© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

How streaming, mergers and other major changes are upending Hollywood


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. On the cover of the May issue of Harper's Magazine is a provocative image - a black-and-white clapper board, the kind we see in movies during the filming of a scene where a director yells cut - with the words, "The End Of Hollywood As We Know it." Cover story writer Daniel Bessner makes the argument that seven months after the strike that essentially shut down Hollywood, the industry is now facing an existential threat like never before. And television and film writers, Bessner says, are the ones losing out. And there is no one reason why - the merging of big studios, the continued disruption of streaming services, and the lack of regulation have all created an environment that has displaced workers with top talent making more than ever before, and the nuts and bolts workers losing out dramatically, writes Bessner. One of the biggest disruptors, the merging of big studios, continues to impact the industry. Just this week, we learned news that three separate entities are in talks to acquire Paramount, one of Hollywood's biggest studios, which experts say will cause even more disruption.

Daniel Bessner joins us to talk about what this all means for workers and for us, the consumer. He's an associate professor at the University of Washington's Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. His work is focused on U.S. foreign relations, the history and theory of liberalism, and most recently, the history and practice of the entertainment industry. He's the author of "Democracy In Exile: Hans Speier And The Rise Of The Defense Intellectual" and the co-editor of several historical books on domestic histories and foreign relations. Daniel Bessner, welcome to FRESH AIR.

DANIEL BESSNER: Thank you so much for having me. It's a real pleasure and honor.

MOSLEY: Daniel, you teach foreign and U.S. policy, and you most recently began writing about the entertainment industry. What is it about this moment that has caught your attention, that you think speaks to a greater issue?

BESSNER: So what got me interested in exploring this subject more broadly was effectively the decline of journalism and the decline of academia, which have different causes, although journalism, I think, a lot of what happened rhymes in terms of private equity entering and...


BESSNER: ...Hedge funds entering and destroying newspapers, and traditional media - a lot of that rhymes with what's happening in Hollywood. But what fascinated me about Hollywood is that it's really the last place in the United States, perhaps the world, where you could, at least until very recently, get paid to be a writer. That's not really possible in other spheres. You know, you read about people writing science fiction stories in the 1940s and 1950s and making a living off that - you know, Harlan Ellison, people like that. That's simply impossible. And the only place that you can still be a writer is in Hollywood, partially because it's unionized, but partially because it's in an industry that made money. So I'm ultimately interested and was ultimately interested in exploring that idea of the writer in contemporary capitalism and how the writer's fortunes have changed in the last roughly century, the article kind of begins in the '20s.

MOSLEY: Daniel, as we see all of these changes to the industry, the merging of companies, the struggling of creatives and what they're experiencing, how much of the bad guy is streaming - Netflix, Hulu, and all of the others?

BESSNER: (Laughter) So, it's interesting. Walter Leman - I think it was Walter Leman once had a quote that, you know, a pump is a pump, and it's how you use it that matters. Streaming in and of itself could be anything. It could actually have been a boon to the industry. But I think the problem is that there was a gold rush mentality when it came to the famous streaming wars, as they're called, because the goal of the companies and particularly Netflix - and I just - you have to hand it to Netflix. They really did succeed in disrupting a business, and they are profitable, and they are doing quite well, and they have entered the culture. But the notion was that a particular streaming service would become the dominant force in Hollywood, just like Uber and Lyft have...

MOSLEY: Right.

BESSNER: ...Disrupted/killed...

MOSLEY: The taxi industry.

BESSNER: ...The taxis, and Amazon has effectively destroyed a lot of medium and small businesses.

MOSLEY: Yes, but you know, there are many disruptions to the television and film industry. I thought it was interesting how one historian told you that with each major technological innovation - for instance, from cable to VHS tapes to DVDs, and now streaming, there's always been a disruption of some kind with...

BESSNER: Totally.

MOSLEY: ...Advancements. So what I'm trying to understand is whether what we're seeing is an extension of something that happens every decade or so, or is something more alarming and irreversible happening. And is it happening in combination with everything else you're telling us about?

BESSNER: It's a great point. And, you know, when the VHS was introduced or when DVDs were introduced or initially when internet-streamed content was introduced, the studios always claim they have no idea what's going on, so they can't pay writers enough, et cetera. The difference is that the internet isn't regulated, that the cables that carry Netflix are not regulated in the same way that the cables that carried a traditional cable bundle were regulated. And that's really simply it, is that in this era of deregulation, which began in Reagan and was solidified under Bush and Obama, and, of course, Trump, that it's just not regulated in the same way. So you essentially had a frontier of technology that was able to be taken advantage of by the capitalists who run the entertainment industry and the American political economy as a whole.

