Steal a little and they throw you in jail,
Steal a lot and they make you king.
— Bob Dylan, ‘Sweetheart Like You’ from Infidels (1983)
Saturday, 20 January 2018, marked the one-year anniversary of the Trump presidency. Americans woke up to a federal government in shutdown mode. Hard core Trump supporters had voted for him to defibrillate the body politic. Tweet by tweet, he reflexively shook up the status quo over an elongated dog year worth of zigzagging positions and roller-coaster pronouncements. The events that led up to the shutdown were no different. After three days of partisan bickering it ended anticlimactically, although the atmospherics of division, dissolution, and recrimination remain unabated in Washington and throughout the country.
Ronald Reagan was America’s first professional actor-politician who built upon his 30-year career in radio, film, and television and as a Hollywood union leader to become governor of California (1967-1975) and then president of the United States (1981-1989). Officially dubbed in print the ‘Great Communicator’ upon assuming the presidency by longtime New York Times columnist, Russell Baker, Reagan was a true-blue conservative who projected the constancy of his convictions by way of a disposition that was characteristically genial and optimistic.
Donald J. Trump is cut from another cloth. He is a 47-year businessman cum television personality who has parlayed his celebrity into an improbable win of the White House. Even though Trump’s ‘Make America Great’ branding line echoes Reagan’s 1980s ‘Morning in America’ messaging, he is more the latter’s doppelgänger than his natural successor. Trump’s persona more conjures up the dark and angry resentment politics of an untutored Richard Nixon. Trump is less a great communicator than a compelling one. He commands attention like a roadside accident. He is a constant reminder of how much work still needs to be done for the nation to realize its founding ideals.
Russians aside, Americans elected Donald Trump president with 304 to 227 electoral votes. Much to Trump’s continuing dismay, he lost the popular tally by 2.1% or 2,864,974 votes. New York Times political reporter, Amy Chozick, recently argued that ‘Hillary Clinton ignited a feminist movement by losing’ (SR1). Maybe. Chozick goes on to quote Linda Sarsour, who co-chaired the 21-22 January 2017 nation- and worldwide Women’s March in response to Trump’s inauguration: ‘People were so aghast and felt betrayed that so many of our fellow Americans voted for a misogynist, accused sexual predator’ (SR4). A year later a second Women’s March of comparable proportions flooded urban streets across North America and on five other continents.
All of these subterranean socio-political and cultural currents predate the historical actors who have come to embody them, including Trump. It is more a ‘what if’ exercise in alternate history to speculate whether or not Obama and Clinton supporter, Harvey Weinstein, would have been publicly unmasked as soon as he was in the 5 October 2017 article by New York Times investigate journalists, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, if Hillary Clinton had actually won. Trump’s victory must be considered part of the mix of ingredients that is fueling the #MeToo Movement, while also adding to what was already a highly turbulent transitional period for the business, industry, and culture of Hollywood.
For example, The Weinstein Company (TWC) was arguably at its lowest financial ebb ever as a mini-major studio and distributor over its dozen years of existence when Harvey was outed by the New York Times. Despite a handful of recent high-profile Oscar-winning Best Pictures such as The King’s Speech (2010) and The Artist (2011), and critical and commercial hits such as Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Silver Linings Playbook (2012), TWC success ratio at the box office has been rapidly declining for years.
Likewise, the acclaim and profit TWC enjoyed with its long-running reality television show, Project Runway (Bravo, 2004-08; Lifetime, 2009-present), was more than canceled out by its short-lived Netflix scripted drama, Marco Polo (2014-16), which at $9 million an episode over 20 installments made this banal audience flop the second most expensive TV series produced at the time behind Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-present).
