Should We Be Occupying Hollywood?

Over at Salon, Mary Elizabeth Williams thinks that Hollywood actors are overpaid, that the focus on their compensation makes it easier for studios to cut jobs at the lower end of the spectrum, and that it’s time to Occupy Hollywood:

The great recession is not Johnny Depp’s fault. Johnny Depp did not decimate your 401K and your children’s college savings plans. He did not foreclose your home. He did not take away your health insurance when you got laid off. He did not start charging you new monthly banking fees while awarding himself a hefty bonus. All the guy’s ever done is dress like a pirate and entertain people…To pay for the stars, studios have gutted the number of movies they make by 20 percent. And while Depp earns enough to buy himself a small planet, Jack Sparrow’s home at Disney is laying off hundreds of employees. This is the same studio whose sense of proportion is so out of whack that it prides itself on sticking to a $215 million budget for a remake of “The Lone Ranger,” starring, of course, Johnny Depp. In a harrowingly grandiose statement of out-of-touchness, Jerry Bruckheimer told the Hollywood Reporter this week, “For the smaller scenes [we] laid off the extras, the effects people, the makeup people … We bunched together scenes with Tonto and the Lone Ranger, so we had a much smaller crew. We saved about $10 million just by doing that.” Wait, that’s how you saved money? Laying off effects people?

I think there’s essentially no question that the link between big stars and the actual revenue they produce for studios is fuzzy — but also that figuring out a fair compensation system would be devilishly difficult given that fuzziness. If Inception makes $826 million, is it really so wildly irrational for Leonardo DiCaprio to make $50 million after cutting a deal that gave him a share of the profits on a movie that was considered risky? There’s been buzz for years over whether the star system is broken, but I think A.O. Scott put it well in a Q&A this summer when he said that “Bankability is not what it used to be, partly because movies are not what they used to be. I don’t mean that they’re not as good (in some ways they’re better) but rather that television has eroded movies’ monopoly on talent and prestige.”

Then, there’s the question of layoffs and cost-cutting. I honestly think actors are the wrong target here — they have some power, but Depp has a fixed fee that’s written into the budget, and it’s Bruckheimer who’s the person at the top signing off on the cuts that will lower costs and free up more profits to the studio they both work for. The question isn’t necessarily how to communicate to studios that we value actors less — it’s to show that we value everyone else involved in the production of a movie more. The best model for doing this is probably the Whedonverse — one of the cool things about moderating Jane Espenson’s panel at Comic Con was seeing persistent fans come out for someone who has never been in front of the camera but who have followed her from project to project — but even that’s of limited utility. Her web series Husbands is very funny and ripe for a newlyweds sitcom, but being in the Whedon club doesn’t mean that you automatically get on TV* (or as Whedon’s own experience suggests, that you get to stay there).

But that’s not comprehensive, either. I have no idea how to get consumers broadly invested in the works of, say, effects studios, much less individual artists, or makeup artists, or extras, or even if we should. The dude who played that enigmatic zombie in the first season of The Walking Dead was pretty awesome, and there are scenes that will play as incoherently if they’re depopulated, then the contribution of extras maybe reasonably clear to the careful observer. But I have a hard time believing that these things matter that much to mass consumers. It may not be attractive for studios to make these calculations and to get away with them, but I don’t think it’s exceptionally shocking that they make these decisions either.

To the extent that we should Occupy Hollywood, if we’re interested in substantial change to Hollywood’s default settings, I think Williams’ solution that we stay home is the wrong one. Instead, it makes sense to be smarter consumers. Spend your money on good movies, with smaller budgets. Take some risks with your $10-$15 instead of settling for a bland default that you know will be fine but not spectacular (the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, for all the expense and hype, still just netted an average CinemaScore). Holler about the good things that you find that you think others won’t. Since you’re here, I’m assuming you’re doing that already. And since you’re here, I assume you’re doing all of those things already. So keep it up. It’s a common impulse to suggest that we resist culture by walking away from it for a while (or even forever). But it’s more fun, if sometimes more frustrating, to keep some skin in the game.

*I am hopeful that Husbands will find a home now that the first season, which is essentially a pilot, is out. Fingers crossed.