MOSLEY: What are some of the ways that streaming has disrupted the traditional models - so from writers and producers pitching an idea to working on it to being paid for it to sing it out in the world?

BESSNER: It's a great point because initially, people welcomed streaming, very much so, particularly Netflix, because what Netflix would do is that they would oftentimes, I think, actually always, guarantee creators that if the show was purchased and green lighted after, you know, several stages of development, they would make an entire season of the show, and you didn't have to worry about things like Nielsen ratings. For example, I talked to a couple of producers, and they were like, yeah, we'd wake up and we'd look at the Nielsen ratings, and at first, when we were dealing with Netflix, it felt so freeing to not have to do that. So there were significant benefits to Netflix initially, not only in the fact that they didn't focus on ratings, but they greenlighted quite adventurous shows and not only Netflix, but other streaming services. Netflix famously had "BoJack Horseman," but other services had things like "I Love Dick" or "Dickinson," a show based on a 19th-century poet, which probably would have been greenlighted in the 1980s or 1990s. So there were some benefits. However, over time, and as often happens in gold rushes, gold rushes aren't good for working conditions because a lot of people are trying to strike that gold vein and get rich quick. So it created, for a variety of reasons, downward pressure, first on writers' wages, and then on writers' working conditions. In particular, people have spoken about mini-rooms, which are basically writers' rooms that are convened before the production of a show as the show is being developed. Usually they don't last very long - about eight to ten weeks. I spoke with someone whose writers' room actually lasted only four weeks.

MOSLEY: And how are the mini-rooms different from how it was done before?

BESSNER: Right. So in a traditional pilot season or when you're writing a show that has been greenlighted, you know, in the 1990s or 2000s for 13 or 22 episodes, a writer's room would be convened for that show throughout production. And it's really important that a room lasts throughout production because that is effectively how the industry reproduced itself. When you're a young writer writing on a show that's being literally made, you would oftentimes go to set. You would learn how to talk to actors. You would learn how to stay within budget. You would learn what it was like to be on an actual set. But in a mini-room that is often dispersed before a show is put into production, you don't get that experience, and you're also - might be added, you're usually employed for a far less amount of time.

Traditionally, in a pilot season, writers would have been employed for, like, eight months, let's say. Where in a mini-room, you're employed for 2 1/2 months, and then it's very difficult to get another job. So you have to go back and work at the Apple Store or drive Lyft, which means you're not working on your craft to the same degree, which means you're not getting the experience that you would have gotten in a traditional writer's room. So it's the industry kind of cannibalizing its future in the search for short-term and medium-term profits, which was partially the result of the entry of high finance, and thus financial incentives, into film and television production.

MOSLEY: I mean, this is significant because I think that those who may not know how the industry works may hear writers in a creative industry and think, well, these people are privileged. I mean, these are not regular working people. But there are reports that there's food insecurity now within a huge contingent of writers in Hollywood who now have no work or limited work, or they're working in the way that you are describing here. What are some of the stories that you've heard?

BESSNER: I think that's a great point. And it reflects a broader proletarianization of creative fields. You might have also heard that many professors are mostly - roughly three-fourths of them, according to some studies, are adjuncts. And you see something happening similar in Hollywood. So when I would talk to young writers in particular - and frankly not that young, you know, people in their 30s who had broken into the industry about 10 years ago - it's just very difficult to make a stable living. Moving from show to show is not especially easy. You're employed for less amount of time. There are fewer people employed at each job.

So you're actually not living the high life of what one would have imagined a Hollywood writer lived in the 1990s and into the 2000s, which is - again, I want to emphasize, this is just American capitalism doing what American capitalism does, except now it's coming for white-collar workers. If it happened for blue-collar workers in the '60s and the '70s, it's now happening in the last 20 years for creatives - again, journalists, academics and Hollywood writers. So this is why I think you might get - there might be some anger from people whose fields had already been destroyed. If you were, for example, cutting timber or working in mines...


