How Hollywood’s biggest stars lost their clout

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From The Economist:

HOLLYWOOD LABOUR disputes have a certain theatrical flair. When Scarlett Johansson sued Disney in July, claiming she had been underpaid for her role in “Black Widow”, the studio launched an Oscar-worthy broadside against the actress’s “callous disregard for the horrific and prolonged global effects of the covid-19 pandemic”. In September film crews marched to demand better conditions, brandishing placards designed by America’s finest prop-makers. And when WarnerMedia decided to release “Dune” on its streaming service on the same day it hit cinemas on October 21st, the movie’s director, Denis Villeneuve, huffed magnificently that “to watch ‘Dune’ on a television… is to drive a speedboat in your bathtub.”

The streaming revolution has sent money gushing into Hollywood as studios vie to attract subscribers. Netflix boasts its content slate in the fourth quarter will be its strongest yet, with new titles such as “Don’t Look Up”, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, and the final season of “Money Heist”, a Spanish bank-robbing saga. On November 12th Disney will announce its latest commissioning blitz, with new shows for Disney+ expected to include “Star Wars” and Marvel spin-offs. In total streaming firms’ content spending could reach $50bn this year, according to Bloomberg.

Yet despite the largesse it is a turbulent time in Tinseltown, as everyone from A-list stars to the crew who style their hair goes to war with the film studios. Some of the disputes have arisen from the pandemic, which has upended production and release schedules. But the tension has a deeper cause. As streaming disrupts the TV and movie business, the way that talent is compensated is changing. Most workers are better off, but megastars’ power is fading.

Start with the pandemic. As cinemas closed, studios scrambled to find screens for their movies. Some, like MGM’s latest James Bond flick, were delayed by more than a year. Others were sent to streaming platforms—sometimes without the agreement of actors or directors. Those whose pay was linked to box-office revenues were compensated, either behind the scenes (as WarnerMedia did in the case of “Dune”) or after very public spats (as with Disney and Ms Johansson).

Yet even before covid, streaming was changing the balance of power between studios and creatives. First, there is more cash around. “There’s an overwhelming demand and need for talent, driven by the streaming platforms and the amount of money that they’re spending,” says Patrick Whitesell, executive chairman of Endeavour, whose WME talent agency counted Charlie Chaplin among its clients. Three years ago there were six main bidders for new movie projects, in the form of Netflix and the five major Hollywood studios. Now, with the arrival of Amazon, Apple and others, there are nearer a dozen. Streamers pay 10-50% more than the rest, estimates another agent.

Below-the-line workers, such as cameramen and sound engineers, are also busier. Competition among studios has created a “sellers’ market”, says Spencer MacDonald of Bectu, a union in Britain, where Netflix makes more shows than anywhere outside North America. In the United States the number of jobs in acting, filming and editing will grow by a third in the ten years to 2030, four times America’s total job-growth rate, estimates the Bureau of Labour Statistics.

The streamers’ hunger for variety means their seasons have half as many episodes as broadcast shows, and are less frequently renewed. That means “people are having to hustle for work more often,” says one script supervisor. A fatal accident on the set of “Rust”, a movie starring Alec Baldwin, has stirred a debate about safety amid the frantic pace of production. But the streamers’ short, well-paid seasons allow more time for CV-burnishing side-projects, and the work is more creatively rewarding. “Netflix and Apple both nominate every role, in every category they can” for awards, reports one set-designer—who adds that the price of that can be 90-hour weeks. IATSE, a union which represents 60,000 below-the-line workers in America, has reached an agreement with studios for better pay and conditions; its members will begin voting on the deal on November 12th.

More controversial is the streamers’ payment model, which is creating new winners and losers. Creative stars used to get an upfront fee and a “back end” deal that promised a share of the project’s future earnings. For streamers, a show’s value is harder to calculate, lying in its ability to recruit and retain subscribers rather than draw punters to the box office. Studios also want the freedom to send their content straight to streaming without wrangling with a star like Ms Johansson whose pay is linked to box-office takings. The upshot is that studios are following Netflix’s lead in “buying out” talent with big upfront fees, followed by minimal if any bonuses if a project does well.

That suits most creatives just fine. “Buy-outs have been very good for talent,” says Mr Whitesell. “You’re negotiating what success would be… for that piece of content, and then you’re getting it guaranteed to you.” Plus, instead of waiting up to ten years for your money, “you’re getting it the day the show drops”. America’s 50,000 actors made an average of just $22 per hour last year, when they weren’t parking cars and pumping gas, so most are happy to take the money up front and let the studio bear the risk. Another agent confides that some famous clients prefer the streamers’ secrecy around ratings to the public dissection of box-office flops.

