The Showbiz State of the Union 2020

When in the course of human entertainment, it becomes necessary to make a very long speech...

Ladies and gentlemen of entertainment, people of Hollywood, citizens of our great studios, actors and writers, executives, agents and managers alike, publicists and producers, assistants and A-listers all.  Here on the eve of our great Academy Awards, I stand before you tonight to report on the state of our showbiz union, in accord with my constitutional duties as editor of The Ankler, Hollywood’s only independent voice. Tonight it fills me with pride to look around this room and tell you, that thanks to all your hard work and commitment to this industry, the state of showbiz today is pretty, f-ed up.

Never before in the history of the world has there been so much opportunity for storytelling. Never before in the history of Hollywood has so much entertainment been created. 

All we have to do to enjoy this moment to the fullest is look away from that cliff we're all running towards.

The entire entertainment industry is being reorganized and mortgaged for a new platform that

  1. No one knows if it will be sustainable for anybody.

  2. Certainly won't be sustainable for everybody.

But many will say: why all the handwringing? Subscription streaming services are the future of entertainment and anyone who doesn't own a major piece of it is going to ground up and spat out by the new giants. In the meantime, there's never been more opportunity. We're substituting one decaying revenue model for a new vibrant one.

Possibly!

Potentially this all ends up adding up for someone or someones down the road.  All that depends on how many players remain in the picture when all’s said and done and the money’s spent; what then is the ability to set pricing, to gouge talent on contracts, phase in ads, etc. If a company needs to spend ten figures a year till the end of time to keep subs coming in, you can forget about good old profits being part of your story. 

But even if there is a pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, let's just look in the eye the disruption we're going to bring on to get there.  Next steps, you want to see them. Here's where we're likely headed on the road to choosing the winners of this soapbox derby:

In the next few years, the streaming race is likely going to:

1. Destroy the existing TV networks.

2. Run the indie film distributors out of the business.

3. Turn the movie studios into TV networks first.

4. Squeeze the middle out of every profession

5. Drive just about everyone to unsustainable insolvency.

What's not to like?

Again, that’s all water under the bridge if there's a pot of gold waiting, but as of this speech, as I stand before you here tonight, no one can guarantee anything that this rainbow has an end.

Let's just compare this to the music business, which went down this road ahead of movies and TV.  Today the music business is booming, for the artists at the very top anyway. Thanks to revenue from the streaming services, the big acts are making more than they ever did. The medium-sized and small ones are starving to death as music becomes a hobby not a profession for all but a few, but hey, at least someone is making money.

But where is that money coming from? Spotify continues as it has for its entire existence, to be a money-losing business, which is a good part of the reason no one has stepped up to swallow them. They say they are reinvesting the money into growth, that they could turn the corner anytime they wanted. Maybe they could!  Or maybe they couldn't. So far they haven't and now they are spending big to get into podcasts. I'm sure that will be the end though.

But this whole new music industry, it's all based on something where there are no profits; that in its present form is unsustainable. 

The entire thing is built on a pipe dream and fast talk.  Meanwhile, you've squeezed out the middle; destroyed the whole ecosystem that sustained a broad and diverse music business, And one day, should Spotify come crashing down, there will be a handful of big stars that may or may not be able to find other ways to replace that lost revenue...and nothing else.

As I say, not a terrible time if you're one of the people at the top right now and can convince yourself this can go on forever, and hopefully are remending to put a little into your 401k.

But as far as TV and film go, the backstop of our unsustainable model these days seems to be that entertainment has become every company's loss leader to get people in the door and sell them something else. Or harvest them for data, like luring in unsuspecting revelers to a hotel suite where they can be drugged and have their organs removed.

Right now, some companies need movies and shows to get eyeballs to come onto their sites to buy diapers, others need them as some sort of lead in to buy their new phones and again, always, to get their data to sell.  Some need movies and TV just to keep people in their walled-off universe to prevent them from settling in rival islands elsewhere. Others need it to sell toys and cruise adventures.

But for not many is the money made off direct revenues particularly important. It's a way in to do something else. You can argue that Netflix now is the only company that lives or dies just on its entertainment product (too bad for them.)

On the one hand, it's nice to be useful. It's great that all our movies and TV shows can come in handy to some nice big companies out there.  On the other hand, if you're not important because of the direct financial results the products you make produce, if you're a side project or window dressing, or a piece of messaging, but you don't actually make money, real money on your own terms, then there's always a chance that someone will figure out a more cost-effective way to sell diapers or harvest data, even to get people on cruise ships or buying toys; more cost-effective ways that don't involve the myriad headaches and embarrassments of producing entertainment.

And the first target that is going to have the bean counters in one of these companies scratching their heads and saying, "Someone tell me why are we doing this again?"  is certainly going to be theatrical.

At some point, at every company, someone is going to realize they are financing a project with  massive overhead, irregular returns, in a completely non-predictable business that yields no data, supplies no algorithm.