BESSNER: ...Or working in a factory, maybe you don't want to hear about whiny Hollywood writers. But to me, we're all kind of in this together as laborers. But it is difficult work that takes a lot of skill to accomplish, and one should be properly remunerated, especially when the high-level executives are making so much money. So one thing that I hope to do for people who just view this as a bunch of Hollywood writers is to actually see that there's solidarity to be built across class lines because if capitalism isn't coming for you today, it's coming for you tomorrow.

MOSLEY: Well, let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is writer and associate professor Daniel Bessner. We're talking with him about his latest article for Harper's Magazine titled "The Life And Death Of Hollywood" about the existential threat film and television writers face after the writers and actors strike last year. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley, and today I'm talking to Daniel Bessner. He's a writer and associate professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington, where he focuses his work, among other things, on the history and practice of the entertainment industry. His latest article for Harper's, titled "The Life And Death Of Hollywood," is about the existential threat film and television writers face after the writers strike last year and what it means for the entertainment industry at large.

Daniel, I want to get to some of what you've written about how we got here. So to understand it, you take us in your article all the way back to the 1920s and '30s, when there were a handful of studios and screenwriters. They made careers out of this versus the model that we see today, which is a significant number of people are now freelance writers. This is not a full-time gig, as you said. They have other jobs. What was the average salary back then for a writer compared to today?

BESSNER: So maybe just to give some context before I talk about salaries is that there was something called the studio system where writers were actually employed by specific studios, and they had stable work. And the studios were producing an enormous number of movies each year over the '20s, '30s, '40s and into the 1950s. And when you were working for a studio in 1931, you were making more than $14,000 a year for a full-time - if you were a full-time salaried employee on average, which is about $273,000 in today's money. So it was...


BESSNER: ...Really quite - yeah, it was quite good. And more importantly even than good-paid work, it was stable work. You knew where you were going every day into work. And believe me. The writers complained. I don't want to paint this as some golden age. There was a lot of complaining from the writers who were working in Hollywood at that time. They felt that their bosses...

MOSLEY: About what?

BESSNER: ...Didn't respect...


BESSNER: ...Their - the bosses didn't respect their art. They expected them to do a lot of work. They weren't necessarily in control of their artistic vision. But in exchange for that, they had good salaried work.

MOSLEY: Well, something happened in 1933. Both MGM and Paramount Pictures cut screenwriters' pay by 50%. Why?

BESSNER: So basically, Hollywood actually did fairly well for the first years of the Depression, which, of course, started in 1929. People wanted to escape. The full unemployment hadn't yet hit the entire economy, but by 1933, things were getting a bit hairy. So there's a very famous story of, I believe, Louis B. Mayer going in front of all the contract workers, the salaried employees of MGM, and basically, hat in hand, you know, kind of - not literally crying but, you know, saying, we need to take a cut. Otherwise, you're all going to - the business will close. And so, you know, some actor got up, and then writers got up, and they all said they would agree to take the cut. But then some writers found out that the executives didn't necessarily take the cut. And more importantly, the below-the-line workers, who, I believe, were in proto-IATSE at that point, also didn't take a cut.

So there had been something called the Screen Writers Guild that had been percolating for some time in Hollywood. It was somewhere between a union and a social club. But after this stunt by MGM and Paramount in early 1933, a bunch of writers came together and decided that they needed to actually form a union, which was eventually certified later in the 1930s and, after quite a few years of negotiation, finally got its first contract in 1942. But...

MOSLEY: And that provided a baseline...

BESSNER: ...To make a long story short...

MOSLEY: ...Of pay, right?


MOSLEY: That provided a baseline of pay, right?

BESSNER: Yes, a baseline to pay of $125 a week if you were a salaried employee, which is about $2,500 today - so quite good, particularly when you're guaranteed work as a salaried employee. So it's the old story. The capitalists went too far, and then labor decided to fight back.

MOSLEY: Can you explain the Supreme Court ruling in 1948, which I'm bringing up? It's important to note as we think about today, because this ruling found that these major motion picture companies had conspired to fix prices and monopolize the industry. What was happening that brought this all the way to the Supreme Court?

BESSNER: Sure. So there was a studio - the studio system was dominated by five big companies and three smaller companies. But it was effectively the smaller studios who came together to accuse the larger companies of effectively making it a non-competitive industry. And they were right. The big eight - or the big five and the smaller three - effectively had monopoly power in Hollywood. And one of the major reasons that they were able to have that power was that they owned the distribution networks. But most importantly, and this is what the Paramount decrees - that's what they were called - of 1948 was about, they owned the movie theater chains.

