My infrequent publication this week has not been a matter of vacation.
I wrote up a 3000 word piece called “Just Keep Swimming” that was so brutal in passages that I sent it to a confidante and asked for an opinion. I got lots of them. But the one that stung most powerfully was, “Do you have to slaughter everyone?”
I’ve spent the last 36 hours or so chewing on what the column means to me and whether, as tough as the column was, was I actually that angry or was I just appearing to be angry?
Self-reflection is death, on some level. I’ve been at the business of having a standalone film industry column for 25 years now. And what was true from the conception of The Hot Button, in 1993, to its first publication in 1997 to it’s rebirth just a few months ago remains true… it’s not about me.
Yes, at times, it has been about me. And film criticism became part of the mix and that can be quite personal. But the idea has always been to take the news and to shove it into the factual atom splitter and to find factual clarity. A lot of issues have repeated endlessly through these years in my work… but mostly because facts don’t change. Circumstances change.
But has it been an angry ride? I would say, “no.” I am certainly passionate and can cut with the speed and precision of the best deli slicer. What enrages me is a lightly-asserted argument on a serious topic and absolutely no sense of being responsible enough to back up the argument with facts. This is not journalism. It is a reckless assertion of power.
I am long past being angry at all about studio or executive behaviors. Obviously, this does not include horrible behavior that is not about business, like abusing women or acting on your racist tendencies. I don’t think I have led with a thought about a specific studio executive over most of the last 25 years. I’ve known many. I like and respect some. I don’t others. But until Jason Kilar self-promoted his well-loved self by killing a year of Warner movies indiscriminately and then insisting that it worked for HBO Max this last year… not much calling execs by name ever. (And I’m sure that I would love Kilar as much as anyone, outside of some of his decisions.)
Many, many years ago, Roger Ebert called The Hot Button “gossip of the highest order.” I hated that. He explained to me that he meant it is good way and that what I was doing was hard to define in any other way. We got over it. But I think that “gossip of the highest order” has been what columning, then blogging, then newslettering has become. Matt Belloni, for better or worse, calls his newsletter “What I’m Hearing…” and indeed, the title is accurate. Put aside judgement of why he is hearing it… it’s what he is hearing… and he is hearing it from very high-level people. They may be utterly full of shit. He may not be knowledgeable about context beyond personalities. But it is what he is hearing.
I hear a lot of things from a lot of people. But that is not what I do for this newsletter or really ever have in any incarnation of what was a daily column. I have often wondered when I have been put into lunches with executives whether I was failing the publicist by not using the conversation as fodder. People say to me “this part is off the record” all the time… which always leaves me wanting to explain, “It was all off the record… I am not here doing a profile piece… I want to know what you think because you are in the middle of it and you are very smart, but what I do is synthesize all the information I gather and that is what I write.”
Part of the appeal, to me, of DP/30, from the start, was that these long-form conversations were uninterrupted, unedited, and exactly what happened. No editorial question marks. Every time I see a headline like, “Celebrity X explains the real reason…” I laugh to myself. I don’t know whether the outlet is delusional or just offering bait for a fish they don’t have. The great advantage of sitting in a room without cameras with someone who is NEVER going to tell you everything they know about what you are asking is that you can read the person. But the untold truth? Sucker!
After 15 years and over 2000 long-form on-camera interviews and thousands off-camera, formal and informal, I can tell you that some of the greatest insights I have on people comes from the 10 minutes after the camera goes off or from friends or family members who casually say something on the side or send a note after. Those insights inform me. But they are only for me. They are and always will be off the record.
My friend challenged me to write less about what was wrong with so much of the industry and to offer specific solutions. So I have been trying to imagine that into existence.
The “Just Keep Swimming” piece I wrote and will someday publish in a postmortem book was, mostly, about how we are all responsible because we all feed the machine. And we are so busy feeding the machine, things that actually matter end up being rolled past by rote. We are, almost all of us, fighting to keep things going with responsibilities to real people, coming from many different directions, and we just can’t expend the focus to fight things we know are wrong but are just the way things are.
