Is Hollywood Up To This?
It's hard to get too worked up about the state of our lousy business mid-apocalypse. Feels a bit like one is saying, "A crater of hellfire has opened up that has swallowed two continents and counting, while the swarm of bus-sized murder hornets is sweeping across North and South America. The living envy the dead, but despite that, Netflix is on track to report positive cash flow for the second quarter with strong EBITDA outlook."
But as much as the horrors outside our windows make our struggles seem puny, they are not beside the point. Culture matters. The problems sweeping this world today are not apart from the culture.
This industry matters to the thousands who work in it and the billions who consume it.
But from social strife to evolving technology, the world is now changing faster than anyone could've predicted. Anyone who is going to be a part of the new world that is dawning is going to have to get very comfortable with constant change and turmoil. Over the past couple of weeks, as the world has simmered, across the canvas of our world from the battles over racial inclusion to the Great Streaming War, this has been a moment when we're being given lots of reasons to fear that Hollywood just might not be up to this. The world will always want entertainment, but the question is, are we here to inspire and influence the maelstrom?
Or be devoured by it?
Let's start with the headline nightmare of the moment: systemic racism.
While the rest of the world might have to debate what form persistent racism takes in their spheres, the one thing Hollywood has going for it is you don't need a magnifying glass to find it here. Want an example of racism in Hollywood? How about starting with everything we do, on screen and off? Go from the still, insanely persistent problems of inclusion in casting and the subject matter of our films and shows, and then move on to the composition of . . . every field in the business: the writers rooms, the DGA, the executive suites of every single studio, agency, and most production companies, PR firms, SFX houses, not to mention mailroom, assistant ranks and internships across the industry. For staters.
Of course, there’s also the media that covers all this, and in another world, it might be responsible for keeping the heat on these issues.
You don't have to be a civil rights crusader to take one glance around and see that the with the level of minority participation we have in this industry, onscreen and off, we might as well be in 1965.
This is reprehensible and absurd that this is where we still are, both as employers and as purveyors of culture. Hollywood productions may not be polluting the culture the way, say, Trump's Tweets do. But the idealized world we depict remains, to too great extent, a universe of white stories told by white artists. That certainly doesn't help push the idea that there might be other ways to see the world beyond the white perspective. It certainly doesn't get the world in the habit of doing so.
Which is not just morally wrong, but for an industry that needs any new audience it can get its hands on, it’s a stupid place to be doing business from.
(One notable exception: a company that does make a diverse slate of shows and does not just play by the old rules, for better or worse, is of course, The Service Itself, Netflix. Which perhaps tells you something about their relative position to the studios at this moment.)
Now that there is a moment of outrage, this time Hollywood is taking it really really seriously. So seriously. And to prove it we're making token donations to some groups, Instagramming our support, forming committees to study the problem, and no doubt, soon to come, adopting lapel pins. When there's a red carpet again, perhaps a color-coordinated fashion statement. Awards shows will be disrupted!
A few egregiously toxic dumb-dumbs will have their careers obliterated as a sort of human sacrifice. As for changing anything about the way we do business? We'll get right back to you on that. I promise, we're looking into it.
And will you just look at the time . . . isn't the next cause celebre due any minute?
But this is going to be an increasingly fraught course. Hollywood's gotten very good at our moments of silence and performative acts of principle. The era of Generation Yay when all the public wanted to see was their big cool celebrity friends gush for the right reasons on the social media stage is definitely behind us, and people are increasingly turning their attention to the facts of people's and companies' behavior.
The effect of the plagues of this year has been to put everything on the table. We can't assume that we've got another ten years where we can float along in complacency on anything before the undertaker shows up at our door.
Everywhere we look around, the examples abound that we just may not be up to that. Or at least, the current leadership isn't.
Addendum: Time Bandits
On the top of Hollywood social activism and what it tends not to accomplish..
Let this not be a harbinger for what comes out of this moment.
In the past, The Ankler has beat the drum on Time’s Up and their notable silence at some of the major Me Too moments in the past couple years, post-the immediate Harvey et al fallout.
Now there’s a stunning story today in THR documenting the evolution of Time's Up from celebrated, heroic, internationally-toasted, font of the Me Too Uprising, to self-dealing, elite insider's cabal which has, at best, been MIA on the major Me Too moments of the past couple years. At worst however, as the piece documents, they actively tried to torpedo a project that was inconvenient to its celebrated founders, in this case the courageous Russell Simmons takedown doc On The Record. It's another case of how Hollywood's seriousness about a cause can be mapped in inverse proportion to how loudly they proclaim it when the attention is buzzing. Read it all. https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/features/time-s-up-didnt-step-up-1296938
Let’s start the tour from the bottom as it were, with the state of the supposed watchdogs of all this: the entertainment media. I won't be quite so self-absorbed to say a healthy journalistic oversight establishment automatically = a healthy industry, but a very very sick one is a sign that something is bad in the water supply.
In the past couple of months, both the ancient legacy trades have lost their editors—one for defending journalistic integrity, another for undermining it. That tells you something right there.
You want to take a tour of the insularity of Hollywood, you couldn't pick a much better place to start than the fall of Claudia Eller from the helm of Variety.
If you haven't been paying attention to this particular media contretemps, first of all, congratulations. Second, just briefly, the trouble started when the erstwhile EIC fired back a snippy response to a recently laid-off THR reporter of Indian descent.
I'd say Eller's Tweet is a pretty fair encapsulation of the attitude of senior editors in this world when anyone from the lower ranks dares question their management, journalistic chops, or, much more importantly, their social justice warrior credentials. As ever, the media see it as their job to fearlessly challenge the bona fides of everyone else (now and then, when there's not a new agency signing to cover) but are not open to the idea that their own actions are subject to review. That's not unique to Hollywood, of course.