And so effectively what the Supreme Court did is that, if I recall, they basically said you had to either get rid of distribution or exhibition. And the major companies got rid of the exhibition part because they ultimately decided that they were truly in the distribution business. So you get the movie theater companies, movie theater chains essentially being spun off as a result of these Paramount decrees in 1948, which was effectively the outcome of decades of capital P, Brandeisian - Louis Brandeis, the Supreme Court justice - thought about anti-monopoly, antitrust legislation.

And now, Hollywood had been a monopoly for a long time. But during the '30s, during the Depression, during World War II, it wasn't considered to be a major concern. So it was only really after the war that Hollywood was demonopolized.

MOSLEY: So for a time, you write, screenwriters for many decades, they were still able to make a living, though. There were even interventions from the federal government to institute a minimum pay - until the Reagan revolution of the 1980s. How did Reagan's governing impact Hollywood?

BESSNER: Sure. I think it's actually important just to pause very quickly on the '50s, because the '50s is an important decade because it's a transitional period where the studio system, like - it just happened, the Paramount decrees. So there still weren't writers on salary, but there's more and more freelance work. So there's a 1960s strike with the WGA and the Screen Actors Guild. And it's as the result of these strikes that a stable gig work-life is created. So even though you're a gig worker like a writer, unlike other industries, you get health benefits. The studios agree to contribute to pensions. There's increased minimums for work, and you got more and more residuals for material that was rebroadcast.

So what happens is at a moment when, Tonya, as you probably know, journalism was quite a stable career - you know, you go and work for the Baltimore Sun and you could stay there for 40 years. That wasn't true in Hollywood by the middle of the 20th century. But nevertheless, if you worked, you were able to have some of the benefits that you would have had in a traditional salaried job.

What changes in the 1980s is the rise - and this is really the work of Jennifer Holt, who wrote a wonderful book called "Empires Of Entertainment," who really goes into the details of this, which is that there was a new ideology - what might be termed in today's parlance a neoliberal ideology - that began to permeate elite spheres as the so-called New Deal Order of the 1930s to the 1970s began to come apart. And so you see with the rise of Reagan a very strong embrace of deregulation, most famously with the air traffic controllers' union...


BESSNER: ...Which Reagan effectively broke, but also in Hollywood. There was a new ideology that began to permeate the American elite. That was very pro deregulation. And there's a lot of tensions and contradictions about how this affected writers, but that's the long - a short story long (laughter).

MOSLEY: Well, I mean, what happened was the combining of cable and film and broadcast network interests in direct violation of antitrust law. Why was this allowed to happen?

BESSNER: Tonya, what you're referring to, of course, is in 1983, the Department of Justice allowed HBO, which already existed, Columbia Pictures and CBS to form a new company called TriStar Pictures, which, like you said, combined these cable, film and broadcast interests in direct violation of antitrust law.

So what happened was that the Reagan administration, particularly the DOJ as, of course, an executive institution, did an end run around Congress. Without Congress actually deregulating the economy, which would come later, the executive department said, we're no longer going to enforce elements of antitrust and anti-monopoly law, which basically allowed the formation of enormous conglomerates in the 1980s. And in 1985, the DOJ said, we're not going to enforce the Paramount decrees any longer. So that is a big shift in the history of Hollywood from being a very regulated industry to where we are now, a almost totally unregulated industry.

MOSLEY: Our guest today is writer and associate professor Daniel Bessner. We're talking with him about his latest article for Harper's about the existential crisis film and television writers are now facing post-strike and what it means for the entertainment industry. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Tonya Mosley, and this is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And if you're just joining us, my guest today is writer and associate professor Daniel Bessner. He writes about the history and practice of the entertainment industry. His latest article for Harper's magazine is about the fate of the entertainment industry, titled "The Life and Death of Hollywood - Film And Television Writers Face An Existential Threat." Bessner is an associate professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington. He's the author of "Democracy In Exile: Hans Speier And The Rise Of The Defense Intellectual" and the co-editor of several historical books on domestic histories and foreign relations. His writing has been published in various publications, including The New York Times and The Washington Post.

So learning this history certainly puts what we're seeing today into focus. You write about how the rollback of protections continued into the Clinton administration. And around this time - we're talking about the '90s - cross ownership, as you write, flourished. Viacom merged with Blockbuster Video and took over Paramount. Disney merged with Capital Cities/ABC, Time Warner joined Turner Broadcasting. What did all of this merging then set in motion?