And it doesn't help that Hollywood is making the movie business as irrelevant to the world as it can as quickly as it can.  

For vast swaths of the world, moviegoing has ceased to be a regular part of their lives. The people who go to movies still go, but the bulk of the world is tuning it out. The real competition isn't from TV shows on the streaming platforms, it is from YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat – which are giving young people the fast, quick content that moves at the speeds of their ADD-addled brains. 

In response, we turn over the calendar for much of the year to a handful of giant, lumbering spectacles and have evacuated much of the cultural spectrum that has spoken to people since the dawn of civilization. How can you have a healthy film industry that isn't making comedy? Which traditionally accounts for roughly half of storytelling.

Part of the problem is that we're standing right in the middle of these combustible times, amidst a social media free-fire zone, with nothing to say to the questions shaking society.  While the contemporary dialogue is coming apart and expressing itself in wild, unhinged ways across new mediums and platforms, we've become even more corporate, staid and risk-adverse than ever. Amidst the cultural carnivale, Hollywood's like some giant potted plant stuck in the middle of the mosh pit.  Oscar's annual deer-in-the-headlights response to every culture wars battle gives a good sense of how much we've got our finger on the button these days. The kneejerk reaction to every demand let loose on Twitter shows you how much we have any confidence in our own story anymore.

Meanwhile, we're being overrun by an industry that feels no responsibility for what they put out; that is willing to provide a home for not just lively self-expression, but the vilest discharges of hate the world can excrete. An industry that is willing to build a business of that madness and while they are at it, not pay the haters and the narcissists. And then shrug it off as, "We're just the wires."

And these are the companies coming for us, that we hope will have some respect for our way of doing things.

Hollywood has lost the thread of so much of the cultural conversation it's only a matter of time before someone notices we've been taking up this space on the couch, and asks if we mind moving along so their friend can sit here.

There is the Chinese curse, may you live in interesting times.  We'd all prefer to be doing this business in the 1990's, when expense accounts were endless, the corporate jets flew proudly and you could count on the public to turn on or show up for just about whatever you put out.

View comments

But with all the choices we all had, we’ve chosen to go into the culture business and you've got to take to the moment you find. If we haven't got anything more to say to it than how about one more Charlie's Angels?  Then we might as well get out of the way and hand Mark Zuckerberg the keys to the place now.

I'm not saying that the giant spectacles don't have their place or that they aren't movies. Giant thrill rides have been part of the adventure of cinema since the beginning and it's a big piece of what we can do better than anyone else. But there's more to the spectrum than that. And if we just become that single genre provider, that's leaving a lot of dance floor open that someone – the tech world, international competitor's, kids in their basements with who can post videos of themselves shot on their phones – will step in to occupy.

And it doesn't help that while the cultural world is transforming itself, we're overseen by this older, button-downed cadre of usual corporate suspects.  Is there a single studio division overseen at this point by anyone under 40? (Let alone under 30). A single network, agency department? Streamer even?  

Instead they all hire the same people who have run 20 networks before and write half-billion-dollar checks to JJ Abrams and Ryan Murphy.  And somehow, the youth aren't flocking. As the streaming race consolidates more under the shows made by this handful of Hollywood Made Men, long since cut off from the lives of...everyone, except our irrelevance to become ever deeper.

The one thing that Hollywood clearly has to offer the world is also now in doubt. Anyone anywhere can come up with stories, and anyone anywhere can point a camera at them in these times. What Hollywood offers is ability to execute storytelling at a very high level, better than anyone.

And that is thanks not just to the money at our disposal but to an entire city and extended ecosystem of people trained and experienced in every little facet of production. Having that requires the availability of not just stars but a million other actors who can do one line as a barista without ruining a scene; sound engineers, etc etc. etc and all the people who put the army together and keep it running and know the pitfalls, and when a production is off the rails and everything else.

But the vast middle of people who perform all these services is getting pushed out by on the one hand, a city that is increasingly impossible for a non-billionaire to live in, and the tech squeeze of shorter seasons, no back end, less security.  Great for those at the top who see more money funneled up to them in these bidding wars, but it's going to have an impact on what we produce down the line.

And that’s not even to mention the assistant class, whom as the #PayUpHollywood movement has amply demonstrated, barely survive on modern slave stipends in this fantastically expensive city. This isn’t just a fairness issue. Giving assistants living wages is a way of ensuring the industry is continually revitalized with no blood, not just the sons and daughters of our own industry elites, who can make us ever more cut off and inward-looking.

Meanwhile, there's that good old representation question that we don't seem to be able to solve despite being 20 years into the 21st century.  Strides have been made in the last few years but not nearly enough. There's still too many relics of the 1990's in distribution offices talking about how the world isn't interested in non-white stars and its not worth the time marketing to them. 