Neither is the dismissive attitude towards any criticism, acting like she was doing the reporter a favor by stooping to acknowledge her claims, not at all getting that this week is not the moment to be saying, I refuse to be bothered by this charge of systemic racism. Go away, you!
Even this, however, under normal circumstances, this Tweet—workaday unpleasant and dismissive of self-examination and all—could've been brushed aside with maybe an apology and everyone would've gone on with their lives. But in this particular instance, it was the tweet that kicked over the can of worms heard round the world. Variety owner Jay Penske called for a town hall for staffers to vent their feelings about the Tweet—and the story it was defending—and staffers opened up in fury with tales of mistreatment at the hands of their editor, a parade of tales that went on for two and a half hours.
Which lead shortly thereafter to Eller's statement that she would be taking a two-month leave to think things through along with this astounding confession:
I am recognizing that my many years as a journalist did not necessarily prepare me for a leadership role in such a large and thriving newsroom. Looking back, hard work and competition were two of my main tools to get ahead in my career. The success I found in my hard-charging style as a journalist, I now realize, can come across as autocratic when I’m managing others. It can even be perceived that I lack empathy for you. Dammit, I do care. I care deeply about each of you, and I care deeply about Variety. I can’t apologize enough to those I have let down. I take today’s criticisms of me very seriously. I just wish I could’ve listened to each of you sooner.
It's nice that she cares now. I'll be a little more convinced when I hear that just a smattering of some of the people I know who feel they are owed personal apologies from the treatment they've received at her hand have gotten calls one on one.
(In the interest of fairness, whatever Eller’s other journalistic management issues, her employees have told me that when it came to matters of family, health and personal issues outside of work, Eller could often be incredibly supportive, above and beyond the norm. The published report that she forced reporters to work in high COVID risk settings is vociferously denied by one reporter, so let that side of her tenure too stand for the record.)
As recently as maybe ten minutes ago, abusive, imperious editors in Hollywood were almost the rule rather than the exception, but Eller's behavior has drawn attention even by those standards. What distinguishes many who cover this beat is the sense of entitlement that comes from walking alongside and sitting on panels with the glamorous and mighty for so many years, this sense of conferred importance.
Frankly, it comes from working in a business where we've completely lost the line between what we used to know as actual journalism, and having a press release handed to you gift-wrapped that you can label as an "exclusive." The business of the trades has gotten so tangled up with the hand-out announcements, the summits, the covers, the FYC ads, etc etc, that the corridor for "journalism" has gotten extremely narrow. Which hasn't stopped their sense of entitlement from ballooning and seeing the handing out of casting news as a moral issue, and the failure to give it to them as a betrayal of democracy itself.
The trademark of the Penske media way has always been a hands-off approach to their editors, most famously during the reign of La Finke herself. Given the very hands-on nefarious involvement of the ownership at THR these days, it's certainly the type of oversight I'd vote for given the choice, but it has its downsides, as seen here.
The more astounding chapter of this, however, came in the coverage of the matter on Variety's sister site in a piece written by everyone's favorite apologist Mike Fleming.
First, the piece started with this little boo boo misidentifying the ethnicity of Piya Sinha-Roy:
It went straight downhill from there, explaining Eller's dismissive manner thusly:
I’ve known, admired and competed against Eller for the better part of 30 years, and I can say with certainty that her response was reflective of her intensity toward a journalist who had been at a competitive publication. This has been an incredibly stressful, painful year for everyone, and it is a shame that she let her emotions get the best of her.
One doesn't know where to start.
There's the eyebrow-raising references to "outburst in a heated moment" and "she let her emotions get the best of her." I'm sure Mr. Fleming has said the same of his male colleagues many times.
And then attributing it to that she got worked up because this person used to work at THR is a pretty good illustration of the knots we're willing to tie ourselves into in the name of excusing the behavior of the powerful.
As for the way he addresses the problem on the table—that she harshly and publicly tried to swat away a charge of systemic racism in her newsroom—the amount we're willing to brush under the rug in the name of competitive spirit is now bigger than the rug itself.
What becomes of Variety after this? Eller stated that her exit would be a two-month leave, but I'm not sure how you walk back from an admission that you're unprepared for a leadership role in a newsroom. You don't just take two months off and then show up on the doorstep and say, I watched a MasterClass in leadership and *now* I'm ready.
Variety, and all the trades, have a tough road ahead of them with the collapse of the FYC print market. Maybe the Variety events biz is big enough to shrug that off, but one suspects some re-tooling lies ahead, and wonders who will take it there. I suspect that mere competence, even bullying-free competence, as with so much else in Hollywood, might not be quite adequate to the challenges of this moment.
But to bring this all back around, Eller's final Tweet with Sinha-Roy brilliantly encapsulated the problem of the people who run not just the trades, but Hollywood in general.
Piya Sinha-Roy @PiyaSRoy@Variety_Claudia You’re an EIC and you just called me bitter for calling you out for having not done enough in the past, when you could have. You could have created a beautifully diverse newsroom years ago. And you wonder why journalists on your team might not want to raise these issues with you.
We decide what we're talking about and when? If you don't like it, hit the bricks. Dare question our rock-solid virtue, well, here's an empty social media gesture just to show you how much we care.
This isn't going to do it anymore. Not in journalism and not in Hollywood either. The idea that the world is what *we* tell it to be is fading from our eyes, and one wonders, again, does Hollywood have it in itself to keep up?
No odds and ends this week. Let’s all be safe out there and look out for each other. See you next week.
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