Business Musings: TV/Film (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 3)
I thought I had my arms wrapped around this subsection of my very large topic, with an assist from an article I found about fear-based decision-making in directors. I saved it in my Pocket app after scanning the opening, and went on my merry way. Then, when I started reading past the précis of the scholarly article, I just about spit out my tea.
The article, cited in numerous other articles as important, focused on a handful of directors, the majority of them film students. One or two had actual directing jobs, with budgets of less than $10,000.
Um…well, that was worthless.
I had hoped for an in-depth study of people who actually worked in the industry, not scared amateurs or newly minted professionals who were terrified of making the kind of decision that might destroy any hope they had of a future in the industry.
Not, it seems, that certain folks have to worry at all about their futures in the industry. Even today, if you’re white and male and middle class, you have a leg-up in the film/TV industry.
That’s a serious problem. People with an inch-deep understanding of the importance of diverse voices believe that all it takes is hiring a person of color or a woman to meet some “diversity quotient,” and the problem is solved.
That kind of Band-Aid has shown up in the industry for years now, sometimes behind the scenes, but quite often in casting. For example, on the rebooted Magnum PI, the showrunners hired thirty-something Perdita Weeks to play Jonathon Higgins (carefully renamed as Juliet Higgins). On the original, Higgins, the majordomo of the Hawaii estate where Magnum works as a security consultant, was played by fifty-something John Hillerman. The character had a shady and somewhat scary British military past, from a time when the British intelligence services were all over the Middle East and India and the rest of the post-WWII world.
The shift from male to female was fascinating and irritating. It was clear, throughout season one, that making Higgins young and female, former MI-6, buttoned-up and filled with experience also made her by far the most interesting and most competent character in the show. It should have been retitled Higgins, not Magnum P.I.
The male showrunners in interviews before the show premiered were patting themselves on the back, saying that they changed Higgins’ gender “to add a female perspective” to the show—and that’s all the thought they gave the casting…
Until it became clear that Higgins’ competence was a problem. So what did they do in Season Two? Made her the will-they-or-won’t-they love interest. Dumbed her down, so she was less competent. Made her less surly and much more willing to be a sidekick who “needed” Magnum, not so much to rescue her (they let her keep her physical prowess) but to teach her how to think “outside the box.”
That’s the usual route for diversity in American TV/film. And it used to work, until streaming and a wide array of choices and some actual showrunners who aren’t white and male came along.
As I was researching this, I found a headline which stated that Shonda Rhimes would be writing a limited Queen Charlotte spin-off for Netflix. Queen Charlotte, for those of you who failed to watch Bridgerton over the holidays, is based on the actual queen of England at the time, whom most historians believe was a woman of color. Rhimes, who is also a woman of color, will both write and executive produce the show. As Elle Magazine wrote in its somewhat breathless coverage of the new show, “Rhimes has her hands in a lot of projects these days, so it’s pretty special that she’s taking on this one.” Yeah. She probably didn’t want anyone to mess it up, à la Higgins and Magnum P.I.
Look at the difference here: a show run by a woman of color, about a woman of color, featuring two other strong female characters, versus a show that needed a “female perspective” so the men in charge decided to flip genders on one role and thought that covered it.
This all goes back to the original impetus for this series of articles in the first place: Daniel Dae Kim’s comment to Entertainment Weekly (Monthly) in the May issue about Hollywood and fear-based decision making.
I think it’s fair to say that Hollywood operates under a fear-based decision-making system, and people don’t want to take chances because they’re afraid to lose their jobs—they want to do what they know. If the decision makers are all white males, then they’re going to greenlight the projects that appeal to them. That’s why it’s so important to have people who are not white or not male in these decision-making processes. It’s about pushing the boundaries in your respective fields, whether it’s acting, directing, producing, or all of the above—do whatever you’re able to do to push this boundary, keep this as a part of your agenda, because that’s the only way it’s going to get further.
A good example of what Kim is talking about is this situation that happened at the courtroom drama All Rise, which theoretically centers around a Black female judge. I say theoretically because her story got sidelined in the second season to focus on some in-fighting between white characters.
The showrunner, who proposed the show, is a white middle-class Canadian male who apparently has passive-aggressive anger issues among other things. Every person of color in the writers’ room quit after the first season, and more were hired, but apparently this guy never listened to them.
No one wanted to report this man for his bigotry and abuse, because they all supported the show which had its heart in the right place. They were afraid if they went forward, the show would be cancelled.