Power and influence in Hollywood has always been determined by profit and product popularity and the fact is Harvey and Bob Weinstein’s standing in the industry had been waning throughout the 2010s, which put them and their company in a more vulnerable position than ever before. For three years running, the Weinsteins had been casting around for new partners or investors who could provide infusions of cash, attracting little interest and no takers. They laid off 20% of their 200 staffers in 2015 and were regularly outbid for the most promising new film and TV projects by the major streamers, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu, as well as up-and-coming mini-major competitors, such as A24 (Moonlight, Lady Bird) and Roadside Attractions (Wonderstruck, Manchester by the Sea), among others.
A course correction in the creative media and entertainment industry has been in the offing ever since the Great Recession of 2007-09 in much the same way as a changing of the guard is now becoming more evident across American business, industry, and politics, as the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath suggests. Old Hollywood (which included Harvey Weinstein and TWC) is similarly experiencing a last hurrah as a New (if indistinct, and as of yet, undetermined) Hollywood is emerging.
For instance, the theatrical movie business is in full retreat. The four largest North American chains (AMC Theaters, Regal Entertainment Group, Cinemark USA, and Cineplex Entertainment) lost an estimated $1.3 billion in value by early last fall on the heels of a summer season that was down 20%, marking its worst showing in 24 years (Sakoui and Orr). In addition, talks have been well underway since 2016 among the major movie studios, the National Association of Theatre Owners, and streaming companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Comcast to shuttle the once sacrosanct 90-day window for theatrical movie releases, moving instead to 30-to-45 days followed by a PVOD (premium video-on-demand) window where viewers pay between $30 and $50 to download the latest Hollywood films direct to their homes.
This October Martin Scorsese wrote an editorial in The Hollywood Reporter that bemoaned the ‘real loss’ of ‘35mm projection.’ He also called out the review aggregator, Rotten Tomatoes (which is owned by Comcast/NBCUniversal (70%) and Time Warner (30%) and run by Comcast’s Fandango) for having a detrimental effect on the box office performance of films that aren’t ‘instantly liked.’ Variety for its part pointed to poor execution in many of the studios’ highest-profile tentpole films and a growing ‘comic-book fatigue’ as further reasons for the current ‘reckoning’ that is now occurring throughout the ‘movie business’ (Lang).
More fundamentally, though, the composition of America’s moviegoing public has been shrinking and skewing older for more than a decade. Millennials are just far more interested in streamable content than going to theaters as frequently as Gen-Xers and babyboomers were when they were in their teens, twenties, and thirties. In a similar vein, predictions have been tossed around since the mid-2000s about the imminent rise in cord-cutting by television viewers. Beginning in 2015, however, the data finally backs up these longstanding predictions about the growing number of both ‘cord-cutters’ and ‘cord-nevers’ in the United States (Spangler).
It’s a brave new world out there in more ways than one. Film and television are best understood today as legacy terms, not so much as static pieces of hardware and software, but as closely intertwined business models, sets of production practices, and codified listings of specific aesthetic choices. The global movie and TV sectors of the entertainment industry have been rapidly evolving and adding an ever increasing number of newly unexpected corporate players throughout the 21st century from Comcast and AT&T to Netflix and Amazon to most recently YouTube and Apple.
The pace of change has been breathtaking and where it is all headed is anyone’s guess. What is clear in the short term is that the overlapping worlds of entertainment and politics are caught in a symbolic struggle to define what this transitional period means and how each can exert some influence on determining where it is headed. For example, the Golden Globes sponsored by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has a long history of being the booziest and least serious of all the awards ceremonies. It nevertheless has emerged over the past two years as a highly visible reference point for the current culture wars.
On 8 January 2017, Meryl Streep called out President-elect Donald Trump without naming him directly in her acceptance speech upon receiving the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. She recalled how he ‘imitated a disabled reporter. Someone he outranked in privilege, power and the capacity to fight back . . . And this instinct to humiliate, when it is modeled by someone in the public platform, by someone powerful . . . it kinda gives permission for other people to do the same thing.’ The next morning White House spokesperson, Kellyanne Conway, pushed back at Streep for these remarks on CNN and Fox News, while Trump himself tweeted:
Meryl Streep, one of the most over-rated actresses in Hollywood, doesn’t know me but attacked last night at the Golden Globes. She is a Hillary flunky who lost big. For the 100th time, I never ‘mocked’ a disabled reporter (would never do that) but simply showed him ‘groveling’ when he totally changed a 16 year old story that he had written in order to make me look bad. Just more very dishonest media!