BESSNER: Clinton did two things. He got rid of the financial interest and syndication rules, which were initiated by the FCC, the Federal Communications Commission, in 19th century, and which, in effect, barred networks from holding ownership stakes in the prime time and syndicated programs that they air, which, in effect, although not specifically prohibited film studios from owning TV networks and vice versa, because it didn't really make business sense, and so you actually have increased competition. And it's this reason that someone like Norman Lear and someone like Lucille Ball were able to become so wealthy because these independent producers were actually able to compete in a real way with major companies, which is something that's simply impossible.

And then in 1996, Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, which removed the statutory restrictions on the cross ownership of broadcast networks and cable providers. So you basically get a regulatory environment where film studios, cable stations, broadcast stations could all be owned by the same gigantic conglomerate. And this is the era of great synergy, where, you know, if you're a conglomerate and you own a magazine and you own HBO, you could put, let's say, "Sex And The City" - I think this is the famous example everyone uses - on the cover of your magazine saying, this is the greatest show of all time, pushing people to watch the show on HBO. So this is the type of stuff that is allowed in this deregulated environment, which simply would not have been allowed earlier on in American history.

MOSLEY: I want to talk for a moment about how asset management firms became basically the largest stakeholders in media and entertainment. So in 2008, in an effort to stimulate the economy, the Federal Reserve began cutting interest rates. How did that open the door for asset management companies and private equity firms to step into the industry and gain such a hold?

BESSNER: In brief, two things happened. Companies were looking for places to invest particularly after the.com crash of the late 1990s and early 2000s, and the liquid capital that was plunged into the system and the lowering of interest rates provided them with money and access to what is effectively cheap credit. And so people in finance understand that there's more going on there, but that's the long and the short of it. And so it's at this moment in the late 2000ps, early 2010s that high finance, private equity firms, asset management companies, but also hedge funds, really begin to invest seriously in Hollywood because they're looking for, in effect, places to invest. And the argument that scholars like Robert Brenner and others make is that since roughly the 1970s and the era of deindustrialization, that there's been fewer and fewer places to actually profitably invest in the American economy. Because media, as you probably know, isn't necessarily the greatest business. It depends on hits. Oftentimes, returns are not especially high. But one of the reasons that these companies invested in traditional media that they tried to disrupt and did to a significant degree with Netflix, which is very successful, was that there really aren't other places to invest.

MOSLEY: One insider told you that these old large legacy institutions used to be able to have a longer-term view of the industry. They would absorb losses and take risks. Now, everything is driven by quarterly results. So essentially, they're not making decisions for the future. They're just making decisions for what is directly in front of them.

BESSNER: That's precisely right. And I think for consumers, it's important to view this - or it's almost natural to view this from a place of the art and the content that is actually produced. The greatest shows of the so-called prestige TV era - think about "The Sopranos" or "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad" or what have you - were primarily made by people who came up in the television industry of the '80s and '90s like David Chase, David Simon, Vince Gilligan and others. And the only reason that they were able to make such great art was - I think it's Blake Masters had a great quote is because they understood everything about television - said and hated all of it. He was referring to David Chase.

But they knew how to make television. They had done things like been in rooms. They had gone to set. They had talked to actors. They had, over years and years and years, developed the skills necessary to write an amazing show like "The Sopranos" and also to run it. But when you focus on short-term incentives, when you establish a system of mini rooms, you're, in effect, stealing from the industry's future because you're not letting the next generation of writers learn the skills necessary to create a brilliant piece of work like "The Sopranos," "The Wire" or "Breaking Bad." And this really begins to take off after the 2008 recession, 2007-2008 recession, as finance, as we talked about, for a variety of reasons, began to seriously enter Hollywood.

MOSLEY: Let's take a short break. If you're just joining us, my guest today is writer and associate professor Daniel Bessner. We're talking with him about his latest article for Harper's, titled "The Life And Death Of Hollywood," about the existential threat film and television writers face, even after the writers' strike last year. We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. And today, I'm talking to Daniel Bessner. He's a writer and associate professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington, where he focuses his work among other things on the history and practice of the entertainment industry. His latest article for Harper's, titled "The Life And Death Of Hollywood," is about the existential threat film and television writers face after the writers' strike last year and what it means for the entertainment industry.