The showrunner was finally fired in early April.
This month, the show (which had marginally good ratings) was canceled.
The fears came true.
If you want to see what happens among the showrunners, employees, and others involved in a major industry project, especially when things go off the rails, read about this case in Salon—and realize that what happened here is pretty damn common, unfortunately.
These are casting and staffing problems. They’re also storytelling problems, which I will get to in a moment. But first, I want to share what the author of the Salon piece, Maureen Ryan, wrote in her conclusion:
But when many gatekeepers and decision-makers within multiple powerful entities share similar backgrounds and privileged worldviews, don’t appear to think work atmospheres and dynamics like the ones outlined above are “that bad,” and often seem convinced that a few hours of executive coaching can fix deeply rooted issues like racism, toxicity, abusive narcissism and misogyny, it’s difficult to imagine how much will truly change in Hollywood, unless individuals, guilds and other formal and informal coalitions pushing for better working conditions unite to make it change.
The real solution is Kim’s solution: studios and other entertainment industry organizations need to hire people in positions of power who are not white or male or middle-class, who were not educated in the same schools and who are not of the same religion and who don’t go to the same clubs.
I’m sure many of you writers reading this are wondering why I’m even bothering with this topic right now. Yeah, yeah. Hollywood (and the other parts of the industry) have their problems, but that has nothing to do with me.
And yet…it has everything to do with you.
Because of all the industries we’ll discuss in this series, the TV/film industry is probably the most fearful—and has always been so.
There are many reasons for this, but two of the most important are the corporate structure of the entities that air the shows you watch and the movies you see, and the amount of money we’re talking about here.
I get so annoyed when a writer whose book was made into a movie gets mad that they weren’t consulted about changes to the plot, characters or whatever.
First, that tells me the writer knows nothing about the film/TV industry. Second, it tells me that they probably signed a bad deal and never got the right to consult. Third, if they did consult, they probably insisted that no one touch their precious characters or story, not realizing that a TV series or a movie are entirely different storytelling art form than books. You can do things in books that can’t be done in movies or even in TV. Sometimes, in books, characters sit around and think—for chapters. That won’t play on the screen, ever.
Finally, these writers seem to forget that it takes a village to make a movie and a somewhat larger village to make a TV series. According to an article from 2014 (yes, things have probably changed), the average number of people who work on a Hollywood film is about 500.
When your book sells to the movies, you give a lot of people permission to reimagine your story for the screen. From the costume designer to the set designer to the director to the lowliest extra, all of those people will bring their own ideas to the job. There’s no way a group that large will ever film your vision, and if they do, chances are what they make will be so dull as to be impossible to watch.
Think about how much it costs to make a movie. The average cost of a major film is about $18 million. Films with large casts and major stars and a lot of CGI and locations and a bunch of producers and such can cost upwards of $200 million, and films with small casts can cost as little as $1 million.
I’ve been working with a producer who wants to make a “small” movie from one of my books. The suggested budget for this movie is $20 million. We had an extensive agreement for this small film that we had to redo when a Very Big Name director brought in a Very Big Name movie star for a nanosecond. That star would have been paid $20 million for his participation alone. And if we made a film worthy of that kind of payment, we had to immediately revise the budget upwards—which we did.
Covid problems, some deaths, and other changes made that particular dream of the movie disappear, but now the agreement between me and the producer takes into account budgets large and small just in case small grows to large…again.
My point here isn’t a humble brag about “my movie deal.” It’s to show you how much money is involved in one small project, and how that can change.
Those of you who’ve worked in corporations know that when you’re handed a project with a budget, that project better perform well enough to justify that budget or you and your job are probably toast. If nothing else, you won’t be trusted with a project of that size again.
Now imagine what happens in these Hollywood corporations over and over again. People have to guess whether or not a project will do well enough to justify the millions it will take to produce, and the time of at least 500 employees and contractors.
Failure here sometimes leaks into the press, and then the derision starts. Some directors have gone from handling films with budgets in the hundreds of millions to directing small independent films with budgets of $20 million or below. Those directors cover up by claiming they wanted to return to their indie roots, but really, they’ve been demoted and everyone knows it.
The same thing happens to actors, writers, producers…and heads of studios. If the studio head continually backs projects that don’t perform, that person loses their job (or jumps with a golden parachute).
