Where to begin?
Remember two weeks ago when I was kvetching that the streaming wars were an unsustainable business model that would send us over the waterfall to fiscal ruin? Wringing my hands about Hollywood's inability to sweep away its complacency? Ah, the innocent times those were…
For starters: apologies for the absence. We've been getting the home school up and running in the Ankler-brinth, re-tooling for these crazy times.
Since I started this little song and dance outfit, I've said what matters isn't that I get all the answers right (except when I do) but that I'm asking the right questions. But at this point, the basic, conversation starter questions are so enormous, where do we even begin asking?
We've gone in just a few weeks to a place where Disney is looking for a bridge loan to keep the lights on. How do our minds begin to take stock of this new terrain?
Just a few weeks ago, I wrote this piece on the State of WME and Ari-dom for Vanity Fair. The big question on the table was the state of the firm's solvency, with detractors saying they were about to go up in flames and supporters saying, cash flow was just fine. I'm not much more qualified to get to the bottom of EBITDA than I am to judge a Nuclear Physics decathlon, but I tried to get at questions like: how much cash did they have? Where was their money coming in from? Basic stuff like that.
WME supporters described their investments in their live businesses as a hedge against, an alternative to the great monolithic streaming future – which seemed an interesting proposition apart from the math of it. The question it never occurred to me to ask, way back in December was: supposing a once a century pandemic comes along and no gatherings larger than five people are allowed on the planet? What’s your plan for that?
Always ask the obvious questions is the first rule of journalism, but some questions are apparently so large looming and huge you can't see them even if they cancel out every other question you might have.
Right now, we've got nothing other than giant, meteor-sized questions and until we sort them through, all our little kerfuffles – the streaming wars, the window, the WGA agreement – are the playthings of yore.
At this moment, the pain to so many is so outrageous, that to even think about the entertainment industry side of this feels callous. But this is the industry that supports so many – including us. While lives might outrank livelihoods on the hierarchy of concerns, livelihoods ain't nothing, especially when it’s the livelihoods of this many people up and down the ladder that hang in the balance of Hollywood finding a way through.
The craziness of this is that there is no going back to the status quo. The status quo was already hanging by a thread looking for a stiff breeze to blow it to kingdom come, and now it's got a hurricane. Add to that situation the mountains of debt and disruption this disaster will create and Hollywood's future is going to have to look very different than the Hollywood of three weeks ago.
Or will it?
Diving back in, I'm going to try to switch up the formula in the coming weeks. In the past, I've saved up the big thoughts for a twice-a-week edition where we could luxuriate deeply in some of our existential questions. But right now, the questions are not only so huge but also so fast-moving, that we've just got to start poking at them to see where things hurt.
I'm going to try to fire off, more, quick dispatches, with quick looks and takes on the upheaval in progress, and hopefully, we can begin to ask the right question to figure out what we're all wondering at the core here: how the hell are any of us going to get through this thing?
Also as previously announced, we'll be restarting the podcast soon, along with the very very special, Ankler Shelter in Place Book and Movie Club, (previously known as the Ankler Social Distancing Book and Movie Club) featuring discussions about The Devil's Candy and The Big Picture, respectively. Putting that all together so stand by for announcements, and start reading.
Beyond that, if you have any thoughts about what would be helpful to you from your very own Ankler in the weeks to come, please drop me a line (firstname.lastname@example.org) or share them on the comments in the open thread. Please keep in touch during these awful days.
And now, let's see what's shaking.
The Big Break?
To get the conversation rolling about what we look like on the other side, I commend to you Rob Long's latest Martini Shot commentary from KCRW, in which he offers the possibility that this break will be the time we jettison all that built up detritus, all the things we didn't really need but had built up around the industry like barnacles.
The list of things Hollywood doesn't need to be doing but does anyway at enormous expense is endless; certainly bigger than the budget for things we DO need to be doing. Among the things that have been asking to be thrown overboard for years: the high-flying festival circuit, cutting a dozen trailers for each movie, prime time network TV ads, agents flying to be with their clients on sets, studios buying tables at every trade publication's summit/breakfast/tribute/awards banquet and the accompanying pages in the program.
You could make a case that the entire development process actually has a negative effect on the bottom line and that not only would you save money but nine times out of ten shows and films would perform better if you passed a law saying a studio or network had to shoot the first draft they saw and were legally barred from changing a word.
That's just a few of the more obvious lumps of fat to start the ball rolling.
Of course, there are perfectly good reasons for all those things to exist, and those reasons will attempt to restore them the moment "normal" returns. They are not reasons that make economic sense but make speak to the needs of the sort of people who come to work in Hollywood as opposed to seeking their fortunes in the airline industry.
We have a development process not because it makes scripts better (usually) but because the entire entertainment making process is basically witchcraft and if the people who fund it don't feel like they have some sort of hand in controlling it, then that's really scary to think that their children's college fund depends on something like...do two twentysomething actors connect in a way that shows up on a screen.