In the intervening year, much has transpired in the ongoing debate between Hollywood and Washington over a series of cultural issues from health care to sexual crimes, abuse, and harassment. Social media enabled a national outpouring of #MeToo revelations that has since resulted in a national movement. Following in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s firing from TWC on 8 October 2017, more than 100 other men across many white collar professions have subsequently lost their jobs. In entertainment and news specifically, the list includes Roy Price (head of Amazon Studios), Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Charlie Rose, and Matt Lauer, among many others. Likewise, sexual misconduct accusations have persisted against President Trump, leading Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Jeff Merkley of Oregon to publicly urge him to resign (Shear).
All indications are that change is in the air, but where exactly it is happening and how much is really possible remains a question. Hollywood is undoubtedly experiencing a transition of apocalyptic proportions on the levels of technology, business, and industry. Sometimes these structural changes can even impact culture, as was evident as a contributing albeit hidden factor in the fall of Harvey Weinstein. Reaching some sort of ‘before’ and ‘after’ point on the cultural level, however, is a far more protracted, laborious, and challenging process.
Viewers of the 75th annual Golden Globe Awards Ceremony might believe that cultural change in Hollywood is much more imminent than it really is. Televised on NBC and streamed live for the first time during prime time on 7 January 2018, this year’s Golden Globes was equal parts protest against Hollywood’s history of sexual harassment and the usual promotional celebration of the attending film and television talents and their most recent releases.
Campaign organizers for Time’s Up helped set the agenda with many women dressed in all-black with several high-profile actresses accompanied on the red carpet by actual activists, such as Michelle Williams with #MeToo founder Tarana Burke. The climax of the evening came when Oprah Winfrey delivered her impassioned acceptance speech, underscoring that she was the first black woman to be recognized with the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award. Her remarks included references to both race and gender as well as acknowledging the struggles of women from all strata of society and walks of life. Oprah’s concluding sentiment that ‘a New Day is on the horizon’ had the excited audience on its feet.
Oprah Winfrey’s Conclusion to Her Golden Globes Speech (3:07)
The Twittersphere responded to Oprah’s performance with mostly rave reviews, some even suggesting she should run for president in 2020. The fact of the matter is though that Harvey Weinstein was only ousted four months ago and thus few concrete steps have even been taken so far to remedy Hollywood’s culture of disproportionate power dynamics, sexism, racism, and financial shenanigans. To the good, an investor group headed by Maria Contreras-Sweet, former Small Business Administrator for President Barack Obama, has surfaced as the sole bidder for TWC with a commitment to relaunch it as an all-female studio (Seigel). It’ll take years before the soon-to-be renamed TWC is a competitive mini-major player in the content creation side of the business, however.
Take as an analogous instance, the case of the #OscarsSoWhite movement that surfaced in 2015 with a handful of high-profile black actors and directors calling attention to the longstanding practice of people of color being overlooked by Academy Award voters, not to mention for jobs throughout the entertainment industry. Social media once again provided a groundswell of support that finally moved the usually clannish Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences to double the number of women and persons of color within its present ranks of approximately 8,400 members.
What has occurred as a result is the recruitment and induction of a record-setting 774 new members over the last two years, 39% of which are female and 30% people of color. Headway is indeed being made, but to put these numbers into perspective, the Academy’s membership has fallen from 76% to 72% male and 91% to 87% white over this time-frame (Vilkomerson 38). The point is not to underestimate the importance and potential impact of Oprah’s aspirational rhetoric, but rather to acknowledge the enormity of the task at hand.
