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Be the right kind of hero

The industry can learn from missteps.

Andy Marken
(Source: “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 20th Century Fox)

“There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.” —Harry Hart (quoting Ernest Hemingway), Kingsman: The Secret Service, 20th Century Fox, 2014

We’ve always enjoyed good comedy, work like George Carlin’s. Sure, he punctuated it with profanity, but the best was his famous Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV—but that list keeps getting shorter and shorter. Chris Rock’s joke at someone else’s expense during last year’s Academy Awards was a cheap, uncalled for shot but wasn’t the only thinly veiled bit in the nod-worthy event. Will Smith’s expletive-laced response was equally shocking and had everyone asking their partner if it was a scripted or ad-libbed burst to boost global audience response. The response was probably better taken outside and/or away from the celebration.

Perhaps it shouldn’t have been unexpected, since the industry and social media audience had spent years grooming Smith as one of the untouchable A-listers.

The M&E industry, Academy, and social media audience has had a difficult time responding to the outburst because of his “you’re special” pedestal. The first move was to be sorta expected… studios/streaming services quickly distanced themselves by canceling or putting projects on hold. The most interesting (to us) was Netflix backing away from Fast and Loose. Interestingly, Sarandos, Netflix co-CEO, thought that a slap might be too controversial, while he stood up for Dave Chappelle’s comedy special in the face of LGBTQ+ issues.

Strange.

Fortunately, Apple moved forward with Smith’s Emancipation—it was great, and so was he!

For years, Hollywood has made a career out of crafting an image around people historically hiding “issues” from the public until it was no longer possible and then… quickly running the other way. Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski infamously come to mind. Mel Gibson had his stumble in 2006 when he was picked up for a DUI, went on an anti-Semitic rampage, was dumped by his talent agency, and was avoided by directors/studios. Even though he was known privately as a consummate family man (wife of 20-plus years and seven kids), it took him until 2021 to rebuild his image and value in Hollywood.

Lots of people feel even Tom Cruise (back on the big screen with his two big franchises, Top Gun: Maverick and Mission: Impossible) had too many image managers squandering his star talent. Maybe, just maybe, he has taken back control of his future and image. Female members of the club suffered in silence for years until someone decided to say #me too and the floodgates of complaints opened up and everyone was suddenly surprised.

It’s said that people in the moviemaking ecosystem have been aware of Bruce Willis’ struggle with cognitive issues for years ,but the producers, directors, showrunners, and studio management simply focused on keeping the star out there in the public, keeping him relevant, and keeping him working simply to keep the gigs—and the money—coming.

The problem is the industry needs A-listers to sell their stories to the global audience and keep people glued to their seats in the theater and at home. It’s what keeps the Hollywood engine running. And even though people were aghast at the slap heard round the world, the industry and audience love surprise slaps.

One of the best was in the 1941 epic The Maltese Falcon when Bogie’s Sam Spade slapped around Peter Lorre’s Joel several times and said, “When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.”   

When it comes to profane shout-outs, the industry has pushed the envelope so much that it’s almost normal. We refrain from its use at home and in the office unless we’re really frustrated and then, what the h—! But we don’t expect it from people we really like (such as Denzel Washington) because it’s just not them. But coming out of the mouth of another actor we enjoy, Samuel L. Jackson (Washington gave him his lifetime achievement Governors Award), it’s… expected.

We can’t do it, but when he says “mother—er,” you laugh. He makes swearing sound normal. Few knew, or cared, that the hard-core outburst was his defense mechanism to a speech impediment. The audience liked it, the directors liked it, and the studios certainly liked it because his films racked up more than $13 billion for them. He says he doesn’t care what people say on social media, once telling Esquire, “I know how many mother—ers hate me. F—k, I care? I already cashed that check.”

But whether it’s Pulp Fiction, Snakes on a Plane, or any of the more than 150 films he’s made, he does care that folks like him, saying on receipt of his Oscar, “Thanks to every person who has ever bought a ticket to any movie I was in. It’s truly been an honor and a pleasure to entertain you.”

Social media for A-listers can be their best friend and their worst enemy because social media isn’t social. The algorithms for Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, and you name it aren’t designed to make you feel good; they’re designed to stimulate you and keep you involved. Saying nice things about something/someone isn’t in the cards, but if you’re bent on ridiculing something or someone, it’s the place to go.

For A-listers or, more important, the folks who live off the fruits of their work, social noise validates/reinforces doing stuff people like. It’s hard for them to look away. Of course, the studios and services love it because it’s money in their pockets. 

The Academy initially liked the spike in social numbers, until they didn’t. Industry insiders quickly jumped in to show they were relevant, spiking the action while thinking, thank God it wasn’t me or my client. 

The most measured, considered response to the awards evening highlight we’ve seen was by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who is not only a recognized NBA superstar, but often a sports and Hollywood voice of reason. Abdul-Jabbar admonished Smith for his actions but also looked at the larger impact of the incident. 

Taking a thoughtful look at the fallout from the incident, he highlighted:

  • “This patronizing, paternal attitude infantilizes women and reduces them to helpless damsels needing a Big Strong Man to defend their honor least they swoon from the vapors.”
  • “He’s brought back the Toxic Bro ideal of embracing Kobra Kai [sic] teachings of ‘might makes right’ and ‘talk is for losers.”
  • “The Black community also takes a direct hit from Smith. One of the main talking points from those supporting the systemic racism in America is characterizing Blacks as more prone to violence and less able to control their emotions.”
  • “Many will be reinvigorated to continue their campaign to marginalize African Americans and others through voter suppression campaigns.”
  • “This ‘women need men to defend them’ is the same justification currently being proclaimed by conservatives passing laws to restrict abortion and the LGBTQ+ community.”

The only positive thing of the event was—and we admire him for this—that Rock managed the moment with grace and maturity. Smith and the industry can’t dismiss the incident with a simple “sometimes art imitates life” because the industry and we as well have too much riding on this life.

But we also can’t lose sight of stuff that should make you mad now:

  • A real, life-depriving war playing out before our eyes.
  • A world economy that’s taking a terrible beating.
  • A world that feels like its breathing its last breath.
  • Injustice and intolerance of people who are different from you.
  • A pandemic that continues to take the lives of young and old.
  • Governments that tell women what they can/can’t do with their bodies and advocate “don’t say gay.”
  • People overdose, get killed on our streets, get harassed, and we look the other way.

Granted, Smith has work to do on himself, but the Academy, Hollywood, and the industry have their work cut out for them as well. We hope Smith reaches out to Abdul-Jabbar for some thoughtful insights and assistance.

On another note, while the Grammys were a beautiful, well-crafted event—even when some folks felt they were snubbed and unrecognized—the Oscars imply by omission that certain work and their awards are less important than others by not celebrating them on the main show. They also allow the on-camera recipients to drone on and on, putting the audience in a REM 4 state, instead of entertaining them.

Hollywood has to do a better job of working with people as people and professionals. It’s a business where you have to invest in and nurture your resources (talent) so you can use them for the long haul instead of the moment.

(Source: “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” 20th Century Fox)

Too many M&E folks and their audiences agree with Valentine in Kingsman: The Secret Service when he said, “Well, this ain’t that kind of movie.”

We think it’s more important that we listen more closely to Ukraine’s President Zelensky’s video appearance at last year’s Grammy’ when he said, “Support us in any way you can. Any, but not silence.”

The world and Hollywood desperately need heroes. And heroes need Hollywood and the world!