Much, if not most of the things that happen around the production of a show – once you get past the basic writing of a script, memorizing the lines, lighting the stage, feeding the crew – is basically about creating talismans – to convince ourselves that there's some order to this process, some sense to it...When in fact there's not. Bad films happen to good people and good films happen to bad people.
And in TV it's even worse. Think it's easy making a TV hit? Ask Netflix with all the money in the world and a captive audience how easy it is to just turn on the spigot and get the whole world talking .
But with all the money on the line, "Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't!" doesn't quite cut it. And so the talismans, which account for...say 80 percent of what we call the entertainment industry.
Things are what they are for a reason, and in entertainment, eventually, things more or less are going to be this way.
Which isn't to say that this time won't be catastrophic for any or all of the studios, and it's already been catastrophic for the legions of people who have lost work or who have companies struggling to make it to the other side.
When we get there, there might or might not be a theatrical window, the agencies may have folded or merged or cut back or hocked themselves to the WGA. Amazon and Apple might between them own the entire business as we know it. And then they might between them figure out how to ruin everything.
Under the rubble, there will be a business supplying the eternal demand for entertainment. How people get that entertainment and in what form has changed lots of times, even since Hollywood came around, and will change again, probably now. But they still are going to need things to watch.
And when we sweep away the rubble, the process of supplying that is going to continue to be highly skilled witchcraft.
For the people who put the billions into this madness, that's going to continue to not be nearly good enough, and so, a whole industry will arise around it once more to make everyone feel like what we're doing makes any sense at all.
And to try to get those hits that sell tickets, and subscriptions or get people shopping on your sites or dancing with your holograms or whatever they'll be doing in the future, we'll still need to lure, the world's most talented, creative ie. unstable and volatile people. And to do that, they'll need to offer something a little more than, "Let me tell you about our matching contributions to your 401k!"
Julie Andrews and Richard Burton Perform What Do the Simple Folk Do on Ed Sullivan
Agent Before Beauty
To the extent that the culture of Hollywood is a culture of agenting, which it mostly is, then it might be fair to say this is the week that changed everything.
This is the logical endpoint of the fortress-building, mega-bucks path the agency business went down, mostly starting in the 80's, leading Hollywood down a path where everything it did became so expensive, you can't hardly afford to do it anymore.
The agenting business is so untenable these days because the overhead is so staggering. But why should it be staggeringly expensive to run an agency? Back in the 1970's you could run the biggest agency in the business out of a sleepy little building on a tiny street south of Wilshire and agents could walk around in patched up blazers with soup stains on the cuffs, not looking every minute like they were the personal fund manager to Prince Rainer of Monaco.
At some point though as the money came in in the last 30 years, merely making a lot of money ceased to be enough. Everyone had to be sickeningly rich with all the accouterments of the international elite. LA was the big city that was laid back, casual and didn't take itself too seriously. At the pinnacle of Hollywood's Golden Age, the apex of elite dining was a restaurant named for its circus clown owner where the celebrated dishes were bowls of chili and "Hobo Steak." (wrapped in bacon, cooked in a stick of butter.)
That clearly is no longer good enough. Agents have to live, dress and comport themselves in a manner that will tell the talent, "You're with the winners! This is where money lives!" And not just a lot of money, but all the money in the world. Because making it in Hollywood isn't about building a good career where you do interesting things anymore, it's about accumulating all the money in the world.
So that takes a lot of money to keep the lights on. Where are they going to get it? At the bottom, ten percent of every contract signed in Hollywood should be enough cash to afford the rent somewhere, particularly in the days of the streaming wars. But that's going to be a different sized business than the one we've got now, which is built on ownership of the entertainment; being stakeholders.
When the cuts take place, the fat and the extra limbs get severed, how long will the hangover last before an agency can serve as the platform for empire building again?
But, that particular business was passing along anyhow. Looking to the future, the question will be, which was the question WME was hedging against, whether under the streaming war entertainment gets so monolithic it squeezes everyone but a handful of people out and makes vassals of us all.
But that, at this point, will be a very good debate to be able to have, on another day.
As for Endeavor and Ari which is another kettle of fish, the rumor mill is running hot right now. This comes as the agency was already working to make it up to the partners after the pulled IPO, so how they make everyone happy at this point is difficult to imagine. But in this moment, is “happy” on the table anywhere?
The irony of the Endeavor position is that the investment in live was a hedge against the digital age; a series of real-life, sawdust and runway businesses that the internet couldn’t disrupt. And along comes the sort of cataclysm that is not only pre-digital but more or less pre-historic to sweep away all before it.
The dream of the Endeavor empire, of the 21st Century Media company was an investment of faith in one of the few people in the visionary sweepstakes around this town. But the tough times on the road to the big payday have put strains on it all.