Optimistic signs are no doubt apparent in the 2018 Oscar nominations with four people of color up for the acting awards (Mary J. Blige, Daniel Kaluuya, Octavia Spencer, and Denzel Washington); Jordan Peele being only the fifth black director nominee; Greta Gerwig being only the fifth woman director nominee; and Rachel Morrison being the first woman cinematographer nominee. The 90th annual Academy Award ceremony also promises to be another televised flash point where many of today’s hot-button cultural issues are raised and symbolically engaged. Scheduled on ABC and hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, this year’s Oscar telecast will be seen live in over 225 countries and territories by an estimated audience that will exceed one billion people.
Jimmy Kimmel by the way just hosted Stormy Daniels (née Stephanie Clifford) on the 30 January 2018 episode of his late-night talk show on ABC following President Trump’s State of the Union address to Congress. Daniels is the former adult-film star who was the subject of a January 12 Wall Street Journal investigative piece that reported she received ‘a $130,000 payment . . . a month before the 2016 election as part of an agreement that precluded her from publicly discussing an alleged sexual encounter with Mr. Trump’ (Rothfeld and Palazzolo).
President Trump for his part denies any involvement and has characterized the story as just another example of fake news. What is most surprising are the poll numbers that suggest two-thirds of Americans believe this revelation, but still no tipping point is visible on the horizon in response to the constant drum beat of scandal and controversy engulfing this White House. Cultural change does occur but it is usually long and hard in coming. The worm will eventually turn, but until then, the beat goes on . . .
Chozick, Amy. ‘Movement Goes On Without Her,’ New York Times. 14 January 2018: SR1 & SR4.
Kantor, Jodi, and Megan Twohey. ‘TV Ratings: Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades,’ New York Times. 6 October 2017: A1.
Lang, Brent. ‘The Reckoning: Why the Movie Business Is in Big Trouble,’ Variety. 27 March 2017 at http://variety.com/2017/film/features/movie-business-changing-consumer-demand-studios-exhibitors-1202016699/.
Rothfeld, Michael, and Joe Palazzolo. ‘Trump Lawyer Arranged $130,000 Payment for Adult-Film Star’s Silence,’ Wall Street Journal. 12 January 2018 at https://www.wsj.com/articles/trump-lawyer-arranged-130-000-payment-for-adult-film-stars-silence-1515787678.
Sakoui, Anousha, and Emma Orr. ‘Hollywood Might Not Bounce Back From Theaters’ $1.3 Billion Stock Collapse,’ Bloomberg. 3 August 2017 at https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-08-03/after-1-3-billion-stock-collapse-hollywood-s-picture-blurs.
Scorsese, Martin. ‘Martin Scorsese on Rotten Tomatoes, box Office Obsession and Why “Mother!” Was Misjudged (Guest Column),’ Hollywood Reporter. 10 October 2017 at https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/martin-scorsese-rotten-tomatoes-box-office-obsession-why-mother-was-misjudged-guest-column-1047286.
Shear, Michael D. ‘Trump Sexual Misconduct Accusations Repeated by Several Women,’ New York Times. 12 December 2017: A22.
Siegel, Tatiana. ‘The Report: How Harvey’s Old Company Could Be Reborn,’ Hollywood Reporter. 10 January 2018: 17-18.
Spangler, Todd. ‘Cord-Cutting Explodes: 22 Million U.S. Adults Will Have Canceled Cable, Satellite TV by End of 2017,’ Variety. 13 September 2017 at http://variety.com/2017/biz/news/cord-cutting-2017-estimates-cancel-cable-satellite-tv-1202556594/.
Vilkomerson, Sara. ‘And the Oscar Doesn’t Goes To . . .,’ Entertainment Weekly. 1 December 2017: 34-38.
Gary R. Edgerton is Professor of Creative Media and Entertainment at Butler University. He has published twelve books and more than eighty-five essays on a variety of television, film and culture topics in a wide assortment of books, scholarly journals, and encyclopedias. He also coedits the Journal of Popular Film and Television.