Dear Movie Industry, We Have Thoughts
Posted May 3, 2018 8:06 p.m. EDT
Every so often, our chief film critics, Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, fire off a number of thoughtful memos to the movie industry and the industry-adjacent. These messages are largely ignored, which does not stop Dargis and Scott from continuing this semi-serious tradition. Given the new summer season and how deeply fraught the past year has been — Harvey Weinstein, Netflix, #MeToo, #oscarsalittlelesswhitebutnotmuch — it was time for our critics to weigh in again with their thoughts (and complaints).
TO: Ava DuVernay and Reese Witherspoon
It is blissfully obvious that either one of you could run a movie and television studio. Together, you’d rule supreme. You’re both talented at shifting between the small screen and the large, and have impressive credits in each medium. In its 2017 power ranking, The Hollywood Reporter anointed you, DuVernay, as the 70th-most-powerful person in entertainment, and, you, Witherspoon, as the 98th-mostest. Imagine what you could do if together you, say, bought 20th Century Fox studio, which is slated to be absorbed (resistance is futile) by the Walt Disney Co. Imagine too what a genuinely 21st-century entertainment studio could look like if you brought Ryan Coogler in as an equal partner. Couldn’t Oprah Winfrey write a nice hefty check for you (us)?
TO: Brad Pitt
FROM: A.O.S. (and every other white guy who doesn’t want to be like all those other white guys)
CC: George Clooney
No pressure, but you’re all we’ve got right now. Don’t mess it up.
TO: Robert A. Iger, chairman and chief executive of the Walt Disney Co.
Congratulations on your world domination! With Disney about to own most of 21st Century Fox, you seem slated to jump from 26.1 percent of the box office market share to 40.4 percent. Shame about Disney shareholders rejecting your recent compensation package (which Reuters estimated at $48.5 million a year), but once you break up Fox — one of the great studios that brought us classical Hollywood — all should be fine. I have a favor, though: Please leave Fox Searchlight alone. It’s a good company and it releases movies for adults, who are having a tough time finding something at the multiplex as the Disney-Lucasfilm-Marvel-Pixar-verse expands and expands and expands. ...
[Ms. Dargis has decided to remain quiet on this subject in favor of her more temperate colleague.]
TO: Netflix subscribers
What are you watching? Nobody knows! The streaming service doesn’t share its numbers. But many of us love it anyway, just like we loved getting those DVDs in the mail. There is so much good stuff in the queue, all available for home viewing. Original movies and TV shows and much more besides, though it isn’t always easy to find.
This abundance, and our growing dependence on it, makes it easy to side with Netflix when it gets into fights with big, old-fashioned adversaries like the Hollywood studios and France. What did France ever do for us? But recent history might counsel a bit of skepticism. Remember how much we used to like Facebook? I mean, before we began to suspect that it was harvesting our data, destroying our privacy and undermining our democracy. We should have learned by now that big tech companies do not necessarily have our best interests at heart. They do so much for us, at so little apparent cost, that we forget to ask what they might demand in return.
Every distributor of content, including movie studios and this newspaper, seeks to monetize a share of human attention. The tech giants, whose ranks Netflix aspires to join, want something more like a monopoly, to be the conduit for as much of our experience as they can.
Now, the bargain looks attractive, and the complaints trivial. Netflix is throwing money at creative people (Chris Rock and Shonda Rhimes) and cool movies (“The Meyerowitz Stories” and “Mudbound”) and turning our queues into cornucopias. What we get is endless choice and stupefying abundance. We might risk losing something of greater value, though. An infinite archive and a perfect algorithm don’t add up to a culture. TO: Wes Anderson
So ... subtitles. Apparently you are not a fan, as we know from “Isle of Dogs,” a fantasy you far too carelessly set in Japan. You were sharply criticized for your representation of Japanese people and culture, which is, you know, understandable given that its canine heroes all speak in cute English while much of what the Japanese human characters say remains untranslated. You’ve said that “subtitles didn’t seem that fun” and that “when you’re reading subtitles, you’re really focused on the subtitles all through the movie and you don’t listen to the language as much.” I assume that you didn’t want subtitles messing with your beautiful, meticulously designed visuals — but come on!
First of all, you have my gratitude and admiration for breathing life into the fainting corpse of adventurous, independent, democratic American cinema. The movie world is better for “Moonlight,” “The Florida Project” and “Lady Bird” and for the genre experiments and argument starters that have filled out your slate since “Spring Breakers” put you on the map in 2013.
