The PEN Pod: A Reckoning in Hollywood with Kim Masters
Today on The PEN Pod, we spoke with Kim Masters, host of the KCRW radio show “The Business” and editor-at-large for The Hollywood Reporter. Amid ongoing discussions about race, equity, and the future of an industry already shaken by the #MeToo movement and by the financial and social impacts of the coronavirus pandemic, Kim has been following the ins and outs of the entertainment industry, both on “The Business” and in her work as a journalist. She’s also the author of Keys to the Kingdom: the Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else. We spoke with Kim about the impact that both the pandemic and renewed attention to issues of systemic racism has had on Hollywood, the role of writers and showrunners, and what it means to have power in the entertainment industry.
Give us a sense of what the entertainment industry is enduring these days, with these two pandemics, of both the virus that’s keeping people at home and systemic racism.
In terms of the COVID pandemic, it’s just shocking how this industry had to shut down, largely. You see a company like Disney, which was gigantically the Death Star of Hollywood, dominating the box office and dominating in all kinds of different ways, suddenly struggling and trying to open theme parks. And then they opened and closed the one in Hong Kong. There’s been a lot of blowback, a lot of controversy. But across the board, there’s a shutdown, and people are desperate to figure out how to get back to work. They’re trying to come up with protocols.
I’m sitting here in LA where we have the surge right now, and a lot of people have been talking to me this morning saying there’s absolutely no way Mayor Garcetti can allow production to resume here. A lot of people are looking to Georgia or overseas. I’m sort of listening to all this—“We’re planning to do this in Atlanta”—and I’m thinking, “There’s this surge in Georgia right now, and the governor won’t even allow the mayor of Atlanta to mandate mask use, so, is that what you’re going to do?” I just feel like there’s an urgent need and wish to get back to work, but so much of it feels like magical thinking. Are you really going to do it? Netflix is pushing really aggressively to get back.
“We are getting calls for people who are reporting alleged racism, on sets. We just saw CBS fire a major showrunner on a lot of big shows for them, for a toxic work environment. So I feel like there’s a racial reckoning. All of these companies are all putting out statements like, ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.’ Well, we’ll see. But people have had enough—not only of that kind of injustice, but this showrunner was fired for the toxic work environment. People are tired of abuse and are fired up.”
In terms of the Writers Guild, they had this war going with the agencies, and they told their members to fire their agents. Most of them did, and it was pretty bitter. And then there’s a settlement with one of the agencies, United Talent, and the question of whether the other agencies will follow. It’s not really clear what the settlement means, except that big picture, they did a contract with the studio, with which some members of the Guild are not happy. The leverage is not so much there, because everybody is in such a state of distress. So that’s that pandemic.
And the other pandemic—you’re going to see people coming forward, and you’re going to see stories that come out that I think will be potential career-enders for certain people. It’s almost like when the #MeToo moment happened, and Harvey Weinstein was finally exposed in The New York Times and The New Yorker. Our phones just lit up. It was like nothing I’ve experienced in my life as a journalist. It was insane. And we’re not getting quite like that, but we are getting calls for people who are reporting alleged racism, on sets.
We just saw CBS fire a major showrunner on a lot of big shows for them, for a toxic work environment. So I feel like there’s a racial reckoning. All of these companies are all putting out statements like, “We’re going to do this, and we’re going to do that.” Well, we’ll see. But people have had enough—not only of that kind of injustice, but this showrunner was fired for the toxic work environment. People are tired of abuse and are fired up. So we’re going to see things happen, like with this showrunner and with other people. I have a story in the works that could potentially be not good for a couple of people who are at high-level jobs. And I have other stories in the on-deck circle. We’re in that mode again—we can’t get to the stories because we just don’t have the bandwidth.
I want to ask you about these statements. As you say, there have been some consequences, and I’m wondering, are you forecasting change both on the level of how the business is running as well as the content of the industry? Are the stories that Hollywood is going to tell going to change as a result of this moment?
Well, that’s always been the hope of the people who are underrepresented, that if we could get in the room—whether it’s women, Black people, Latino people, whatever it is—if we could just get in the room. I do think that in terms of television, showrunners are going to be much more aware of who they hire and what the representation is. Some people are going to get jobs. There’s going to be more representation. How much power will they actually have, is the question?
“That’s always been the hope of the people who are underrepresented, that if we could get in the room—whether it’s women, Black people, Latino people, whatever it is—if we could just get in the room. . . Some people are going to get jobs. There’s going to be more representation. How much power will they actually have, is the question?”
I think it will, in a way, trickle up because of the writers. I think the writers will drive some of that awareness of showrunners. And I think showrunners are at risk if they want to behave badly in a variety of ways. If I were a showrunner, I would say that it’s good to watch yourself right now. If they’re in the writer’s room and they’re writing it, I don’t know that a network executive is going to say, “Well, I don’t like that because it’s not white enough,” or something of that nature.
But you’ve got power. It’s concentrated in not that many hands in Hollywood. It’s just not that many studios now. Fox now belongs to Disney. Fox is becoming a label at the Walt Disney Company instead of a studio on its own. So you’re seeing this concentration. Of course, on the other hand, you have the advent of all the streamers. So you’re seeing that still, the power is concentrated in a tight group. Really tight.