For the top actors and writers, however, the new system is proving costly. “People are being underpaid for success and overpaid for failure,” says John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents A-listers. The old contracts were like a “lottery ticket”, he says. Create a hit show that ran for six or seven seasons and you might earn $100m on the back end; make a phenomenon like “Seinfeld” and you could clear $1bn.

A few star showrunners such as Shonda Rhimes, a producer of repeat TV hits currently at Netflix, can still swing nine-figure deals. But creators of successful shows are more likely to end up with bonuses of a couple of million dollars a year. And though actors are receiving what sound like huge payments for streamers’ movies—Dwayne Johnson is reportedly getting $50m from Amazon for “Red One”, for example—in the past they could make double that from a back-end deal.

. . . .

But their unwillingness to venerate A-listers also has an economic rationale. The star system, in which actors like Archibald Leach were transformed into idols like Cary Grant, was created by studios to de-risk the financially perilous business of movie-making. A blockbuster, which today might cost $200m to shoot plus the same in marketing, has one fleeting chance to break even at the box office. The gamble is less risky if a star guarantees an audience.

Today, studios are de-risking their movies not with stars but with intellectual property. Disney, which dominates the box office, relies on franchises such as Marvel, whose success does not turn on which actors are squeezed into the spandex leotards. Amazon’s priciest project so far is a $465m “Lord of the Rings” spin-off with no megastar attached. Netflix’s biggest acquisition is the back-catalogue of Roald Dahl, a children’s author, which it bought in September for around $700m.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG suggests filing this item under “Disruptive Technology Innovation.”

From the viewers’ standpoint, in the old days, if you wanted to see a new movie, you had to make certain you made it to the theater during the film’s first run. If you missed that, you were relegated to watching it on a 27-inch television set with a speaker that cost the manufacturer $3.00.

Once in a blue moon, a giant hit would have a second run so those who missed the first release and those who hated how the videocassette version looked on the small screen could see it on a bit screen with great sound.

Appointments are no longer necessary to watch big-time movies on a big screen with great sound.

Large-screen LED, a soundbar with woofer (or surround sound if you’re really picky) and a reasonably fast internet connection and you can have a better experience than you can at a ten (maybe twenty) year-old theater. And you can have it exactly when you want to see it and watch it all over again with great image and sound quality whenever you want to.

For those who say, “PG, the screen in a theater is much larger than any megabuck LED TV,” PG says, “You’re absolutely right, but how far away is the theater screen from you compared to how far the LED TV is from you?”

Per PG’s quick and dirty online research, the average human has a field of vision of about 120 degrees. However, much of that span is peripheral vision, which is not how you want to watch a movie. Peripheral vision is mostly sensitive to movements and, to a lesser extent, color. You see something out of the corner of your eye, but you have to look at it directly to understand what it is.

If you want to read some text on your computer screen or in a book, you’ll realize that your visual span for reading is much less than 120 degrees.

PG is typing this on a 27-inch computer monitor. As he reads over the text, his eyes are going back and forth because he can’t perceive and process all the words in a single line of text on this monitor at the same time. Given the distance PG is sitting from his monitor, he has to move his eyes about 30 degrees back and forth to read and process the text.

Seeing and understanding an image requires less processing, so you have a larger field of vision, but, depending upon what the image is, you’ll still be moving your eyes around to fully understand the image.

Here’s a familiar image:

Depending on the size of your screen, you looked at the image in a different way. If you saw the image on a small screen (like a smart phone), you took in most of the image without moving your eyes a great deal. If you were looking at the image on a larger screen, you’ll likely notice that your eyes start by rapidly moving from place to face on the image in order to assess what it is.

For PG, his first perception was of the eyes, then the face, then down across the clothing and back and forth from the hands to the forearms.

After a second or two, if the image had disappeared and PG was asked to provide a detailed description of the background at various apparent distances behind the subject, PG could provide only a general sense of what was there.

As a matter of fact, while he was viewing the background, he discovered for the first time that there is a winding road at the left shoulder of the subject and a stone bridge spanning a river over the right shoulder.

Back to his original point – you can make the image or a streaming movie as perceptually large as you like by moving closer or farther aways from the from the screen.

For PG a maximum width of a screen that he could use for viewing a motion picture is about 60 degrees and he would definitely prefer a narrower angle if there was a lot of detailed visual information on the screen. If the information was moving and changing, a much narrower angle would be preferable.

He just checked with his home television and he sits where the screen occupies about 45 degrees of vision, pretty close to the degree of vision that his computer monitor when he is working.

17 thoughts on “How Hollywood’s biggest stars lost their clout”

  1. I’m afraid that PG and I also remember “VHS versus Betamax.” And drinks at the theatre for a quarter (I remember the outrage in 1975 when the two-screen local theatre in a major-city suburb raised the price to $0.30, just in time for the greatest family movie of all time… for lawyers).