Your movies play in festivals alongside a lot of interesting films from other countries, films that have an increasingly hard time finding traction in the American marketplace, in theaters or on streaming platforms. Maybe you could use some of your money to acquire a few, and your marketing savvy to connect them with the audience you have cultivated, which is young, worldly and curious. And also capable of reading subtitles.
Sisterhood is powerful, as they used to say in the 1970s, when a lot of people were struggling with what women’s liberation really and fully entailed. Liberated from what? Men? Marriage? Good questions! Decades later, we are still figuring it out, including in American movies, where male domination has never gone out of style, which of course brings us to, ugh, Harvey Weinstein. After the allegations about him broke, there were some nice-sounding apologies, promises and gestures, and numerous holiday parties were sacrificed in the name of male contrition.
More than six months later, female activists, like those in Time’s Up, are admirably working for real change. But as Sun Tzu or perhaps Angelina Jolie once said, the only thing that power understands is greater power, which in the industry often means money. But there are different forms of power, including that of self-determination. Actresses turned producer-directors like Lois Weber who worked in early cinema understood that, and so did Ida Lupino back in the 1950s. So it’s heartening to see performers like Jolie, Charlize Theron, Eva Longoria, Rachel Weisz and Alia Shawkat help bring female-driven stories onto the screen. More, please. TO: The Oscars
Oddly, you seem to have ignored the memo of May 1, 2009, in which I advised you either to improve your awards broadcast or give it up. You have, instead, worked on perfecting an evening of awkward, having-it-both-ways tedium that satisfies nobody. It’s barely even worth a hate-watch. Consider that the most memorable Oscar moment of the past decade was a train wreck that compromised the dignity of two venerable movie stars and messed with the feelings of two excellent young filmmakers. Yes, your problems reflect larger issues — a polarized society, an industry struggling to be inclusive and globally profitable, a content glut — but you should be smart enough to turn these contradictions into reasons for tuning in. You’re the Academy, after all.
TO: Historical analogy fans
FROM: A.O.S. (a child of real historians)
Please read some history. About the Salem witch trials, the Spanish Inquisition, the martyrdom of early Christians, Joseph McCarthy, Josef Stalin, the Gestapo, Pol Pot and any of the other historical monsters and catastrophes you like to invoke when talking about whatever is bothering you in contemporary culture. Also please refrain from hyperbolically throwing around words like “silencing,” “thought police” and “censorship” in reference to criticism on social media or elsewhere. People who indulge in this kind of rhetorical inflation are like rats spreading bubonic plague. TO: Endeavor
You are said to be the world’s largest global talent agency. Congratulations on your world domination, but I have a question. I recently read in Variety that you have named Courtney Braun the head of legal affairs for the representation businesses. (I hope you’re paying her as well as your male executives.) But this line in the story confused me: “The company said that Braun’s promotion comes as a result of increasingly complicated issues that talent agencies face, from handling discrimination and harassment concerns amid the #MeToo movement to managing potential conflicts of interest for Endeavor and its units as they expand into new areas of business.”
What, exactly, is so complicated about dealing with discrimination and harassment?
TO: Certain men in Hollywood (you know who you are)
FROM: Never mind who
You are perhaps at this moment breathing a sigh of relief, crawling out from under your desk and looking forward to getting back to business as usual. The daily barrage of news reports about bad men in your industry (and many others) seems to have subsided, and in some circles the talk has even turned to redemption. It’s comeback time! Not in every case, of course, but if Harvey Weinstein ends up being the guy who takes the fall for everyone else, you won’t mind. You never much liked him anyway (even if you used to tell anyone in earshot what good friends you were).
As for you: Your harassment never reached the level of assault; your flirting and touching wasn’t really harassment; your general contempt for women doesn’t mean you’re not one of the good guys. If your first two wives won’t vouch for you, the third one surely will. And for whatever reason, you were spared. You’ve picked up a new vocabulary — “reckoning,” “respect,” “inconsistent with our values” — and adjusted your behavior a bit, mostly by making self-conscious jokes about being a white man and loudly professing admiration for the strength and bravery of certain actresses. You sometimes worry that the whole #MeToo thing might be going too far, but your own position seems secure. Your #time, by golly, is not yet #up.
Keep telling yourself that.