In truth, the two great sister cities have never been as close as you might think, at least in movie and media terms. Rather, they were a polarity, tightly linked, but often frustrated with and suspicious of each other, and rarely on the same page. When Louis B. Mayer and MGM were all about entertainment in Culver City, Nicholas Schenck and fellow owners at parent company Loew’s in New York were focused on finance. At Paramount, Adolph Zukor, who died at age 103 in Los Angeles, suffered the same rift with East Coast counterparts and unhappy backers on Wall Street. Later, David Begelman, at Columbia’s studio in Burbank, had it out with corporate overseers back on Fifth Ave.
Ever was it thus. When Hollywood went commercial in the blockbuster era, New York, inevitably, swung toward art and the indies. At Disney, Harvey Weinstein and Michael Eisner were fighting a fresh version of the old battle, East versus West, as the 21st century dawned.
It was never really about money. The underlying issues were always personality, expectations, point of view. After all, New York and Los Angeles are a disparate life experience. To presume a shared outlook from the two is foolish. Having worked as a Los Angeles correspondent for New York-based publications—Forbes, the Wall Street Journal, Inside.com, the New York Times—I guarantee it. Offer a New York editor something unexpected, say, an only slightly complicated piece on the intrusion of some real street grit (and a murder case) on the production of Universal’s Straight Outta Compton, and the story will sit for a while. Mention the Chateau Marmont or some silliness on the Oscar party circuit, and it’s off the races. New York wants a La La Land myth that makes it feel stronger, smarter, better about itself. Los Angeles keeps dishing up realities that don’t always play back East.
In normal times, the disparity is healthy. We accommodate, and learn about each other. It’s what sisters do.
But a gap that has opened since both regions went into coronavirus lockdown at almost the same time, in the third week of March, begins to feel like something new.
As of Sunday, based on official coronavirus statistics from both coasts, New York City, with about 8.3 million residents, had suffered a per capita exposure rate about seven times as high that in Los Angeles County, with a population of just over 10 million. Seven and a half weeks into the lockdown, New York had about 2,200 cases per 100,000 population, while Los Angeles had 312 per 100,000.
Manhattan, with a reported 1,473 cases per 100,000, was far less afflicted than Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island or Long Island, where exposure numbers were running more than 10 times those in the Los Angeles enclaves most familiar to New Yorkers—for example, Malibu (247 per 100,000), Santa Monica (223), Brentwood (220), Culver City (242) or West Los Angeles (170). Even the harder hit portions of the entertainment enclave, West Hollywood, with 395 cases per 100,000, and Beverly Hills, with 342 per 100,000, were still reckoning their per capital counts in hundreds, while New York tallied in thousands.
This is a cause for great alarm, not schadenfreude. In the narrowest sense, we in Los Angeles have to know that our own numbers could rise—we, too, could go over the cliff. A little more broadly, we can only worry about friends and family members in New York. After all these years of working, fighting, and traveling together, we’ve all got them.
But mostly, we should be on guard against long-term cultural damage from this vast and growing experience gap. New York has undergone something profoundly more threatening (like the 9/11 attacks, but open-ended and in slo-mo) than what we have experience in sunny West Los Angeles, where case counts are relatively low, and the virus, for many, remains more an inconvenience or an economic hardship than a mortal threat.
One need only watch the New York-based news shows or read the New York Times to sense how deeply our East Coast counterparts have been affected. The pain, fear and loathing are daily apparent. They are coming from, and perhaps headed to, a different place.
When this crisis passes, that old displacement between New York and Los Angeles will not be smaller. Even more than usual, we will differ in our views about money, politics, lifestyle, news stories, and, yes, movies.
But, with a little luck, we might still accommodate, and learn from, each other.