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Hollywood in the Age of Trump

HOLLYWOOD IN THE AGE OF TRUMP

Now that Donald Trump has become the de facto Leader of the Free World — Man, that’s still hard to say — many of those on the Left Coast are wondering how his ascension to The Highest Office in the Land will affect how Hollywood does business. Both up-front content and behind-the-scenes business practices are now in question due to Der Drumpster’s long love-hate relationship with the American entertainment industry.

On one hand, the bellicose Queens-born real estate developer-turned-populist politician has for decades shown an insatiable hunger for attention and publicity. Movies and TV have provided him with the perfect platforms from which to promote the Trump “brand,” whether it be on talk shows (His IMDB profile lists 236 guest appearances), in movies (twenty-two “acting” credits) or as the “You’re Fired” guy on NBC’s The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice (2008-2015). Inevitably, he always played some version of himself.

On the other hand, Trump has not been shy about expressing his contempt for Hollywood’s mostly Democratic, liberal-leaning leadership and the left-of-center positions held by the majority of the town’s creative community. Most of his followers appear to share the same enmity for Hollywood’s “limousine liberals.” And they’re increasingly comfortable saying so.

This schism was recently brought into stark focus when actress Meryl Streep spent most of her Golden Globe Lifetime Achievement Award acceptance speech slamming the Trump Administration in all but name, followed closely by a barrage of anti-Trump barbs by both winners and presenters at the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards. Following both broadcasts, social media went nuts, the President himself branding Streep as “over-rated,” and Trump and anti-Trump forces declaiming “Resistance!” or “He won. Get over it.”

With Trump firmly ensconced in the Oval Office, makers of TV and motion picture products find themselves facing issues on two fronts: creative and financial. On the creative side, studios must ponder whether to start making more products attractive to Trump’s conservative base or feed liberal America’s growing anxieties about the country’s perceived tilt toward fascism. On the financial side, there’s the question what impact Trump’s protectionist, “America First” trade policies are likely to have on Hollywood’s ability to sell its products overseas.

In terms of Hollywood’s product content, producers seem to have a sudden interest in projects dealing with social unrest and national divisions. Just as Ronald Reagan’s heightened Cold War rhetoric spurred such projects as The Day After (1983), War Games (1983), Red Dawn (1984) and Amerika (1987), Trump-fueled anxieties appear to creating demand for stories dealing with American decline. Many have reported to have been fast-tracked to take advantage of the nation’s fractious mood.

At the same time, expect the trends that have defined Hollywood’s product over the past decade to continue unabated. The studios will continue to churn out big budget sci-fi and superhero movies based on popular brands, they’re simple good-vs-evil storylines calculated to appeal to the largest possible audience. These will continue to be embraced by both urban and rural audiences, and ticket-buyers from all points on the political spectrum. (It’s amusing to note how the Star Wars movies have been interpreted from both left-wing and right-wing perspectives, as either stories about the fight against Fascism or about the little guy battling against the tyranny of a strong, central government. Either way, they make money.) We’ll still get our standard ration of horror movies, action blockbusters, animated family films and daring indie projects. Fact-based “issue” films like Hidden Figures and Loving will continue to find audiences, especially when they exist in a safe, historical setting.

TV is also unlikely to veer from its current trajectory. Technology’s fragmentation of the home audience guarantees that everyone will be able to find products that reflect their individual tastes and values, be they left-wing, right-wing, high-brow or lowest common denominator. We’ll continue to see more ethnic diversification, with more shows designed to appeal America’s large (and lucrative) Black, Hispanic and Asian audiences.

For writers and producers, these dual trends suggest the following:

• If you have a project that deals in any way with creeping fascism or home-grown terrorism, the time to move on it is now. Historically, audiences have loved to see their anxieties manifested on film. (Albeit often in exaggerated or fantastical forms.)
• Writers and filmmakers are wise to focus on historical stories that focus on real-life characters who overcame injustice, fought for minority rights or otherwise helped toppled established norms.
• When things get particularly bad, there’s usually an increasing demand for pure escapism. If events really start to go south, expect more interest in romantic and slapstick comedies. Even musicals. Comic-booked-based movies will want to take a lighter tone to counter the bleakness of the Nightly News.

While Hollywood’s voices are unlikely to be threatened creatively, there’s a real danger that Trump could damage the industry’s international business model. Foreign sales now represent more than half of all income for Hollywood films. It’s not uncommon for major studio blockbusters to make more money overseas than they do at home. In fact, sometimes movies that bombed stateside can be saved by doing strong business in Asian and European markets.

Today, China is the #2 movie market in the world, and is likely to supplant North America as the world leader by 2020. (That’s in just three years, folks.) Its $180 billion media and entertainment industry represents a vast, still basically untapped market for Hollywood, which is why studios have been designing so many of their motion picture tentpoles with the Middle Kingdom in mind. (That Disney’s Rogue One featured two monks played by popular Chinese actors was no coincidence.) Trump’s anti-Chinese rhetoric and protectionist trade policies could derail Hollywood’s worldwide expansion plans. Bigly. Any move by the Trump Administration to restrict trade with China could trigger a trade war that blocks the importation of American entertainment products to a market of more than 1 billion. His “America First” stance could have a similar chilling effect on how American entertainment fares in the rest of Asia, Europe and Latin America.

The global box office is currently $38.3 billion, and is expected to swell to more than $49 billion by 2020, according to Statistica.com. Free trade is central to Hollywood earning a dominant place of that market, at the same time free trade is being derided as a job-killer by Trump and his populist supporters. Ironically, this is one issue where both Hollywood liberals and traditional Free Market conservatives can find common ground.

Whether or not unholy alliance will be enough to overcome Trump’s nationalistic economic agenda, expect it to generate enough drama to power a Hollywood blockbuster. – Allen B. Ury

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