    Which is one of the (many, many) other advantages of home viewing, especially if anyone in the family/household has any food allergies.

    • “And you can have it exactly when you want to see it and watch it all over again with great image and sound quality whenever you want to.”

      Not to mention not having some mouth breathers kids running up and down the aisles, or crying at the scary parts, or yelling “what’s that mommie?” in your ear. And if you want, you can stop the movie for an ‘intermission’ whenever you like, an important consideration given the increasing run times that are appearing. 2.5 hours (the Eternals) is a long time to sit and watch a movie.

      • 2.5 hours?
        The Snyder Cut came in at 4 glorious hours. 😉

        Just like the old days of the 50’s and 60’s, when 3+ hours were regular occurrences.
        Lots of movies have since been crippled by the need to squeeze extra showings for theaters who demand half the box office in return.

        There’s a reckoning coming.

      • 2.5 hours?
        The Snyder Cut came in at 4 glorious hours. 😉
        The Lord of the Rings extended editions, too, with Return of the King clocking in at 4:11.

        Just like the old days of the 50’s and 60’s, when 3+ hours were regular occurrences.
        Lots of movies have since been crippled by the need to squeeze extra showings for theaters who demand half the box office in return.

        There’s a reckoning coming.

        • Seven Samurai at 3 hours ten is one of the all time classics. So yes, commercial film length has been driven by cinemas, but the B movie and 90 minute main feature are dinosaurs of another age.

    • Greatest family movie… ha! Not only was Jaws great, it had a local attraction — the drama teacher from my small mid-West K-12 school had just retired back to her beloved native Cape Cod only to reappear in a bit part as the elderly bustling secretary in the police department, and nobody had warned us about this ahead of time. The theatre erupted — more than one generation of students had passed under her hands.

      And, of course, her regional accent was perfect.

      • The Jaws movie that we don’t name should have been characterized — for lawyers — as an unedited Super-8 family vacation travelogue.

        Come to think of it, that’s pretty much how the critics and general public viewed it, too. Which is definitely a first.

  2. “The streamers’ hunger for variety means their seasons have half as many episodes as broadcast shows, and are less frequently renewed. That means “people are having to hustle for work more often,” says one script supervisor. ”

    Season episode counts have been going steadily down since tbe 70’s.
    In the olden days of three networks, shows ran fifty episodes but ran down to 40, 30, and settled eventually at 22-26.

    Getting a gig on a TV show was essentially full time work.
    Not anymore.

    As distribution channels have expanded and content has specialized to a broader range of genres and demographics, viewership has diluted (and where else have we seen that happening?) and show costs (and season lengths) have adjusted. It wasn’t tbat long ago the hollywood establishment was fretting over the sustainability of all the scripted shows being produced. Would tbey find an audience? And then Streaming services hit their stride and the “glut” became a trickle compared to the demand.
    And tbe economics of TV totally changed.

    The new rules are still in flux but one of tbe earliest lessons producers ran into was that a standard episode count was not a viable model for every single show. The term that became infamous was Netflix Bloat, most obviously at play on several of Netflix’s MARVEL shows, that tried to get 13 episodes out of 4-6 episodes worth of story. Because of the personalized nature of OnDemand streaming services, Netflix knows exactly how many people watch a show, when and for how long, and exactly where the show lost the viewer. (Again, seem familiar?)
    Big data rules.

    Much like with ebooks, streaming originals aren’t bound by fixed “word counts”. Not only do episode counts vary, so do individual episode lengths. Some shows run 50-60 minutes, some run 30-35. Some mix and match as dach “chapter” requires. There have been cases of shows tbat prove so successful that more episodes are added during production (DOOM PATROL) others that while critically received and with excellent viewership get trimmed (SWAMP THING) or even cancelled before release (JUPITER’S LEGACY) for being too expensive for the audience they attract.

    It’s an entirely new world.
    One emerging trend is tbat even wildly successful shows that might be expected to run forever are getting cancelled after three seasons. (A variation of the old baseball rule tbat it is better to trade a player a year early than a year late.) We have even seen a highly succesful show and run just one season for creative integrity when the economics would normally call for sequels galore (WATCHMEN). Basically, demand is high but it is discriminating demand. And economics matter. Strikes are not going to make much of a cent for the likes of Netscape and Amazon and if DIsney and WB, et all want to keep up, they’ll have to adapt.

    Like with novels, most projects find an audience. Some right away, some over time. Some massive, some modest. That not only enables niche projects the establishment would never risk money on, but also experimentation within tbose niches. Things like Amazon’s THE BOYS, WHEEL OF TIME, and LORD OF THE RINGS prequel. Or, most recently, Netflix’s ongoing ARCANE, an adult animated character-driven cerebral fantasy with an utterly awesome art style and production values PIXAR might have trouble matching. To top it off, Netflix is releasing it neither weekly nor in one block, but via three weekly tbree episode blocks. Oh, and to top it off, it is derived from the mythology of an ongoing online video game.

