What happens when you defund the arts? You get a culture bought and paid for by the very rich, arts halls named the David H. Koch Theater, and “public” television stations that get overly skittish when a rich donor might not like a documentary. What happens when the country punts on campaign finance and politics becomes all about big money? Worms like Sheldon Adelson become kingmakers and the Kochs (them, again) exert as much political influence as either of the major parties. We’re already talking about “the billionaire’s primary” taking place in the GOP right now.
So it all makes us a bit queasy when we hear that the Davos crowd is getting its paws even deeper into Hollywood movies. It's true that America has a long history of art philanthropy that has funded the nonprofit arts since at least the heyday of Andrew Carnegie, but investment in for-profit business like Hollywood films is a different matter. Financiers have had a major role in the movies for a long time, but it seems to be taking a nasty turn for the worse. “At this year’s Cannes Film Festival, there seemed to be more partying plutocrats than there were hungry sales agents,” Variety editor Peter Bart, who worked at Paramount in the 70s, wrote upon his return from the French festival. He quoted "one billionaire-producer" who asked not to be named who told him that "the new class of billionaires will change the landscape of Hollywood." The producer added, "that's a good thing because, like the moguls of old, they truly care, and want to be involved."
Somehow, we have a hard time imagining that this will be any better for the movies than it’s been for politics. To be clear, some of these billionaires have good taste and really do want to support smart projects; Megan Ellison (she had the good judgment to be born to one of the world’s richest men, Larry Ellison, who earns every hour what the average American earns in a year), helped fund “Her,” “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Master.”
But you don’t have to be a strict Marxist to see that what a billionaire knows and wants is very different from the way the world looks to those of us lower down. One of the key issues in our lives today – politically, economically, culturally – is the class war between the top tier of the 1 percent and the rest of us. Do we really want our culture to be shaped by the plutocracy as fully as our politics are? Read Chrystia Freeland‘s beautifully reported book “Plutocrats” and see what the long-term consequences of their dominance could be.
One gaping hole in the films of the last eight years has been the absence of movies that really reckon with the defining event of the last decade -- the economic collapse. There’s been a very good, small, close-up movie about the eve of the collapse – 2011’s “Margin Call." There have been some films that bump up against the crisis, either by using metaphor (“Wolf of Wall Street”) or context (“Blue Jasmine.”) But Hollywood studios have still not reckoned with this life-changing event in any serious way. The failure is even starker when it comes to the larger issue of inequality, which is as bad as it’s been since the 1920s. If you were watching America’s films from afar, would you even know that this is an issue unless you’d been one of the small handful to see Robert Reich’s “Inequality for All?”
When a single group or class takes over an aspect of culture, it’s not just what you hear and see – it’s also what you miss, what doesn't happen. The process doesn’t have to be as hard and deliberate as censorship — rather, it’s about blind spots and emphasis and differences in values and points of view. And there is almost nothing – education, housing, medical coverage, foreign policy, the role of business, the place of government – where the billionaire class and the larger nation have a whole lot in common.
So why does this seem to be happening now? Part of it is because corporate Hollywood has gotten so terrible: The smaller distributors and semi-autonomous indie wings of the big studios faded with the economic crash, and globalization means that virtually every movie has to score internationally and recoup on a corporation’s profit-and-loss statement. The days of taking chances with labors of love are gone, for now at least; it's increasingly sequels and bash-em-up action movies, with some Oscar bait around the holidays.
The other side of this is what’s happening in the executive suites. The rigged economy means that there are more Wall Street and corporate billionaires and they have more toys to play with. One high-earning CEO last year took in $156 million – more than the entire budget of the National Endowment for the Arts. And despite hopes that new regulations letting shareholders vote on CEO compensation would curb the shifting of capital upwards, “CEO pay has risen on average 12 percent annually” over the last few years, according to the New York Times.
Here’s Bart again:
The new billionaire class clearly enjoys spending its riches. A record $179 million was bid earlier this month for a Picasso — an amount that embarrassed even art dealers. “The ‘hedgies’ are throwing money around as never before, in business as well as the arts,” noted one corporate CEO, pointing to Bill Ackman’s $3.3 billion move on Valeant Phamarceuticals.
These people already buy and sell us every day of the week. They own much of the good real estate in London and New York and the Bay Area and have driven prices in surrounding areas through the roof. Some of them are not bad people, and some of them like smart and substantial movies and want to make more of them happen. But plutocrats already control our political life – let’s keep them as far from our dreamlives as we can.