THB #96: Fear & Loathing in Hollywood
Today’s column is inspired by Nicole LaPorte’s piece in The Ankler (where it is getting a little hard to distinguish who is The Ankler), "It Feels Like the Last Days of Rome."
If you haven’t read it, you should start today’s newsletter by reading it. I don’t know how accessible it is to non-subscribers, but I suspect most of the people reading this are also subscribers there. If you don’t have access and aren’t willing to pay, sorry. My newsletter today will probably make sense, though at times, it might seem incoherent. (Insert joke about this newsletter here.)
Okay… so those of you who have now done your assignment…
It took me more than a few paragraphs of Nicole’s piece to stop rolling my eyes. But none of this masturbation is Nicole’s… it’s the people she talked to… and my experience of this group is similar to hers, actually.
Actually, I would split the current tone from the top of the Hollywood food chain into three groups; The Working, The Half-Engaged, and The Whining.
There are a lot of people, from the very top to the very middle (the bottom is always working, doing the heavy lifting), who are well ensconced in the current wave, making as much or more money than ever, and certainly making more hours of content than they ever have.
If you have the idea that making less content while making more money is the goal, you probably need a new set of mirrors in the house(s) and some time volunteering… or at least letting your 2nd nanny or 4th groundskeeper go home early on Fridays.
There is, as I point out endlessly, more filmed content being made right now than ever in the history of the industry. By a lot. That wave is going to crash eventually. And I look forward to reading Nicole’s missive then, as execs and producers start throwing themselves out windows and are embarrassed to find that their mansions are only 2 stories tall, the grass is lush, and the worst they will do is twist their ankles.
People have argued with me about how The New Way for many, many years. And I am an aggressive believer that, like a shark, this industry needs to keep moving or it will die. What usually turns out to be the disconnect between myself and others is that change - real, hardcore change - is not recognized by the person with whom I am arguing.
I completely accept that the very real change that happens in this industry much more often and more extravagantly than people realize, may not the the change that they care about. And I don’t argue that it does. Or that one set of changes is better or more important than another.
Some change is good. Some change is an illusion, for better or worse. And some change is bad.
Nicole’s piece is really about The Half-Engaged and The Whining.
Todd Garner is the launching point of the piece. Mr. Garner has a made a lot of money in this business. He has been at or near the top of the food chain for more than 2 decades. And he hasn’t made a movie that wasn’t an original turd or remake in a decade.
I am not meaning to attack Todd Garner. Not the point. As co-president of production at Disney back in the Eisner era, then as a co-owner of Revolution Studios, now on his own as an all-phone-calls-answered producer, the man has done a lot of movies. He is as inside as inside can be. He’s made a lot of money and he’s made a lot of people a lot of money. He is more than a few people’s dream ambition come to life.
But he is now an adult man pressing up against Social Security (his actual age is will hidden on the internet), making movies about teenagers and remaking classics like All of Me and An American Werewolf in London. I really hope his upcoming Netflix film, with Rebel Wilson going back to high school is gloriously funny and successful. And I like his Mortal Kombat movie a lot more than most film critics did.
That said, the next person who has Todd Garner’s career path is only going to by able to build a $40 million fortune in the industry over 2 decades, as opposed to the $150 million or more that Garner likely has accumulated.
Of course, there are exceptions to that reality as well. There were 5 producers of Knives Out. The Netflix deal for 2 sequels will put at least $30 million in each of their pockets from pretty much the day the deal was signed. For them, the jackpot still exists. The question, really, is whether there will ever be a Knives Out opportunity that emerges from a streaming deal. Even Squid Game. Those folks who made the first season on a deal where they all made good money… but just good… will get a small fortune on the sequel deal. But will it look anything like $250 million a season (10x the first season) a la Knives? Not likely.
So Garner is amongst the half-engaged. He is nearing the end of his highly productive years anyway, unless he gets hot with a property like The Fast & The Furious and it drags him into greater fortunes in his senior years.
He is extremely successful. He is extremely rich by normal human standards. He will continue to produce and executive produce projects every year for most of the rest of his life. And he will feel enormous angst about that other thing that got away.
The other group is The Whining.
They are the ones, broadly, who are losing their positions of power as the industry turns over and are not in favor with The New Crowd. You see scores of these folks on studio lots and in hop office spaces. They were wired. They understood the game. And now, they are feeling like the old cliches about executives (young or uneducated on the industry or distracted) are being visited upon them like the ghost of Christmas Future.
Many of these people have been through the grinder with The Streamers. They’ve had deals. And they came out disappointed or disconnected. They are still working, but they see no golden tickets heading their way.
