"Burn It Down" or stick around? How TV and movie fans "can be in the fight" to make Hollywood better

Journalist Maureen Ryan on her book "Burn It Down" and how to make art in Hollywood without tolerating misconduct

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published June 30, 2023 3:00PM (EDT)

Film set equipment (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Film set equipment (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Six years ago when #MeToo was gaining steam, journalist Maureen Ryan's inbox was getting slammed. As the chief TV critic for Variety, Ryan investigated and published in-depth reports of sexual misconduct and workplace harassment committed by powerful people in Hollywood. Through that work, she became one of the few go-to journalists whom below-the-line workers trusted with their stories of abuse and mistreatment, and therefore, their careers.

More than half a decade later Ryan is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair, and her workload hasn't slowed down. Quite the opposite – she has enough stories to fill a book, and then some. The recently released "Burn It Down: Power, Complicity and a Call for Change in Hollywood" is a thoroughly researched and provocative examination of the sexism, racism and exploitative management practices pervading the entertainment industry. Salon published an excerpt, "Hollywood's 'list of excuses is endless': Enabling bad behavior, from Bill Murray to Jeff Garlin," in June. And she regrets to inform us that the putrefaction touches every corner of the place. Not even the Muppets have a spotless history.

Despite the book's incendiary title, Ryan approaches her work from a place of fandom. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the chapter about the TV series "Lost," published May 30 on Vanity Fair's website, days before the book's publication.

Accounts from writers and actors featured in the excerpt allege an atmosphere rife with bullying and bigotry endorsed by its showrunners Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, shattering illusions associated with the drama's outward-facing diversity.

Even so, Ryan encourages fans to love what they love. "Burn It Down" isn't a merely cry for the obliteration of the misguided notion that abusive behavior is a byproduct of genius.

"I want to burn Hollywood down some days. I really do," she writes. "And then I fall in love with a TV show or a movie and I want to know everything about it. And then I remember I don't want to know everything about it, because what if my heart gets broken again? I do not want to keep finding out that bad things happen on productions where the final product meant a lot to me."

Full disclosure: Ryan is one of my closest friends. The book's title is familiar to me as her cathartic mantra, used to sum up our venting sessions about the industry. Her second favorite request to the universe is, "Launch them into the sun."

Those talks are necessary for people like Ryan to continue doing their jobs. Interviewing survivors and the people they accuse of misconduct takes its toll on the journalists reporting their accounts. But this book proves how vital this work is in the ongoing crusade to improve labor conditions in every industry, not just the one that creates the TV shows and movies we adore. Watch my "Salon Talks" video interview with Maureen Ryan here, or read our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

What would you tell someone who consumes Hollywood products, like TV and movies, purely from a place of fandom about what is important to know about the content that's in "Burn It Down"?

Well, first of all, love what you love. I think that the whole question of, "Should I no longer watch or consume X?" I think it's an important question. . . . Like what you like, watch what you watch. I'm not here to litigate that or decide that for you, because I find that hard to decide for myself day to day. If you told me, "Will you ever watch 'Lost' again?" I don't know what my answer to that is. It did mean a lot to me at the time, and I don't want to build a time machine and take away what it meant to me 15 years ago. Do you know what I mean? I would never want to deprive my past self of that pleasure.

Wrestle with the things you need to wrestle with. If there are facts that you know as a consumer of TV and film, you may learn things that you don't like, you may have decisions to make about what to watch or not watch. I think what I would say is that as consumers, we can be in the fight to make these workplaces less toxic, more professional, more healthy.

And I think that that is weirdly already happening because you and I both covered the previous Writers Guild of America strike. It's not that people didn't support the strike, but social media in 2007 was really in its infancy. Social media can be a nightmare, cesspool of horrors.

And a toilet.

Exactly. There's so many words we can use. Hellsite, the word hellsite comes up a lot. But that said, I do think that the world is connected in a different way now and absolutely without question, people have questions about the strike. 

"Hollywood is a difficult, punishing environment where people encounter racism, sexism and inappropriate physical encounters."

I think the people who consume content actually know at this point that [television] is often made under conditions that are arduous, are dangerous to people's mental health, physical health.

We're not talking about somebody having a bad day. I have a bad day; sometimes you do. It's a normal thing for human beings to have bad days. What we're talking about is people working in circumstances that are dangerous to their career because of the vindictive energy around them, dangerous to their mental health because any number of things are being done to them regularly that are difficult, damaging, toxic — any number of words you could use — or even physically dangerous. People are working long hours, they get in accidents, people lose focus. Understandably, if I had been working a series of 16-hour days, I might make a mistake too. People get hurt, people die.

