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Union Roundup: Disney’s Response to Florida Prompts Backlash as Covid Affects Busy Awards Weekend

March 15, 2022 02:01 | By
VES Awards

Image via Mark L. Williams

Here we’d intended to round out some of the mid-month kudos circuit coverage, particularly the VES Awards, which was notable not because Dune and Encanto picked up more craft and animation momentum heading toward Oscar night, or even because it was the first live VES show since the Before Times, but because it was memorably snakebit. At least in the early going.

Longstanding VES host Patton Oswalt couldn’t come due to a broken leg and replacement host Drew Carey also fell ill, resulting in a “host-less” show that doubtlessly ran a bit quicker, but was generally short on rhetorical flourishes.

VES Awards

Image via Mark L. Williams

At least, until presenter Alfred Molina came up to say he was “fucking glad I still made it.” This was after legendary dinosaur wrangler Phil Tippett had accepted the VES Award for Creative Excellence on behalf of Guillermo del Toro, because he too fell ill, apparently about an hour before showtime.

And though VES head Eric Roth acknowledged in his opening remarks that “Covid’s still a thing” — not that you’d know it looking around the Beverly Hilton ballroom — none of the last-minute absences were evidently due to the consistently nimble virus. Though still-extant travel restrictions kept some nominees away, and since no one knew winners in advance, this required nominees who were still abroad to record acceptance speeches “just in case,” several of which were actually used throughout the evening.

On the other hand, said virus made itself known in the days ahead, as former President Obama tweeted that he’d come down with it, and cinematographer Greig Fraiser, ASC ACS, released a statement after his BAFTA win for Dune with expansive praise for all who’d helped get him there:

Dune is greater than the sum of its parts, and I certainly wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for my camera team, the sound department, the outstanding music composers, the hair and makeup artists, editors, costumers, art and production design departments. The list of people I am indebted to is too long to share, but you know who you are.

I’d have no business accepting this award without thanking my wife Jodie. You have been the greatest supporter and the reason I am able to forge my path in this challenging industry.

And of course Denis Villeneuve. I am grateful you took me on this journey with you, and I can’t wait to see where it takes us next.

But then he ends with the kicker:

I’m sorry to not be able to thank you in person tonight, but I tested positive for Covid-19 at the last minute.

Enormous changes at the last minute, indeed. And of course, all healing wishes go to him at this time. His fellow award winner, director Jane Campion, spent the weekend accepting various kudos for The Power of the Dog after missing last week’s ADG Awards due to her own Covid diagnosis, so we will hope for a quick and mild version once again.

VES Awards

Image via Mark L. Williams

On the other hand, what is being called a Wave of Omicron Infections is currently shutting down businesses in China, affecting Toyota and iPhone production, as well as cinemas and restaurants, particularly in Shanghai. As the NY Times puts it, “even as countries in the West are now loosening or abandoning mask mandates and other measures, Chinese officials are implementing some of their most stringent methods. That is in large part because China can’t afford to lift restrictions.”

They’re rapidly being lifted here as well, speaking of enormous changes, so fingers remain crossed — that would seem to be one of the few remaining strategies left — that the mutating virus will remain at an ebb.

Among the other disease forcefully spreading themselves around of late, Four Horsemen-style, would be the disease of hate, made manifest in a lot of legislation pouring out of the same states that had previously been friendliest to Vladimir Putin. Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was, of course, predictably passed by its legislature and signed into state law by its governor.

As Robyn Pennacchia wrote about the bill in Wonkette, “children are told that a winged creature comes into their room at night in order to steal their lost teeth and replace them with cash, and they are fine with that. If kids can wrap their heads around that, they can certainly handle the less-than-shocking information that Laverne Cox exists and is a person. I certainly had way more questions about what that woman was doing with all of those bloody teeth than I did about my uncle and his boyfriend.”

This has also presented a conundrum for The Walt Disney Company, which made its initial bankroll on stories of winged creatures in children’s bedrooms, and which has a huge stake in large numbers of virus-free and/or virus-denying denizens filling its theme parks in Florida, California, and elsewhere.

Bob Chapek

Image via Disney

But Disney’s new head honcho (or is that “Head Cast Member?”) Bob Chapek had taken more of a “let’s hope this all blows over” approach to the inflammatory Florida law — opposing it, though initially not too publicly, while not hesitating to financially support the same legislators who voted for it so long as they also kept voting for tax breaks and other financial incentives for certain large in-state employers. Like those, say, in tourism and entertainment.

With growing pressure from Disney’s own employees and creators, however, the company announced that it’s “ceasing its political donations in Florida due to the state’s so-called ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, and [Chapek] apologized for the company’s previous silence on the issue.”

In response, Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis, managing to be myopic and vitriolic all at once, took the conversation straight back to the ’50s, saying in a public speech that now that Disney was, in his view, supporting an active, shadowy kind of “transgenderism” lurking on the peripheries of kindergartens everywhere, “then how do they possibly explain lining their pockets with their relationship from the Communist Party of China? Because that’s what they do, and they make a fortune, and they don’t say a word about the really brutal practices that you see over there at the hands of the CCP.”

You have to love DeSantis’ sudden awareness of oppressive labor conditions (that iPhone, currently not being made in Omicron-shut factories, does come with its hidden costs), and one looks forward to him asking the same questions of Walmart. Or every agricultural employer in his state.

Meanwhile, California’s Governor Newsom tweeted over the weekend that “Disney, the door is open to bring those jobs back to California — the state that actually represents the values of your workers.”

The tensions between those workers — particularly in this industry — and the local and regional economies that want their work, their industries, their locally-spent income, and more, aren’t going away anytime soon. Though if we’re going by recent history, certain states that are also production hubs, and are currently eyeing similar legislation (i.e. Georgia) while having also passed an array of voter suppression laws, have suffered no sustained pushback yet.

But this story will continue to play out, like the virus, the war, and climate collapse, and we’ll continue to stay tuned because most of us don’t know what else to do.

And you wonder why serialized storytelling is suddenly so popular?

We’ll see you back here soon, with new episodes.


MLWIncrediHeadMark London Williams is a BTL alum who currently covers Hollywood, its contents and discontents, in his recurring “Across the Pond” dispatch for British Cinematographer magazine, contributes to other showbiz and production-minded sites, and musters out the occasional zombie, pandemic-themed, or demon-tinged book and script, causing an increased blurring in terms of what still feels like “fiction.”

Mark London Williams’Union Roundup column will appear every Tuesday. You can reach him to give him tips and feedback at [email protected]. He can also be found on Twitter @TricksterInk.