Florida and the Plagues of Bob II
Thoughts on entertainment’s second place train wreck after Netflix’s very bad day
On one side of town we have one cataclysmic mess unfolding in Netflix: The Reckoning. But up the road, off Alameda, Bob II also must be wondering what sin he committed in a past life to bring such misery down on himself. Or was it the curse that a malcontent in the Maleficent costume put on him when he ended the Fast Pass program?
While his predecessor King Mister Smooth flicked away every controversy like water on his rain slicker, for Bob II, everything that comes along leaves him drenched to the bone like an unlucky passenger in the back seat of a Splash Mountain log flume.
It doesn't help of course that the press, still longing for the Bob of their heart's desire, has officially dubbed Bob II the uncool one, the CEO it's safe to mock, hoping he won’t be around long enough to put them on the outs with the Disney company.
But honestly, the storyline of Disney vs. the American Right is not something any reporter in any era could have resisted.
For Bob II, in this storyline, in one swoop to have become the target of a walkout by his young woke-ist employees and a right-wing jihad led by Ron DeSantis, is a remarkable feat even by the standards of 21st Century Culture Wars and the hapless executives caught in the midst of them. Congratulations!
One can try and say: He's got them where he wants them! Positioning Disney right in the great middle, fighting off the extremes, and maybe if he were running in the first round of a French Presidential election you'd have a point. In modern corporate entertainment, however, you don't win by having the right enemies, you win by having no enemies.
Disney is of course especially vulnerable to this because almost unique among modern corporate entertainment goliaths, it is a brand that has an actual meaning — and arouses a lot of feelings in people. Lots of feelings. Everywhere.
Obviously, Disney has reaped enormous benefits from being an actual, not fake, brand that inspires these complicated Pavlovian responses from people. But at a moment like this, Bob II might well be wishing he was the head of a nice little anonymous entertainment blob with a random collection of holdings that no one had ever heard of.
But the grandees of those less exposed companies shouldn't take much comfort in the fact that Disney has become the magnet for all heat-seeking missiles in the culture wars, leaving them free to keep their heads down and count their doubloons. Disney and Bob II may be at the leading edge of the culture wars, but those bells — they toll for thee as well. Soon enough.
When you've got both sides scanning the landscape for battlegrounds, there's not going to be a lot of safe harbors. On the one hand you have the speed with which Disney employees revolted over the company's non-reaction to the Don't Say Gay bill, and then, almost immediately, on the other hand DeSantis' glee over the chance to turn Disney into a foe when Chapek did speak up.
Want to see the extent to which these cultural flare-ups are no longer tiddlywinks? You fall on the wrong side of the right-wing fringes and be prepared for your Google results to suddenly look like this when you and your wife of 40 years are put into a search.
Suddenly, a search for the Mr. and Mrs. is overwhelmed by links to non-existent stories (i.e., dead links) about his involvement in trafficking, clearly an organized and sophisticated attempt to smear him (the pedo smear a particularly popular tactic of some corners of our political life). These games are not just for fun and outraged finger-pointing anymore. The stakes have gone up dramatically, even since the days when Bob I could glib his way through it all, and for both sides, a company like Disney makes a first-rate punching bag.
There was a time when both those sides would've been reluctant to take on a titan of Big Showbiz — employees out of fear of retaliation, Republicans for fear of offending the Disney fans among their voters. Neither of these repressive forces is operative anymore. For employees, the idea of keeping your mouth shut and towing the company line is clearly out the window. And the culture warriors on the right and the left alike are playing to the niches — their outraged activist classes. The vast silent middle — the land where Big Showbiz lives — doesn’t have a seat at the table in the culture wars and very likely many have no idea this war is even being waged; they play out in social media, and in the eyes of the press who make an industry of covering culture wars. Arsonists and firefighters in lockstep.
Beyond Disney and Florida, this hints at the larger question — if the world is coming apart, what is the role for Big Showbiz in this fragmented society? Is there a role for Big Showbiz? Not just to survive the culture battles as they flare up but if people are increasingly speaking different languages, if more decisions are looked at by more people through culture war tribal lenses, where does an industry fit when its very definition is creating large-scale entertainment for that vast “bland” middle?
Disney in particular has been pretty adept in recent years at not diving into every controversy that happens; at recognizing that when Twitter flares up over some stupid thing your star said, the best thing you can do is keep your head down, don't give the story any oxygen and know that by tomorrow, something else will come along.
Well, it works until it doesn't. This too will pass. But notice is being served, that the bland but smooth corporate posture — call it The Iger Affect — is not the talisman it once was.
The Streaming Goliaths are trying to have it both ways — to cater to and serve the niches, but have them live under the same bland umbrella company, and subscription. You can choose your own adventure round here, we’re just a platform!
We'll see if that works. The Netflix/Chapelle fracas suggests that if you can survive to let the social media war burn itself out, the middle can still bury the outraged niches. And even in the Disney battle, it suggests limits to how far the fight can be taken. On the one hand, despite rank and file outrage, in a business guided by talent, if talent isn't even hinting at a boycott of a company (as they never have) then the employee outrage will only cut so deep.
On the other hand, Ron DeSantis can rabble rouse and use Disney as a foil to stir up his activists, but in the end how many of his people are going to cancel their family trip to Disney World because of this? Are they going to cancel their Disney+ subscriptions and make their kids watch VHS tapes of Davey and Goliath all day?
It's a problem though when you're caught between the woke employees and middle-of-the-road customers. A company can't be at war with its customers and survive, but doing business with your employees in revolt…that’s no picnic. Ask Facebook how it affects recruiting when your company brand becomes a public embarrassment.
But having to choose between customers and employers is not a great choice to make. It’s like an airplane pilot having to choose between wings and a steering wheel — one might be more significant than the other, but neither choice ends happily.
Of course one thing that would make a difference — if our companies actually stood for something, apart from bland, inoffensive shareholder value maximization. If they had some basic, articulated corporate values so it wasn't even a question whether they should genuflect and censor their own products to please a genocidal regime, or whether they had an opinion on a gay-baiting bill.
Lastly, may I make a modest proposal that Bob I consider repositioning his aggrieved leader-in-exile position, with the whispers, leaks and barbs seemingly coming from his camp against Bob II. Perhaps his new role, as beloved modern spiritual leader of Disney, could be to come to the aid of a company in crisis, and offer his behind-the-scenes help, advice and mediation on how best to move a corporation — and not his own agenda — forward. The leader emeritus, as opposed to insolent retiree.
It’s a tough week for the duopoly. The Netflix stock miracle has gone into freefall as the one-time true-believing speculators who backed the biggest production ramp-up in history, head for the hills, while in Burbank, the most pristine brand in entertainment is finding itself unwillingly sucked into the culture wars. It’s a tough moment for Big Showbiz. Could the duopoly itself be at a turning point?
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