There’s a reason Hollywood shows are so very conservative—cop shows, the will-they-won’t-they leads, the same-old same-old comedies, the big comic book movies and on and on. Yes, they’ve been done before.
That’s the point.
It’s easier to sell something to your boss in the studio by saying, “This is just like Game of Thrones but with mermaids,” than it is to say, “This has never been done before, but audiences will love it.”
The changing business model of the film/TV industry since the introduction of streaming as well as all of the competition has enabled some companies, like Netflix, to take big risks with projects like Bridgerton.
The industry is in a state of flux. But, as the All Rise example shows, most of the people in charge don’t understand the flux.
What they fail to realize is what we discussed last week.
They’re making decisions out of fear. Oh, no! CBS tried this kind of show five years ago and it bombed so badly that no one wants to try anything like it again.
If they were making decisions out of growth, they would understand that hiring writers and directors and producers from different communities won’t limit the films or TV shows’ audience. It will expand those audiences.
The examples are there if the industry wants to look. In 2018, Crazy Rich Asians startled the film world by becoming a major hit. As the New York Times put it in their headline: “‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Tops Box Office, Proving Power of Diversity (Again).”
And Bridgerton did the same thing, as has Girls Trip and almost every other film or TV show that fairly portrays a community other than those WASPy types. As Crazy Rich Asians producer Brad Simpson told the Times in August of 2018:
This shows — once again, with emphasis — that true diversity matters. Audiences are tired of seeing the same stories with the same characters. And we have to give people a reason to get off their couch or devices. We have to give them something different.
The streaming services are trying, but no one else seems to be. Everyone else is doing lip-service diversity like All Rise and Magnum P.I. (Magnum is Hispanic now—only exactly like Tom Selleck), rather than actually exploring stories that evolve from different cultures.
The problem is that if Hollywood actually changed its business properly, it would see exactly what Simpson said. Audiences of all races want different stories. We’re all tired of the same-old same-old. It wasn’t just Blacks who made Black Panther a box office smash. It was a good comic book film that brought out Marvel Universe audience as well as people who were seeing the movie to support a movie rooted in Black culture.
You’ll note that most of these movies and a lot of the more diverse streaming shows haven’t really made a dent in the projects that make it to some screen (large or small). Those scared execs who greenlight projects often find excuses not to make another film with an all-Asian cast (for example). Oh, they say, Crazy Rich Asians did well because it was a romance or it had a small budget (it did) or low expectations, and no film after that will have that kind of “luck.” All of that is shorthand for this is out of my comfort zone, so I’m turning it down.
What does this mean for novel writers? It means that you have to understand the industry you’re walking into. It’s changing slowly, and may be something closer to evolved five years from now, but because of the corporate entities and the money, Hollywood won’t change very fast.
So unless your project can be sold as It’s just like this successful film in this successful genre, only with that tiny tweak, your project won’t get a greenlight—in conventional areas.
Smaller budgets, maybe. Maybe someone will take a risk on YouTube Premium or one of the other smaller sites that cater to really low-budget projects, but something with millions at stake? Not that likely.
Even Shonda Rhimes had a proven track record when she went to Netflix.
Understanding this will teach you to pack your patience when you get an opportunity to partner with the industry for one of your books. It might take years to move something from option to development to greenlight. And not just because it’s about a community that the white folks in charge aren’t part of. Sometimes it’s because the book’s genre is science fiction (whose average film budget falls somewhere around $60 million) or because it’s a western, which even now most studios won’t touch.
If you understand that every decision made in the film/TV industry is fear-based—from choice of project to budget to screenplay to casting—then you’ll understand why the industry is so hidebound. It’s hard to break in because of fear, not because the folks running the industry are smarter than the rest of us.
They’re just terrified. They were scared to death in 2019. I can’t imagine how they feel in 2021, after the pandemic, with the theater chains closing and films debuting on streaming services.
The entire industry is in flux.
And all that does is amp up the fear.
Which makes the decisions all that much harder.
This year, I wrote a series of blogs on the TV/film industry, which I then turned into a short book called Tips About The TV/Film Industry For Novelists. Right now, you can get that book as part of a Storybundle with 8 other books and an online workshop, all for $15.
If today’s blog intrigued you, I suggest you pick up the book before you make an attempt to do anything with the industry.
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“Business Musings: TV/Film (Fear-Based Decision-Making Part 3),” copyright © 2021 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / iridi.