One of the things you write about that I think was really interesting - we talk about it all the time - is that we see a pattern now of repackaged stories, like all of the superhero stories and remakes. When did executives begin to make these bigger bets on pre-existing intellectual property, which you've been talking about, versus original content?

BESSNER: It's a really important question, and I hope to expand this into a book and get into this more in detail. But to give a potted history, in the mid- to late-1970s, you get the rise of the blockbuster first with "Jaws," but really with "Star Wars." So you get the rise of tentpole movies. In 1989, you get "Batman." "Batman" is released. And "Batman" is not only a gigantic tentpole, but it is also based on previous intellectual property, and perhaps even more important, it's able to be - it's in the conglomerate era or the early conglomerate era of Hollywood. So a conglomerate's - all of its systems could work together to push "Batman." You could have "Batman" Happy meals, "Batman" video games, "Batman" toys...

MOSLEY: Right, right, yup.

BESSNER: ...Numerous sequels, et cetera, et cetera. So I think "Batman" is really this crucial turning point because it lets executives realize that there could be significant value in intellectual property and pre-existing intellectual property, that you don't need to take a gamble on someone like George Lucas who may have a "Star Wars" in him. You could take a gamble on stories and characters that audiences are familiar with, and that this is, like one executive I spoke to said, it's a dry run for a story, and you at least have a sense theoretically about how audiences will respond to it, and you have a sense, you know, audiences like "Batman," so they'll see "Batman." But another thing that - why this gets supercharged, as high finance enters Hollywood in the late 2000s, particularly, of course, the Marvel cinematic universe - "Iron Man" is, I believe, released in 2008. So it's happening at the same time- is that you have the money to basically plan out dozens of movies, and you also have IP, intellectual property, as something that is legible to financial investors. It is in theory - in a business where very little is quantifiable because it's based on taste, and as William Goldman says, no one knows anything. You don't really know it's going to be a hit - IP is something that could be legible to the quantitative guys.

You could say, this has been a comic that's been in existence for 50 years. Everyone really loves "Iron Man," which wasn't necessarily true, but you could say everyone really loves "Iron Man." He's such a popular character, and we're going to create this whole universe of films, and we already know it's going to be a success because these are some of the most indelible characters in American history.

MOSLEY: It's just crazy. You write about how some of the writers have told you that working for a show with existing IP like a Marvel cinematic universe that sometimes they don't even know the full arc of the project when they're brought on as writers. So they're writing something that they don't even see the bigger picture for.

BESSNER: Because there's a larger vision in terms of a - the executive is really the creator of the cinematic universe, even if writers and directors are the - of individual movies. So if you're hired to write, you know, "Thor 2," or whatever it is, "Thor 2" fits into a larger tapestry of films that the executive class is more aware of than you are as a writer, and you're effectively in hoc to whatever they want. Because, one, you're being paid a lot of money. And two, you don't necessarily know the full tapestry, and that tapestry is, of course, ever- changing. So this, again, makes the writer less important with Marvel in particular. And with many Marvel movies, the first thing that's made is not even the script, but literally the art scenes of fights, because that is what ultimately...

MOSLEY: That's the action.

BESSNER: ...Sells the movie...

MOSLEY: That's the action, right.

BESSNER: ...That's the action, and also what you have going on here is you get the relative stagnation of the domestic box office in 2000s. Movies are becoming less and less important to culture. Everyone knows this. That's a story that we are well aware of. And you have a shift to international markets, particularly China, because China is really only developing its film industry in the 2000s. So there's enormous growth opportunities and something that travels well, unlike, let's say courtroom dramas or specific American comedies are gigantic action films, that, you know...


BESSNER: ...Punching is the international language. And so you get a focus on these sorts of films partially also for the international market.

MOSLEY: The Marvel cinematic universe is hugely popular. You write about how it then has become a template. But I'm just wondering if it's still working, because didn't Disney's "The Marvel" (ph) come in more than $60 million short of breaking even? What does that say, if anything? Is that seen as a fluke, or is it seen as something to be concerned about?

BESSNER: I think it's pretty clear that there's something called superhero fatigue in audiences, that audiences aren't necessarily lining up to see another 25 films about superheroes. The question is how does that affect intellectual property? Because in Hollywood, everyone's talking, rightly - "Barbie" did incredibly well. And is that not the ultimate intellectual property? It's literally an inanimate toy.

