hand, was all about money, always. How could it have been otherwise, with Edison behind it? Edison was as ruthless a capitalist as he was ingenious an inventor. Here was a man who successfully lobbied to have electric chairs powered by a competitor's Alternating Current installed in New York State prisons - in order to associate AC in the public mind with death and danger, and improve the prospects of his own, inferior Direct Current system. He would no doubt have approved of Roman Abramovich... but that's to get ahead of ourselves.

The point is, cinema was dictated by commercial imperatives right from the get-go. Art, and artistry, those were all very well; and they got a look-in because, after all, somebody had to make the stuff. But in Hollywood, cinema's power base and symbolic centre, the dollar was king. Football, meanwhile, had other concerns. Money always mattered. A lot. You couldn't do without it. But there were also rules. (Stupid, counter-productive rules, sometimes; rules to be bent by those influential enough to get away with it, often. But rules, nonetheless.) And traditions. Allegiances. Ties that could not simply be dispensed with if they became inconvenient. Money was a big thing. But it wasn't the only thing, the way it was in Hollywood.

As Scarface (Al Pacino's, rather than Paul Muni's) could tell you, in a realm unfettered by such rules and customs, money and power go hand in hand. Each enables you to obtain, and keep, the other. Whereas in a realm where such rules do apply, you can tell how effective they are by just how much power money can buy you, and just how much money power can bring you.
If there were, purely for the sake of argument, a rule about who constitutes a "fit and proper person" to own a football club, then one might expect this rule to be enforced in the cases of, say, a hypothetical oligarch with vast wealth of dubious provenance; or an equally hypothetical businessman with a history of malfeasance, gouging and unsavoury double-dealing.

For a long time, Hollywood abided by no rules other than its own. Unless you count the Hays Code - product of one of those moral panics that intermittently convulse society and invariably lead to some kind of prissy edict being handed down in appeasement - which governed the content of movies from 1930 to 1966. But that merely affected what happened on the screen. And as long as the cash kept flowing, nobody (nobody with money and power, that is, so nobody who mattered) was too bothered. Behind the scenes, throughout what is now called its Golden Age, Hollywood was red in tooth and claw. The mighty prospered, the weak went to the wall. There was a name for this: the studio system.

Becoming a power in the studio system was all about being in the right place at the right time. The big five - MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros, Fox and RKO - were well placed to take advantage when, in 1927, sound came in and the audience for movies mushroomed. They didn't just make the films; they owned the stars that appeared in them, and the cinemas that showed them. They controlled the operation from top to bottom. It was like being a club with a large stadium and big-name players at the moment when Sky and the Premiership changed the economics of the English game. Them that had, got more. Them that didn't, got screwed.

The part about owning the stars is crucial, and the similarity to football contracts notable. If you wanted to be on the big screen, you indentured yourself to one of the big studios. And that was it. You were theirs. You would make movies only for them, unless they saw fit to loan you to another outfit. If you didn't play the game for them, you didn't play it all. There was no indie cinema circuit - no lower leagues for journeyman free agents, if you like - to speak of.

The studio system lasted only two decades; and it was destroyed not by outside forces, but by internal greed. Howard Hughes - yep, that Howard Hughes - possessed a vast fortune based on oil holdings, and had developed a mania for the movies. In 1948, he bought control of RKO, the studio with the lowest number of tied-in cinemas out of all the big five - in other words, the smallest captive audience. If any of this sounds at all familiar so far, well... perhaps it should.

Hughes decided he could steal a march on the other four if he severed the link between the studios and their cinemas (and thus, the cinema-going audience) - on the basis that he had the least to lose. This he effectively accomplished, through machinations too complex to detail here. The result was not a triumph for RKO. It was disaster for the entire studio system. Hughes' own company was broken up, and ceased to trade entirely by 1960 - although Hughes himself came away in profit, amid allegations of shady dealings and mismanagement. The other studios, already seeing their audiences stolen away by television, were forced to restructure entirely - some survived, some did not.

The biggest beneficiaries of this upheaval were the film stars who had previously been the well-rewarded chattels of the studios. Now they had not only the wealth, fame and opportunities to pursue their vocation that they already enjoyed - they had power. They could work for whomever they chose, at whatever price they could get away with. They - or often, those who held sway over them: agents, handlers, investors who funded their early bids for celebrity - could call the shots. They ruled the movie business, and effectively have done ever since.

Fast forward now to the final day of this summer's transfer window, and the gobsmacking news that two young Argentine internationals, both of a calibre to play at any club in the world, have joined West Ham United. Not, it appears, as a result of a deal struck directly between West Ham and the players' previous club, Corinthians, in Brazil (in which case you could only enviously congratulate the London club on this coup); but at the behest of a private investment group, MSI, which effectively owns the players' contracts. Javier Mascherano, a tough, canny ball-winning midfielder, is the kind of player United urgently need; Carlos Tévez, a mad, brilliant little pitbull of a forward, the kind of player United should always want. But for once, it should be acknowledged that United may have done well to steer clear of this whole business.

Maybe this deal is a one-off. But that seems unlikely. Once the premise is established that a player's destiny may be governed not by a football club, which answers to footballing authorities, but by a private company, which answers to nobody, then seemingly murky stories like this one are bound to become as common in Europe as they already are in South America. Football's authorities may, to put it mildly, have their faults; but at least they represent a recognisable chain of accountability. There are rules to be enforced, and questions to be asked if they are not.

Instead, we find ourselves asking other questions. Who stands to benefit most from this deal? Are there undeclared, and conflicting, interests involved? Who, exactly, is behind MSI? Are they allies of certain other parties involved in English football? Or enemies? Where does their money come from?

If this were the movies we were talking about, it wouldn't matter. You don't ask where the money comes from; you ask only what the money wants you to do. And if the money wants you to do something that doesn't sound quite right to you, you simply shrug and say, "That's showbiz." The same thing shouldn't apply in football. But apparently it now does. That's football? Nah. That's showbiz. The latter has long looked poised to swallow the former. With the arrival of Mascherano and Tévez at West Ham, you have to wonder if this most damaging of hostile takeovers has at last begun to close its jaws.