Peter Bart: Donald Trump’s Exit Stirs Hollywood Optimism, But Biz May Still Require Some Federal Therapy

Joe Biden Seth Meyers
(L-R) Amy Poehler and then-Vice President Joe Biden were guests on Seth Meyers' first "Late Show" in 2014 Everett

It’s hard to remember a moment in Hollywood when more production starts were announced or star commitments unveiled — witness Netflix’s slate of 70 films (yes, 70). The stars glow brightly in streamer heaven. And Donald Trump’s messy exit helped stoke the hubris.

The flurry of announcements may be a bit misleading, of course, since cutbacks and retrenchments still pervade the small print. Streamer hits like The Queen’s Gambit generate heat but, overall, subscriber churn has increased as subscribers sample a show, then cancel the service. This hasn’t kept the Netflix subscriber list from topping 200 million for the first time.

Still, the film business continues to flicker: Top Gun: Maverick has been awarded a hopeful July 2 release and the latest James Bond film, No Time to Die, may (or may not) re-appear in April, but Morbius, the Spider-Man spinoff, has been pushed back to October 8 along with most other tentpoles.

While the advent of a Biden Era fuels a sense of optimism (even on the vaccination lines), apprehension still prevails for the community of culture, which Trump had so famously disdained. Indeed, some leaders even speculate whether the time is ripe for a new FWP or even an FTP — more on that below.

On the bright side, the Netflix universe continues to thrive in its own ecosystem. Normally furtive about its plans, the streamer last week trumpeted a blockbuster slate emblazoned by Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot and Dwayne Johnson among others. The company that once implored Academy voters to discover Roma and venerate Alfonso Cuarón is now crowing about $150 million action pictures directed by Zack Snyder and the Russo brothers.

Presumably, Netflix is re-focused on features to boost its global subscriber list – a concern shared by its increasingly aggressive rivals. While Netflix may pick up an occasional festival favorite, like Concrete Cowboy with Idris Elba, it also wants to develop a new Chronicles of Narnia or find a sexy new teenage horror movie. Hence, audiences may be searching hungrily for what were once called “grown-up pictures” – the sort of specialty films that emerged from Sony Classics or Fox Searchlight or, more recently, from Neon and A24.

Indeed, this quest may be shared with other sectors of pop culture, intersecting the urgency felt by theater or museum directors and opera companies. Which brings us back to Washington: Trump’s first budget promised the extinction of every cultural program from PBS to the NEA. His leadership medals went to Rush Limbaugh and coach Bill Belichick (who turned him down).

By contrast, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, singled out culture as a sector in greatest peril. A program called Intermittence pays artists to dance and sing rather than wait tables. Such an effort would seem relevant to the U.S. where unemployment in arts and entertainment surpasses even that of the hospitality sector.

A 1939 travel poster from WPA’s Federal Art Project Everett

It seems relevant that some Biden Democrats this week were unfurling New Deal rhetoric that placed Franklin Roosevelt as a folk hero. They were spinning off hypothetical budgets accordingly. The post-depression Roosevelt model had to cope with a financial collapse far greater than that of today (minus a pandemic). This in turn yielded solutions that were then thought of as bizarre, such as the WPA (Works Progress Administration) and its cultural offshoots, like the FTP (Federal Theater Project) and the FWT (Federal Writers Program). These were designed to give starving writers and actors something to do while dams and bridges were being built.

Some intriguing things started to happen: Gorgeous murals appeared on courthouse walls from artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning. Writers like Saul Bellow and Studs Terkel not only wrote plays but also re-invented the idea of the guide book — works that, in the words of John Steinbeck, helped educate Americans about their own country. Former slaves contributed vivid accounts of their lives forming narrative collections now found in the Library of Congress.

To be sure, extravagant programs along these lines would seem alien in today’s culture, but would they? Concert halls and museums stand empty coast to coast; the youth demo regards movie theaters as quaint anachronisms. Broadway will make a comeback someday, but no one knows when. And the film business would benefit even if government provided a financial backstop on Covid insurance, thus easing access to completion bonds and bridge loans. It all would help.

The “Welcome Biden” parties were great showbiz. We await the hangover.

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