The Ankler, as many readers know, is one of the most recent entries into the roiling, chumming waters of “Hollywood trade publications” with a growing online presence, multiple newsletters, and most recently, a podcast. They remain gleefully puckish in their outlook (not to be confused with “optimistic”) about showbiz, along with their mission of rooting out the scabrous. And of course, if anything has remained steady in a hundred years of Hollywood, it’s the scabrousness.
And with the speed and agility of a cigarette boat, they were perhaps the first to tackle — within days — one of the big unspoken questions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s leaked draft completely overturning Roe v. Wade and thus immediately consigning women to second-class status in over half the country, in terms of bodily autonomy.
For their recent podcast aptly titled Hollywood’s Abortion Quicksand, the Ankler folks brought in Howard Bragman, who is both a crisis publicist and contributor to GMA, and who has navigated implosions for Sharon Osbourne and Brett Ratner, among others.
The podcast’s writeup notes that “even though production and business [are] vast throughout entertainment in states likely to roll back rights — Louisiana, Texas, Florida, Arizona, and more — Bragman predicts that the industry will likely stay quiet rather than boycott.” Bragman adds that there has been a lot of “saber-rattling” on hot button issues, touching on Disney’s current Florida fulcrum with the state’s newly enacted “Don’t Say ‘Gay’” law, but concludes that “when it’s thrown back to the states and virtually half the states or half the population in the country decides that they don’t want abortion… in all these states where they have huge investments and the people are gonna say, ‘Screw you. We voted. And it’s our choice.’… I think the studios are gonna be forced to acquiesce to the power of the voters in those states.”
With all due respect, that vastly underestimates the actual parameters of the situation, the ways that it will unfold, and how it will become absolutely impossible for studios and entertainment companies to avoid having unequivocal positions on the issue — just as it will for many other businesses.
M.K. Chin, an assistant professor of management at Indiana University, writes that consistent refueling of GOP coffers has paid tangible dividends for corporations. Corporate taxes, for example, as a share of the US GDP, “are only about 1 percent, the lowest since the 1930s and down from 4.1 percent in 1967.”
You are free to recall the relative economic positions of the American middle class in the 1930s, versus 1967.
But towards the present moment, Chin goes through a long litany of issues — bathroom bills voter suppression and censorship laws, anti-LGBTQ legislation, etc. — that are increasingly so extreme that CEOs, responding to the corporate cultures they oversee, have felt the growing need to speak out. Chin adds that “businesses are trying to make clear that their concerns are not partisan in nature. The 100-plus companies that in 2021 signed a statement supporting voter rights, and against bills that would restrict access emphasized this point.”
He concludes that “companies aren’t drifting away from the Grand Old Party. Rather, the GOP seems to be doing the drifting, not only from corporate America but from the opinions of the American public as well — especially millennials.”
That speaks to Bragman’s first point imagining that half the country supports the complete repeal of a woman’s right to choose, including in cases of rape and incest. They do not. Only about an extreme third do, leaving a 70 percent majority — some of whom reside in those gerrymandered red states — who are unlikely to stand idly by while their rights are stripped away.
But it’s not simply a matter of siding with the majority opinion among customers. Note that certain state legislatures are already going berserk before the Roe decision has even been officially announced, with a legislative committee in Louisiana passing a bill out of committee to view any abortion as homicide, a lot of bills in other states banning the procedure even when medically necessary, and numerous red states mulling out loud new restrictions on — you guessed it — birth control.
If you were a woman using birth control, or if you were pregnant, would you want to work in any of those states for three months on a film shoot? Would you want to spend weeks in Atlanta, crewing the latest superhero opus, if you anticipated any trouble for that pregnancy and didn’t want to be reported to the police if you had to see a doctor while you were there?
Would you want to die from a complication where treating it was now illegal? Or as Bruce Miller, the producer of Hulu’s Handmaid’s Tale tweeted recently “I’m not sure I can ask actors or crew members to travel and work in a state where an ectopic pregnancy would sentence my employee to death.”
People will instead refuse to work in those places, and their superiors will refuse to send them.
Employers who are based there will have their own troubles if these states are now going to bludgeon their way into doctors’ offices and employees’ bedrooms, in terms of both covered benefits and even quality of life. Will companies in such places not be “allowed” to offer a full range of OB-GYN coverage in their benefits, for example?
Will out-of-state companies have to “restrict” what they’re willing to cover when employees are traveling to work locations (or for our purposes, to sets and location shoots) in states where it will be indistinguishable, from the standpoint of anyone female, gay, gender-nonconforming, etc, from working in a country like Saudi Arabia? The U.S., by the way, already shares the “distinction” of being among the only ostensible “first world” country which shares list space with Saudi Arabia, and others, as “most dangerous for female travelers.” And that was before the ruling.
Hollywood’s unions (along with most others) won’t be willing to see the hard-won rights of female, gay, trans, and other employees suddenly canceled by theocratic extremists. If you write in protections to your next round of contract negotiations, what does that mean for places where those protections will be null and void? If you left a film set in a state with a “tattle tale neighbor” law where you could be reported for leaving for a verboten procedure, then coming back, are you similarly liable if you’re just there while working on a film? Or the season of a show?
Would anyone in their right minds ever want to work in places like that ever again, until things change?
The contradictions will finally be too much to bear, and what will eventually give way — particularly if this same minority faction seeks to impose its will on the country at a Federal level — remains to be seen.
But to quote Treasure of the Sierra Madre author B. Traven, “This is the real world, muchachos. And you are in it.” Of course, that includes muchachas, too. And everyone in between.
However, the dreamy haze that showbiz has always surrounded itself with is about to come crashing down along with much else. What happens to a dream factory in such times remains to be seen. Though make no mistake, dreams and stories will also be critical to getting us through whatever’s ahead.
But they’ll be coming after stories, too. They already are.
More on that in upcoming columns. Until then, muchachas y muchachos, stay safe.
Mark 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.”