Over at The Studios, the factory is pumping out stuff as quickly as it can. There are endless jeremiads about how studios are over and unimportant. But of the 4 streamers following Netflix, 3 are studio based and the 4th is buying a small studio for their own. So… semantics… and bullshit.
Still, the focus at the studios - as Nicole explains so well in many ways - is gone for the moment.
Disney has shat upon one of its crown jewels, Pixar, while milking Star Wars for TV with no clear path forward for movies and giving Feige a lot of room with Marvel for fear of losing him. Fox @Disney is decimated, except for internal IP, tv shows, and Avatar. Disney Searchlight is leaning more and more heavily towards television. Warners is a mirage with new management coming in and current management spending a lot of time trying to promote their way into keeping their jobs… which they will not.
Paramount is the comedy spectacle of the year (holding that crown for years now), flipping from “we’re just gonna sell stuff” to “we’re all in on streaming” 6 months into their Paramount+ launch. Wall St has expressed no confidence while “insider” media continues to talk about Shari Redstone like she is making decisions in the coutour department at Bergdorf Goodman.
Sony is, weirdly, the most stable place in town, having sold a lot of its content for the next 5 years to Netflix, while being the one public absolutist on theatrical… though the Animation deal takes their animated product out of theatrical completely.
Universal has been quite clear on where it is, though Comcast has not. The movie studio has about 20 films on the theatrical release schedule in 2022. They are all being released with the understanding - so far - that the next window could start anywhere from 17 days to 45 days after theatrical release… and could be in theaters longer or, if so inspired, go day-n-date. Everyone else is so unsettled about how they will release movies that Universal doesn’t get crap for wanting it every which way as the (well-considered) whim takes them. And Universal TV continues to produce a lot, with shows everywhere, but primarily for NBC, Amazon, and Peacock.
But TV is even more f-ed up than the movie business, really. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David are the last one-series TV billionaires. The era is over… for now.
You know those side mirrors that say “Objects appear larger than they are.” The same is true of this era of bought-out TV. The part that people forget about when they bring up the problem with not knowing all the detailed viewership numbers for your show is that… it still doesn’t matter.
Yes, if you have a Squid Game and it explodes and they can’t go around you for a follow-up season and what they need is not the audience engagement so much as the media engagement that Season 2 will bring… you have the winning hand.
But in between the 10 most popular series of the year and the 10 least popular series, it is a giant blur of non-specific value. Success has no firm measure. No one series or 5 series or 10 series, aside from the ones that become memes, really matter. It’s all firewood. Often brilliant firewood. But firewood nonetheless. No one is cancelling Netflix because their 11th most popular show got shut down prematurely. And no one is paying for Netflix 12 months a year because their 11th favorite show got renewed.
Don’t get me wrong… Netflix is happy to overpay you, industryites. They just aren’t going to pay for your great grandchildren’s 3rd vacation homes anymore.
In simpler terms… a much smaller sliver of content creators are going to get the pot of gold… which in spite of the unnamed whiner in Nicole’s piece, does still exist.
But as Ms. LaPorte quotes Garner as saying: “There’s more opportunity, but you have to make more to make the same that you potentially could have made if you had one big hit. You have to have a lot of at-bats and that is very anxiety-producing. Before, you could have one, big theatrical hit that held you over for a number of years.”
(Insert yet another comment on great wealth and loss perspective.)
The subtext, which Garner and others may or may not be fully grasping, is that the industry is not unlike professional sports. For a long time, ownership fed the idea that players demanding more money was greedy. (More than a little racism was involved there too.) People rooted against the players demanding more.
Then the unions got stronger in sports - agents in Hollywood - and the players started finding ways to get bigger cuts of the pie. If the big money on hits wasn’t going to players, it was going to ownership, who were already insanely rich. So the big wins for talent or for producers started to be seen as underdog wins. When Sumner Redstone was outraged by the Tom Cruise payday on M:I3, he didn’t accuse him of being greedy… he accused him of being crazy.
But with the Netflix pre-buyout take, ownership was essentially taking the risk out of the equation for talent and producers. Netflix created, essentially, a salary cap. Every now and again, they could color outside the lines if they liked. Talent and producers who are in with the streamers are all going to make really good money. They aren’t going to really have dry spells. If you consider $2m+ a year wealth, there are many producers and showrunners and actors who will have that working within this system. Real people will not understand why they are complaining. And there will be a few superstars… like like in professional sports, where $40m a year contracts are not a unicorn event anymore.
But the idea of being a hard working producer who does good work or bad work but gets work done and hits the jackpot a few times over decades and ends up with $100 million in the bank by 50… that is less and less likely under the current model.
That is unless you get bought up by a sucker who is looking for a bigger sucker like Reese Witherspoon has. But that’s another story.