We used to do—and we probably will again, maybe not this year—a power list. It was one hundred, and I always used to say if we were really telling the truth, it would be, like, ten. True power—defined as the ability to get something made because you feel like it, because you think it’s a good idea—is in very few hands. So we’ll see. I think that’s where the change has to happen. I don’t know if these people are firing themselves, but they may, at the very upper rung, start listening more carefully. Maybe.
We had the authors of a letter from the Black Writers Committee at WGA West on the podcast—Bianca Sams, Hilliard Guess, and Michelle Amor—and their point was, “Look, come to us. We’re ready to tell you about how to get more Black writers into the mix.” They say those entrées are going pretty much unheeded by folks in the industry. It seems like the opportunity is there, if the studios want to take advantage of it.
It’s a hard call to make right now. Yes, people are getting writing deals. That’s the one thing you can do in a pandemic: write. Maybe the pandemic clogs things up. I think that a lot of showrunners are going to feel pressure, or maybe they’ll just have more awareness. And I see some, even on Twitter, saying, “Send me your scripts, I’m looking, I want to hire people who are Black or who are Hispanic.” I have to believe important showrunners will see this as a necessity.
Maybe there’s a lag. I don’t know. I can’t believe this is just going to blow over and nothing happens, but I could be hopelessly naive. I just think people are going to scrutinize. Once I finish Story A that I am now working on, there are stories about shows that we have yet to do where there are allegations, and we’re seeing some of them and there are going to be, I believe, more, about discrimination. Stories like that will cause change.
If you look at the #MeToo, Time’s Up movement—almost everything that happened happened because of the media. Harvey Weinstein went down because of the media. We know stories that we did about the head of Warner Brothers, about the head of Amazon Studios, about John Lasseter at Disney/Pixar—nothing would have happened if we weren’t doing these stories. And it is a little frustrating to me that change is driven kind of by shame in the public square. If you start seeing stories that stack up about racism on shows, even shows that you wouldn’t imagine to be racist, nobody wants that kind of PR. Nobody wants to lose their job over that. So even if they’re not decent enough people to see the need for change, maybe they’ll be forced into it anyway, to at least make the appearance of some representation. Honestly, I hope so.
“We used to do—and we probably will again, maybe not this year—a power list. It was one hundred, and I always used to say if we were really telling the truth, it would be, like, ten. True power—defined as the ability to get something made because you feel like it, because you think it’s a good idea—is in very few hands. So we’ll see. I think that’s where the change has to happen. I don’t know if these people are firing themselves, but they may, at the very upper rung, start listening more carefully. Maybe.”
What about consumer pressure? One of the things I was talking about with the WGA West folks was that people speak with their pocketbooks. You’re already seeing calls for different boycotts and to unsubscribe from certain services. Is that having an impact at all? Are people worried about how demands from consumers might help for some change?
I don’t know about consumers. I mean, if there’s an article about a show and there’s a ton of blowback, that’s bad. It kind of still goes back to the media because consumers, I don’t know that they’re necessarily going to know what goes on behind the scenes unless the media tells them. Look, Fox News is impervious to shame, and they’re impervious to boycotts. Because I still have a cable bundle and Fox News is included, and that’s where they make their money. They make their money on subscriptions, the fees from the cable provider. So I can’t call my cable company and say, “I’m dropping you unless you drop Fox News.” I mean, I can, but they’re just going to be like, “Well, that’s not going to happen.” So I don’t know how you pressure. If Tucker Carlson is still employed, I just don’t understand how anything gets through to the Murdochs.
We’re a writers’ organization, and we count screenwriters among our membership. You mentioned how at least that’s something you can do during a pandemic: write. But what has the outlook been like for screenwriters right now?
Oh, it’s a complicated thing. They can work, and they can get deals, and people are moving forward. Like I said, they hope they’re going to shoot this, they hope they’re going to shoot that—I had a producer tell me yesterday that he’s never been so busy. Then the streamers, of course, are gobbling up content, and that’s been great for writers. So that’s a good thing. It’s a good time to be a writer. There was a bit of a mess with this representation issue with the agents, but they figured workarounds eventually. But it did seem to favor those who were already established.
There was a lot of stuff they’re trying to do online at the Writers Guild, have mixers and whatnot for people to meet—I don’t know how effective that was, but the effort was made. I think we are at a point where poor representation is going to become a problem. I think it’s tough to break in if you’re new. I think that there will be some looking around and trying to hire more diverse writers’ rooms.
What are you reading right now?
I have to say, I have what I call pandemic brain—I find it incredibly difficult to focus. I am trying to read and my mind just—I think we’re all sort of amped up too, those of us in the media world, with “What is on my Twitter feed, and what did Trump do now, and what’s happening in Oregon?” There’s so much incoming. And also, “What is the state of play with my city, where I live, and is LA on lockdown?” It’s hard to focus.
But I watched Palm Springs on Hulu, and that was fun. I rewatched Better Things, which is one of the greatest shows, I think, in the history of television. I’m trying to read this novel, The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, which seems really funny and entertaining. But like I say, whenever I settle down to read, I start thinking “Maybe I better check my Twitter feed.”
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