Last week was not a good time to go on vacation. So much happened in pop culture while I was away, and here are the lessons I think we learned:
Pop culture is by no means immune from fake news
If Gal Gadot had really been paid less for Wonder Woman than Henry Cavill had been for Man of Steel that would be a legitimate story. Here he we have two relative neophytes getting their first big starring roles, and one gets paid more than the other because of gender? Awwwwwwwww, hell no! Topple the patriarchy! Down with Superman, up with Wonder Woman?
Too bad it’s total and complete bullshit. Basically, a couple of publications cited seriously suspicious-sounding sources in claiming Gadot’s $300,000 salary for Wonder Woman paled in comparison to Cavill’s $14 million for Man of Steel. Then, quite crucially, the industry trades with better track records and actual contacts throughout the industry debunked the whole story, claiming Cavill’s starting Man of Steel salary was roughly the same as Gadot’s for Wonder Woman. In fact, they found out that Amy Adams was paid significantly more than Cavill because, guess what, she deserved more money because she was an established name and he was a nobody. That’s how this works, people. To be fair, Cavill might have ended up making a fair deal above his base salary due to back-end profit participation, but that’s the result of having a good agent, not some reward just because he’s a dude.
However, social media despises context and is entirely built around gut reactions and insta-outrage. Thus, the ongoing instinct to litigate larger societal concerns through pop culture continued as Gadot’s apparent raw deal became a rallying cry for all those who have legitimate concerns over the gender pay gap, particulalry due to the symbolic meaning Wonder Woman has to feminism.
Once the story was shown to be false the focus shifted to why exactly her salary (as well as Cavill’s) was so low, giving rise to many an explainer thinkpiece reminding the world that in the age of IP Hollywood pefers to buy low on talent, signing them up for super cheap and shackling them to franchises on multi-picture contracts. That’s how you end up with Jennifer Lawrence stuck making a third X-Men movie and looking beyond bored. She signed up for that shit when she had very little to her name; by the time she finished the contract she was one of the biggest movie stars in the world. She’s an extreme example, though. Most are simply lucky to end up making a name themselves through a franchise and can forever leverage that into bigger paydays on other movies and/or endorsement deals. There are and will continue to be instances of women being paid less than men on movies for no other reason than gender (and bad agents not willing to press the issue), but this wasn’t one of them.
But anyone who’s been paying attention to the business of Hollywood already knew all of that and has for years. This is nothing new. It’s simply the rest of Hollywood catching up to the way Marvel Studios has been doing things from the start.
What we learned is that pop culture is not immune to fake news. Poorly sourced or flat out lies about Hollywood can and will continue to just as easily spread on the internet as stories about democratic sex rings housed in the basement of a pizza place that doesn’t actually have a basement.
The devaluation of directors continues as corporate interests reign supreme over most blockbusters
Another week, another story of a troubled Hollywood production. This time, it’s Disney’s Han Solo prequel, which made the near-unprecedented move of firing its directors 5 months into filming. Last time it was The Mummy, which hired a director with no big budget directing experience and had to lean on Tom Cruise to essentially take over once that director proved to be in over his head. The time before that it was Pirates of the Caribbean 5, a film which was allegedly held hostage to the mercurial whims of its star Johnny Depp, whose habit of sleeping in regardless of call times and how many co-stars and extras were standing on set waiting for him proved especially irksome. Even further back, it was King Arthur, Rogue One, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, The Legend of Tarzan, Batman v Superman, Star Trek: Beyond, Ant-Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Fantastic Four, The Good Dinosaur, Fifty Shades of Grey, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, 47 Ronin, Prometheus, World War Z and so many others (as I previously wrote about here and here).
Look. Even in normal times, making big Hollywood movies usually results in big headaches. These are not normal times, though. We are looking at an industry in a death spiral of chronically decreasing attendance, diminishing financial returns, an inability to compensate for the lost revenue from the death of the home video market, increasingly shaky reliance on foreign markets with differing currencies and lower profit-sharing agreements and an over-reliance on toy sales. As a result, the studios are continually undergoing leadership changes, losing bright, young minds to Netflix and Amazon in the process, and the pressure is on the new leaders to produce results. Of course, the best way to do that is to have an eye for talent, hire that talent and then mostly back the heck away to trust them to make a good movie, occasionally intervening with constructive criticism since pushing back a little will challenge them to make an even better movie. And that’s exactly what happens….at Netflix, Amazon, HBO and FX. The film studios, though, have no patience for that.
It’s a perfect storm, really. The industry is dying. The middle fell out ages ago thus eliminating that middle ground where directors could cut their teeth before graduating to the big projects. Marvel has made billions by adopting a Pixar-like filmmaking-by-committee approach to franchise world building, and everyone wants to copy that even if it doesn’t fit their skillset or hired personell. Most of the talent out there has long since seen the writing on the wall and abandoned film for TV. And brands, not stars, are now king. So, we are in the age of the producer and studio executive, not the age of the director. If Joss Whedon can get pushed around by Marvel after making literally the highest-grossing movie of all time then no director is safe, leading Disney and LucasFilms to do the seemingly unthinkable and fire two well-established directors over halfway through the filming of their movie.
Reports indicate Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s biggest sin was essentially that they were making a Phil Lord and Christopher Miller movie, crafting a Han Solo origin story in the same spirit as The LEGO Movie and 21 Jump Street. That’s exactly what Kathleen Kennedy should have expected when she hired them. However, to quote GLOW current studio executives might as well admit, “When I said I wanted something ‘different’ I meant the way Ms. Pac-Man is different from Pac-Man. As in, almost the exact same thing, but with a bow in her hair.” Those who can play according to those rules thrive; those who can’t end up getting pushed around, nudged aside or flat out replaced. And now Ron Howard gets to turn this movie back into something more on brand for Star Wars.
This will all probably happen again. Perhaps not as extreme as this, with established, well-respected directors being fired so far into production, but in an industry in such turmoil the studio meddling will only increase, not decrease. Wonder Woman should prove to Hollywood the worth in simply trusting talent to do their job, but Hollywood has a history of learning all the wrong lessons from success.
The devaluation of the domestic audience continues as yet another blockbuster is posting disappointing business in US/Canada but absolutely killing it in China and elsewhere.
It’s getting positively Dickensian with blockbusters this summer, a real best of times, worst of times situation. Best of times overseas, particularly China, worst of times at home. So, it is with no surprise whatsoever that we observe Transformers: The Last Night slouching toward a franchise-worst domestic opening but record-setting Chinese opening. This isn’t the future of cinema; this is its ugly, unfortunate, but persistent present. Big, dumb, language-neutral plays well everywhere else. At home, though, there’s always something better on Netflix, like GLOW, for example.
Well, I’ve said my bit. Now it’s your turn. Let me know what you think about any of this in the comments section.