Big business has provided a source of bad guys in movies and television since the medium’s infancy, highlighted by Frank Capra films and adaptations of Charles Dickens — and becoming more popular in modern times thanks to the villainous void created by the Cold War’s end.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, however, has brought renewed attention to the image of what President Obama has referred to as “fat-cat bankers,” whose relationship with Hollywood’s creative community is exacerbated by their uncomfortable resemblance to another distrusted elite — namely, fat-cat media moguls, presiding over ever-larger conglomerates.
Corporate overlords have long embodied ruthlessness in pop culture, a historic trend the Wall Street Journal recently explored. Despite Hollywood’s perceived liberal bent, the piece noted that such movies are motivated less by politics than screenwriters and directors “expressing their own perennial resentment of bottom-line focused studio heads, who often seek to dilute a film’s message for mass-market appeal.”
Nevertheless, the profit-above-all-else plotline has risen from merely evicting the happy residents of “It’s a Wonderful Life’s” Bedford Falls to dazzling sci-fi extremes. In short, in movies and TV, executives aren’t above engineering a killing to make one.
Since the Berlin Wall fell, business’s offenses include complicity in nuclear annihilation (CBS’ “Jericho”), tampering with life and death (the latest “Torchwood,” subtitled “Miracle Day”) and perhaps the pinnacle of bigscreen evil, the media tycoon as James Bond villain (“Tomorrow Never Dies”). Tellingly, in remaking “The Manchurian Candidate,” the string-pulling heavies shifted from communists to corporations.
The level of malevolence suggests that antipathy toward greedy multinational monoliths has taken on a deeper hue, with Hollywood’s perceptions of business colored and informed by the media’s evolving structure. Creative talent interacts daily with major studios that have become cogs in massive vertically integrated enterprises — and engaged in fractious negotiations with those entities, highlighted by the 2007-08 writers strike.
The underlying tension and painful memories were reflected in the statement issued by newly elected Writers Guild of America, West president Christopher Keyser, expressing solidarity with the Occupy protestors.
“The corporations and the people who gambled with our future, who made a killing on that bet and then got bailed out by us, are back with robust profits and unconscionable salaries,” Keyser stated. “No one has paid a price for that but the American worker.”
From a distance, the WGA had no overriding reason to enter the fray. But as Keyser noted, there’s a practical element, too: Studios use their formidable resources to lobby Washington and advance their interests “with the most expensive megaphone the all-too-bendable rules permit. We will not be silent in response.”
Clearly, Hollywood talent identifies with downtrodden labor, even if their own elite members command the kind of stratospheric salaries that vault them into the much-discussed top 1% of wage earners.
During the strike, many writers evoked the political language of the 1960s to define the struggle, well before the current Occupy campaign. Indeed, activist Jesse Jackson overtly used civil rights era rhetoric to describe the scribes’ lot.
The right to share in the industry’s growth represents “part of a larger struggle in America today,” Jackson told a cheering crowd four years ago — comparing writers’ plight to Martin Luther King Jr. championing Memphis garbage workers and Cesar Chavez’s efforts on behalf of farm workers, the common theme being, “Too few people want to control too much.”
Admittedly, breaking down third acts of crime dramas hardly qualifies as manual labor. But feelings of powerlessness — or at least feeling overmatched — in dealings with modern media behemoths have coalesced into a strong sense of injustice.
Those producers active in the early 1990s also harbor another memory: how a vibrant entrepreneurial class lost the regulatory battle to preserve the financial interest and syndication rules, paving the way for the network-studio consolidation that followed and a dramatic reduction in the number of independent TV suppliers.
Less than a generation later, the production community looks much different, in a world experiencing upheaval on separate but in some ways parallel digital and political tracks.
As a consequence, the so-called “fat-cats” better resign themselves to being vilified, both in reality and Hollywood’s invariably much better-looking version. Because in the eyes of screenwriters, directors and actors, their interplay with the industry’s consolidated oligopoly has been one short on happy endings.