“He held that place together with loyalty,” one former employee said today. “But that’s gone thanks to his payout.”
Will a slimmed-down Endeavor be able to dig out from under this? Or will, overhead being what it is, every agency end up being swallowed up under one giant agency – a great big agency borg to match a great big studio Borg of Amazon and Apple?
Or is even that going to seem like wishful thinking in a few weeks?
When I was working on the Vanity Fair story, one non-fan asked if it was going to be another one of those pieces which, after listing all their challenges ends: “But you can’t ever count Ari out!” I admitted it probably would be. Now with the “Who the hell knows where all this lands us” caveat, I’m sticking with that today.
AMPAS Takes Stock
There was a eye-catching report this week that the Academy is evaluating "all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made."
Hmmm.. Whatever could that mean? THR speculates perhaps they are looking towards pushing back the Oscar show in case theaters remain closed in the fall, which is a good thing to start doing some contingency planning for, but hard to know at this point. So why make an announcement that you're doing some contingency planning?
To put it another way, if you come home and your spouse just lets you know that he or she is "evaluating all aspects of this uncertain landscape and what changes may need to be made" – you don't expect the outcome of that process is going to be an announcement that dinner with the Fleishmans is being pushed back for three weeks.
This seems clearly setting the stage for something big. The Ankler has long had a theory of where this Oscar game ends.
The Oscar ratings trajectory, even while there was a movie business was on a one-way bus trip to Palookaville. With ratings now down at the mere mortals level, under 15 million is in sight, and after that, under 10 becomes very thinkable. Decline breeds greater decline.
Unless of course, something changed. But nothing is going to change with Oscar, at least as far as AMPAS doing anything to make this show more appealing to a wider audience, but that is something. So given that, life in the strata of NCIS reruns looms just over the horizon, with the adjustment in revenue that goes with that new neighborhood.
If you were in real estate, this clearly would be the time for Oscar to sell, while it can, but who would buy?
If only there were a place they could go where people could see the Oscar show – people who matter anyway – but without this horrible ogre of ratings constantly lurking at their door; a home for Oscar where the show could run 17 hours and no one would cut them off, or ever even know how much the audience dropped off before the end. A home with international reach...who hasn't been decimated by the plague; who is still rolling in money; run by someone who isn't just Oscar-friendly, but Oscar obsessed.
If Ted Sarandos can't buy an Oscar, perhaps he can buy Oscar. All of him.
If AMPAS is ready to go behind the streaming curtain, say goodbye to its mandate to be the ambassador of film to the whole wide world in exchange for a guaranteed income that would no doubt set their hearts aflutter, well, they've just been handed the perfect explanation for why this had to happen now.
And frankly, given the drift of AMPAS to celebrating work who's life, let's face it, is mostly in VOD, it all makes sense. No doubt Netflix could and would build a shrine to movie appreciation as part of the deal that would make AFI's mouth water.
Leave it for another generation to explain the difference between Oscars and Emmys. That's a good problem for tomorrow if we get to have a tomorrow.
• Between creating a $100 million relief fund for industry workers and the news today that they seem to be paying the crews whose shows were shut down, you can’t complain much about Netflix behavior in this crisis thus far; at least in contrast to the legacy studios, from whom we’ve heard, apart from scheduling changes…nothing? I’ve written plenty here about the creepy inhuman cult-like tech world HR practices in use at Netflix, but these are the moments when we’ll see what companies are really made of, and so far – the night is young – credit where due to The Service.
• On the other end of the spectrum, NATO’s snarl to Uni: "Exhibitors will not forget this!” would be creepier if it weren’t so abject. What are they going to do: refuse to show F9 and keep their theaters empty for two weeks next summer? I stand proudly with Team Window, but in this moment, there are no good choices for studios. Theater owners would do well to start thinking about ways to win back audiences who are going to be in no rush to return to auditoriums anytime soon, coming up with ways to reinvent their businesses, instead of just waiting for the return of the time when they can dictate how this business works. Government bailout or no, those days are slipping away before our eyes.
• And so much for the strike. Ankler Strike-o-Meter signs off for the duration.
The Daily Wells
“I understand the sexual threat in Trading Places when Paul Gleason, dressed in a gorilla suit, is put into a cage with an actual gorilla. But what kind of threat is the tied-up naked girl facing in Cecil B. DeMille‘s pre-code The Sign of the Cross?
We’re meant to think “oh, a helpless woman at the mercy of a wild beast” but what’s the threat exactly? Sexual assault isn’t an option since gorillas mount from behind. Gorillas aren’t carnivores and they don’t bite. So what’s the worst that could happen to the poor woman? As long as she stands still, probably nothing.” From Absolute Nonsense at HOLLYWOOD ELSEWHERE
Items At Large
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