    When would such a thing come to pass before streaming economics gave Netflix $2.5B a month to play with?

    So yes, there is bound to be fighting over money but it is a fight the old school Hollywood talent is not going to win. They will get a few bones tossed their way but the biggest successes are coming from everywhere. The WITCHER is coming out of Eastern Europe, SQUID GAME out of Korea. MONEY HEIST, and EL CID out of Spain. Plus the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand.

    And it’s not just live action. A dozen styles and genres of animation are blooming. For kids and adults. Pretty much any vision has a shot at finding a market.
    It’s whole lot like the Indie book world; if the story is good and the creator competent it’ll find an audience. The Hollywood establishment is in for a rude awakening as they realize they are now playing by tech world rules.

    • Conversely, there’s an ownership effect. In Europe — where many production companies these days have owners — a “series” (whether in English or another language) has historically had six, or at most eight, episodes.

      A substantial part of this has been that in Europe, there has typically been only a single writer, or a writing partnership, for all but the biggest-extravaganza series. That’s distinct from the historical American practice of a “writers’ room” with anywhere from five to a dozen writers. Another substantial part has been the labor regulations for the crews. But that’s for another time (especially considering the “soap opera” and telenovela).

      The point is that as territorial boundaries diminish, the “standard length” is converging toward 13 episodes or so. Worldwide.

      • Broadcast is doing 13 episodrs, yes.
        But strdaming has learned better.
        They seem to be settling on Ten.
        Most of tbe best (non-Hollywood) shows on Netflix, Hulu, HBOMAX, and Disney+ are all 8-10. Some are six but not as many. Usually those tend to be high cost productions.
        The Netflix bloat came from trying to squeeze out 13 45 minute episodes like the old
        hollywood model.
        Exceptions exist, yes, but because the shows no longer come with hard breaks for ads, the narrative flows leaner.
        Streaming originals aren’t really TV anymore (one size fits all) and don’t care about length. Producers are still figuring things out but one thing they all agree is less constraints is better. What hasn’t been settled if doing a full release at once or a serialized release is better. Other than Netflix most services are releasing two-three episodes on dya one and then doing weekly follow ups. And Netflix is experimenting…
        Amazon and Disney started out with a rigorous weekly release but even disney is lzu chi g HAWKEYE with two episodes to better hook early viewers.
        More changes will follow; its early days.

      • 13 episodes, really? Hmm, I don’t think so, if you’re including Korean and Chinese dramas – from the ones I’ve seen, around 30 is typical. I don’t know about anime, but my impression is that they’re typically longer than 13 also.

  3. There are increasingly days like today when a good half of the articles on Anime News Network ( are Netflix press releases. With Funimation, Crunchyroll, and Aniplex now in its portfolio, Sony has become a major player. Also actively licensing and producing content are HIDIVE, Rakuten Viki, and NHK Cosmomedia (which has two streaming services and a cable channel). Life has never been better for consumers of Japanese entertainment outside Japan.

    • Animation is booming beyond just anime.
      (Or Pixar or Dreamworks.)
      Netflix is investing heavily on anime but also on western animation as are Amazon and HBOMAX.

      I did a bit of research on ARCANE and it turns out the animators are french.Which explains why I got a slight Don Bluth meets HEAVY METAL meets INTO THE SPIDEVERSE. Just slight. Their style is their own but it clearly draws influences from more tban just Japan.

      Likewise, Disney’s WHAT IF…drew from Norman Rockwell and WB animation has been exploring cell shaded styles.

      Interesting times.

  4. Going to go against the grain on the current converastion a bit.

    This line jumped out at me:

    “For the top actors and writers, however, the new system is proving costly. “People are being underpaid for success and overpaid for failure,” says John Berlinski, a lawyer at Kasowitz Benson Torres who represents A-listers.”

    Well, wait a second? I thought communism and socialism is what Hollywood wanted? Equal pay for everyone?

  5. Back on the screen size again… I just watched a 16:9 movie on one of our iPads. We love the ease and convenience of watching shows in bed like this for all the usual reasons. Curious, I measured the live image (7.75 inches wide; 8.5 diagonal) and then measured the distance to my eyes at the most comfortable distance. Because it was hard to keep still and read the measurement, I got 15-16 inches. And what do you know… one rule of thumb for Viewing Distance for horizontal art work is: 2 x artwork width. So 7.75 x 2 = 15.5. Perfect!

    Translating that to a 50-ft. movie screen would put me in a seat 100 ft back. But I don’t go to movie theaters anymore. Don’t see the point. Just give me a tablet and a comfy bed, some snacks, a partner (and steps from the bathroom), and I’m all set.

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