This is an existential question now. In the last few years we've seen how telling stories from other perspectives brought new audiences into the theaters. We're at a moment when Hollywood should be reaching out to any underserved audience it can find with different and surprising stories and perspectives. We can't afford to write off or take any audience for granted right now.

And then there's the Me Too question, now in its third year.

I have to say, even a hardened cynic like myself has been shocked by how quick business as usual as been restored. Some of the most horrific predators have been removed and there's a new, 40 years too late, consciousness about harassment,  But the Oprah/Russell Simmons debacle shows how when it comes to the titans of Hollywood, the rules are still optional. All the advocacy organizations that make such brave stands on the red carpet, that make their time available for oral histories of their own meetings, it turns out, again and again, are nowhere to be found when it comes to actually confronting the misbehavior of the powerful.

And in fact, nowhere to be found day to day to help sort out any of these thorny questions? Anyone heard from Time's Up lately?  And that Anita Hill commission that declared they needed $10 million two years ago to study the problems of women in the industry, and then was never heard from again.

So many of these problems are a matter of personnel. While the levers of Hollywood power are held by a group of monochrome, mostly male grandees who have been living at the very pinnacles of human existence for decades now, is it any wonder Hollywood is losing touch with its audiences?  While there are only a handful of women and minorities in positions of power, is it any wonder that things aren't easy for them up and down the line?  

So many of the industry's problems are specific to a coddled cadre of baby boomers. When the torch is finally torn from their hands, a lot of these issues are likely to magically pass away. When the baton passes over my generation – the forever forsaken X'ers – and is handed to the millennials, a new set of problems will no doubt emerge. There will be less screaming at assistants, but more whining, and hopefully a new breath will sweep across the industry before we all suffocate to death.

Finally, before I let you go back to your homes and leave this hallowed shrine of showbiz glory, I want to speak about one issue that in all our outrages and meltdowns and debacles of that past few years, has gotten shoved to the bottom of the pile.

Hollywood remains the only industry in the world that relies – and relies heavily – on child labor. We comfort ourselves that there are rules and guidelines, which are better than sending them to work in an asbestos plant without an oxygen mask i suppose, but are not nearly enough to preserve anything resembling a "childhood" in the young performers whose youth we exploit.

There are few studies of the effects working in Hollywood has on a young performer's development but generations of anecdotal evidence consistently suggest sending an underage actor into the industry has effect on their childhood along the lines of giving them a plugged-in chainsaw for their third birthday.

The Ankler is in the finger-pointing business, not the solutions game, so we try and leave it for others to figure out what to do about problems. But since this remains the eternal topic no one wants to think about, we'll throw a proposal on the table: children can work in the industry but only for three months a year.  TV shows and films have three months to get all the stardom they can out of them and then we have to tell them – vacation's over, it's time to get back to your normal life. Your parents may be ready to sell your childhoods, but we're not buying.

And with that ladies and gentlemen of the business, I say good night.  The challenges we face are many. The threats are terrifying and frankly, if you don't wake up screaming at least once a week, you're not looking at them hard enough.

But there's still one asset we have: a great piece of entertainment changes everything. A movie that the whole world is talking about; a few shows that have schoolkids and socialites alike obsessed can move mountains. There is no problem described above that couldn't be shrunk down to size in the face of creations like this. The power to change everything is in your hands.

And with that, good night everyone. Drive safely and don't forget to give us five stars on the app if you enjoyed the service.

View comments

If you’re just receiving this edition of The Ankler from a friend, press below to subscribe. You never know who’ll be in The Ankler Hot Seat tomorrow…

IF YOU SEE SOMETHING, SAY SOMETHING  The Ankler looks to you! to help us be the eyes and ears of this great industry! Got a crazy email from your boss?  See a major poobah have a meltdown in the commissary (or forget to tip)? Just had the worst story notes meeting of your career?  Heard a rumor that the Big Guy is packing his office? Did they change the name of a conference room on your hall?  As in all detective work, no tip is too small.  Help The Ankler tell the world.  .  Send your tips to richard@theankler.com or, with end-to-end encryption on whatsapp and Signal. (Msg me for the number).  And of course, ping me on gchat at richardrushfield anytime day or night.   Confidentiality guaranteed on pain of death.

EDITORIAL POLICY: If you have been the subject of a piece on the Ankler and you would like to respond, the Ankler will be delighted to print your reply in full.  Please send your response to richard@theankler.com

If you are interested in advertising on the Ankler: write us at ads@theankler.com for rates and info.

The Ankler is Hollywood’s favorite secret newsletter; an independent voice holding the industry’s feet to the fire. If you’re a subscriber, feel free to share this edition with a friend but just a couple, please. The Ankler depends on its paid subscribers to keep publishing.

If you’ve been passed along this issue, take the hint and get on the train. Find out what everyone’s whispering about! Subscribe now!

And if you enjoyed this issue, feel free to press the little heart down below, which helps alert others to the wonders of The Ankler.