MOSLEY: But it also is just one. It's one. Like, it's one...

BESSNER: Totally right.

MOSLEY: ...Project that's up against what we're seeing as a trend.

BESSNER: Yeah, there's one project, and there's a lot of uniqueness about it. Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach were given a lot of freedom. Greta, I think, created, like an enormously, incredibly visually stunning tapestry for the movie. Is Jerry Seinfeld's Pop Tarts movie going to do as well? I don't know. If there's a Slinky movie, which I believe coming, is that going to do as well? I don't know. Particularly because the pendulum has swung so far. But in the late 1980s, I think roughly 40% of the money that was produced by the top 100 films domestically was produced by original work, original screenplays. And by the late 2010s, I forget the year, but that number had dropped to something like 6%.

So it's such an incredible swing in the other direction that it's naturally going to return to some form of normal. People do want original screen plays. What the new normal is, though. I think it remains to be seen. But if I had to guess, I think audiences are a little sick of superheroes, and they might be also sick of intellectual property more broadly, and they might be craving something new - remains to be seen.

MOSLEY: OK, Daniel, we've been talking this entire time about the problems. You give your assessment at the end of your piece on what you think should happen and then what is feasible. What are some solutions or interventions?

BESSNER: It's kind of funny. I tweeted about this today. I'm like, oh, why do millennials have to deal with antitrust law? We figured out this stuff a hundred years ago. But the government needs to regulate monopolies at base. If you don't...

MOSLEY: How realistic is that, the possibility that that would happen?

BESSNER: Almost impossible (laughter). And they would also have to regulate high finance. Now, the question is - and this ties into broader themes is - that we do live presently in a gerontocracy, that a lot of the people who are making the decisions in these institutions, particularly the politicians - not all of them, of course, but many of them - were politicized and came of age in a different era, particularly in the Reagan era, where deregulation was meant to unleash the forces of the political economy. When the gerontocracy fades away, due a variety of natural processes, IE dying, when younger people come in and actually assume positions of authority, are they going to do things like re-regulate the economy, enforce antitrust law, re-regulate high finance? That might very well happen. But given the state of American politics right now, it seems very unlikely.

And of course, we had to take out these numbers because there wasn't space to do it. But when you take the amount of money that all the conglomerates spend on lobbying versus what, let's say, the WGA spends on lobbying, you'll be surprised to learn that it absolutely dwarfs it. So there's all these larger problems in American politics from money and politics to the gerontocracy, that, in my opinion, at least, make it very unlikely that the most obvious things that need to be done for Hollywood to become a healthy business - from getting accomplished. So, effectively, that leaves it up to labor. And so one of the major solutions that I think will need to be accomplished, particularly because I believe that government action on monopolies and finance is unlikely to be forthcoming, is that all the Hollywood unions, the Writers Guild, the WGA, the Actors Guild, SAG-AFTRA, the Directors Guild, the WGA and also the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, which is popularly known as IATSE, I-A-T-S-E.

They represent the, quote-unquote, "proverbial sound guy," camera men or women for that matter, stage hands, gaffers, the people who really make the industry go around would be for all of these unions to come together and do an industry wide - first, ideally a negotiation. But then if the AMPTP doesn't agree to various demands, to participate in a strike that would have as its goal the actual restructuring of the industry. This is, of course, very difficult to accomplish for a variety of reasons. A strike like this would have an enormously negative effect, to be frank, in the short term on many of these workers from IATSE on down. And so if I were, you know, the god of labor, and I was waving around my wand, I would say all the Hollywood unions, every single one, the DGA, SAG-AFTRA, the WGA, but really, really, importantly, IATSE as well, which might very well go on strike in a few months, they need to do a broad, industry-wide strike.

MOSLEY: Daniel Bessner, thank you so much for this conversation.

BESSNER: Thank you so much for having me. It was a genuine pleasure.

MOSLEY: Daniel Bessner is a writer and associate professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington. His latest article for Harper's is titled "The Life And Death Of Hollywood." Coming up, book critic Maureen Corrigan shares an appreciation of the letters of Emily Dickinson. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVE GRUSIN'S "SUNPORCH CHA-CHA-CHA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tonya Mosley is the LA-based co-host of Here & Now, a midday radio show co-produced by NPR and WBUR. She's also the host of the podcast Truth Be Told.