Hollywood Has a New Profit Model: Its Own Scandals
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Some of the most exciting new TV and film dramas are about the news and entertainment industry itself.
By Mark Walsh
For the November launch of The Morning Show, Apple hosted a lavish premiere at New York City’s Lincoln Center complete with klieg lights, celebrity guests and black-carpet (the new red?) appearances by the show’s stars, including Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
The event announced Apple’s foray into original TV through its Apple TV+ service. But the tech giant is far from alone in betting on projects that deal directly, if in fictionalized form, with the sexual misconduct scandals that have rocked the media industry in the past few years.
Morning Show stars Aniston and Witherspoon, for example, also helped develop the series through their respective production companies, Echo Films and Hello Sunshine. Likewise, Charlize Theron has a producer credit on Bombshell (which she also stars in), a Lionsgate film dramatizing the downfall of Fox News founder Roger Ailes at the hands of female staffers and on-air talent who exposed years of sexual abuse accusations against him.
These kinds of news stories are kind of pre-sold because everyone already knows the basic narrative structure of what’s going to happen.
Robert Thompson, Syracuse University
Hollywood has long reflected the zeitgeist, from films like the Watergate-era All the President’s Men to The Big Short, which follows the 2008 financial crash. But The Morning Show is part of a new wave of projects, ones that reflect how the media industry is turning its own recent wrongs into profits, even as the events they focus on are playing out in ongoing investigations, litigation and press coverage. Backed by some of Hollywood’s most powerful women, they’re also part of the #MeToo movement, supercharged by the misconduct they portray.
Annapurna Pictures and Plan B Entertainment have snapped up film rights to She Said. The book by New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey recounts how they investigated and broke the story of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s long history of alleged sexual misconduct.
“They want to use the platform they have to put a stop to this as much as possible,” says Karie Bible, box-office analyst at Exhibitor Relations, about the prominent part women are playing in bringing these stories to the screen.
These projects are equally fueled by the demands of peak content and time-tested dramatic elements, including high-profile figures in peril, sex scandals and revenge. For producers and studios, the hope is that it all adds up to a ready-made audience.
“These kinds of news stories adapted for film and TV are kind of pre-sold because everyone already knows the basic narrative structure of what’s going to happen,” says Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications.
That’s true even for a fictional series like The Morning Show, which parallels the removal of Matt Lauer from the Today show after sexual harassment allegations against the co-host surfaced in 2017. “Everyone knows it’s the Matt Lauer story, so you don’t have to show salacious clips to sell it,” says Thompson.
These dramas invariably involve figures familiar to the public. “The reason these stories are getting so much focus is not because they’re about the media business itself, but about well-known people,” says Henry McGee, a former HBO executive who lectures on business administration at Harvard Business School.
If that’s not enough to lure audiences, key roles are attracting A-list Hollywood talent. Along with Aniston and Witherspoon, The Morning Show boasts Steve Carell, while Bombshell features a trio of stars: Theron, Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie.
“Three great roles for three top-caliber actresses,” says Bible. “That doesn’t happen every day.”
Whether the star-studded cast and societal relevance will translate into big box office for Bombshell is hard to predict, say experts. “At the end of the day, a movie has to bring you in and entertain you even while you’re receiving a message,” says Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst at Comscore. “It still has to be [a] good movie.”
Bombshell opens only months after The Loudest Voice, the Showtime limited series starring Russell Crowe and Naomi Watts that ran this summer and also dealt with the Ailes scandal. Meanwhile, the Clint Eastwood-directed Richard Jewell also questions ethics in the media industry, suggesting that an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter offered sex in return for tips. The newspaper has pushed back, disputing the movie’s depiction.
For its part, The Morning Show has drawn mixed critical response (a 62 percent “fresh” rating on review site Rotten Tomatoes) but appears to have intrigued potential viewers.
Leading up to its Nov. 1 premiere, it was among the 10 most-searched TV titles, according to MiDiA Research, which tracks audience metrics across 410 shows. With the subscription-based Apple TV+ just launching, though, it will take more time to judge whether interest in The Morning Show leads to more Apple TV+ sign-ups.
That said, this age of peak content means steady demand for material that aspires to capture the cultural moment. Think of series like HBO’s Succession, which portrays the owners of a media and hospitality empire at war among themselves, or Netflix’s Black Mirror, which explores the unintended consequences of technology.
Combine that trend with the #MeToo era, and “I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of these stories,” says the Newhouse School’s Thompson.
- Mark Walsh, OZY Author Contact Mark Walsh