There are certainly people who are shit. And I don’t just mean people who are really evil. I mean people who just don’t give a shit about the consequences of anything beyond how it affects them. But I am, in spite those who think otherwise, not just an optimist, I am a romantic. I believe in the best of who each person is. That doesn’t mean I can’t see flaws or missteps objectively. But I believe that most people are doing their best most of the time.
And I believe that structures, which are always flawed, hold things together, keeping the pressure on the individuals from tearing everything apart.
Those structures have been under enormous pressure and many have succumbed. And “Just Keep Swimming” was a long accounting of how the structures are failing and the individuals can’t quite get it together to do much more than to, well, keep swimming.
So yes… it is much easier to diagnose what is broken (almost everything, on some level) than it is to prescribe something that will fix it all.
Thing is, for me, it is all connected. It is The Matrix. I have been around long enough and dug deeply enough to see a great deal of it in slow motion. I can’t quite figure out how to set up a documentary production or get a book deal… but I can see cause and effect on choices by studios and streamers and marketers (oh my!) in slow motion as they happen. I’m not as concerned with motives as I am with action.
Every situation is a flood of inputs in my brain. Nothing is just what it is. And as hard as it is for me to express all that, I can easily see that it is even harder to process from outside my head. Too much. Most consumers of information prefer one idea at a time. Me too, a lot of the time.
And I know that just because I am processing it doesn’t make it factual. But my effort to share these ideas can be too much, even before we get to a shared discussion of the many facts.
But does it really matter? I am not a player on the field. The stakes for those who are active players are much higher. I respect that. And that is, in great part, why I am uninterested in gossiping about who might lose their job and why and how much they deserve it. Or for that matter, overpraising. It’s gossip… until it’s news.
Part of me feels like this was a wasted newsletter and I should disappear this too. Self-examination for a columnist is death (he repeated). Just get back onto the Best Of 2020 stuff and the 3rd “New Year’s Resolutions” piece and shut up, David.
But I guess I have to get this odd my chest before I can get back to my normally scheduled programming. So I will offer this much of an “answer” as to how to move forward.
Know your power. Exercise your power. Aspire to your highest ideals. Don’t logroll. Don’t just smile and accept. Adapt as you must to whatever new shit comes down the pike. Burt don’t just adapt.
There is nothing that cannot change. There is nothing that cannot be better. No segment of the industry. No company. No people in power. That doesn’t mean that people are not often doing their best or putting their best foot forward. But the power of the undertow is intense. There are very few who ride the industry expertly and are able to fight for change at the same time, for themselves and others.
Right now, the walls and the gates are going unguarded. Everyone is too distracted. Everything is a war or a horse race, according the endless chatter.
In spite of a horrible history of Hollywood gatekeepers, the problem right now is not so much the guards, but that lack of those walls and gates. They aren’t needed to keep people or change out. They are meant to allow for planning for more than surviving the day.
In recent years, money means something different. Power means something different. Success means something different.
I guess you could say it was always about money… but it wasn’t long ago that people pretended it was about things other than just money. When it was about money, it was about actual dollars that could be counted. But we are quickly devaluing everything by valuing nothing in a tangible way… or at least, less and less.
There is a difference between being upset by change and seeing something accelerating towards its own annihilation. I love change. I believe in change. I pay deep attention to the history of change.
This is not just change. This is not just a natural evolution. Streaming is a natural evolution. The internet and resulting technologies made it even more inevitable than sound or color. No one sane is fighting this.
Yet, everything that scared people when the studio system went down in the late 60s and multinational corporations started buying up the remnants of the studios… 20x worse right now. Because it’s not just trying to bring strict corporate limitations into a much looser industry. A significant portion of the industry is abandoning reliable ways of measuring success and failure. The industry will survive… but only after the crash that is being set up, somewhat blindly.
This can change. But it’s not going to be people like me, watching from the sidelines, that make that change. If it was, I’d be there on the front lines, fighting. I’d be publishing “Just Keep Swimming.” But me throwing fire balls from the cheap seats… not going to help.
It’s on you.
Happy New Year!