The bigger picture understanding that is emerging, people are more aware of those things, but they're also aware since #MeToo to some degree, since reckonings on the fronts of race, homophobia, transphobia, we're starting to grapple with those things and any sense that we had that Hollywood was a place full of magical unicorns that is somehow exempt from bias, misogyny, all kinds of homophobia, transphobia — that's not the case. They're as affected by those things as we are, as America is.

I know that I'm doing this reporting for the right reasons, and I know that I've done it in an ethical manner and I've been as thorough as I can be, but I'm still nervous about what the reception to it will be because you just never know. Will this be a shoot the messenger situation? There's stan cultures that exist. We see them in action all the time.

These aspects of stan culture are very dangerous.

What was so heartening about it was that people received it in the way that it was intended, which was not, "Well, let us excise 'Lost' from all discourses and pretend it never existed." That's not what the intention was. The intention was to say, people who make things that you like a lot, all too often they work under conditions that are unacceptable. And the reasons that it's unacceptable there are specific people that were responsible for that. But also it takes a village of around those people, whether it's this set or that network or that studio or that production company. It takes a village for something to be that bad for that long.

Right, right.

So what's incredible to me is that I braced myself for impact. I braced myself for blowback and people were sad, people were upset, but it was not directed at the sources. It was not directed at me. It was directed at a system, I think rightly so, that has pushed these kinds of issues of conduct, toxicity, misogyny, racism, all the rest . . .  And the reason to bring up some things that happened 15 years ago is because they still happen now. And how can you prevent it from happening again? And that's what the last third of my book really goes into.

We are talking a day after SAG-AFTRA members voted 98% in favor to strike. (Salon's unionized employees are represented by the WGA East.) By the time Salon viewers are watching this, they will be in negotiations. People paying attention to the strike are mainly thinking about it in terms of, "What's going to happen to my favorite shows?" What do you think that the labor movement in Hollywood can do in terms of improving the conditions that you discussed in the book?

It's crucial. In the book, I do try to tie these labor movements that are being organized at Amazon warehouses. What I'm trying to do is make the connection between someone working in an Amazon warehouse and someone working as a production assistant on an Amazon show. I don't think there's the gulf between those two things that people might have thought was the reality 10 years ago. That's what's actually heartening is that people are understanding that people at Starbucks are organizing, people at media organizations are organizing. And actually in a lot of ways what they are doing is following in the footsteps of Hollywood because Hollywood did this a while back.

The activism that we're seeing in Hollywood is part of a history that's 90-plus years old. It's very long term. It's funny because someone was recreating the signs that people were picketing Disney way back in the day. The issues are the same because it's a high-status industry. Regardless of how people are treated, the status and the impression that we have is that it's like, well, it's glamorous. It's so cool. Everyone's making money. The TV show "Entourage" created such a false impression for so many people. And that's what HBO did for a long time is create this aspirational lifestyle where everyone's wealthy and so forth.

I don't know about you, but I have relatives who are like, "Oh, you can afford [Manolo] Blahniks." No. I don't live like Carrie Bradshaw in "Sex and the City."

As I say in the book, I sold a script to Hollywood. You're looking at my house. I'm not living large. I was paid fairly, to be clear. But it's just most people we know are just trying to pay their bills. They're trying to put food on the table for their families. And most people I know are what I would call medium prosperous. And that's people who've been established for 15, 20 years. And even those medium prosperous, what we've seen recently is that they can't pay their bills. They are moving, they selling their house and moving two hours out of town because they cannot afford the life.

I do think that Hollywood did something a long time ago in that it put up this barrier of guilds and unions between the companies that want the movies and the TV shows and the content and the people who make it.

"People who make things that you like a lot, all too often they work under conditions that are unacceptable."

It put up a wall of some kind of like, "OK, beyond this point, you cannot ask this of us or exploit us in this way." And a lot of other industries didn't do that, or those unions were dismantled. I'm not blaming the people of America for not doing that more, but Hollywood, thank goodness that it did what it did. Because writers had the kind of, again, more or less middle-class existences for most people, people had the ability to do their art, create their stories because they had this protection. The arrival of tech giants streaming all of the rest of it, that was going to be the promised land.

Well, the promised land has turned into one where people work twice as hard to earn half the money. People's minimums are not being respected; people are scrambling to make less than they would have if they were a staff writer on a CW show 10 years ago. I do think that the public is now aware that the industry can be exploitative on a number of fronts.

There can be assault, coercion, bullying, toxicity, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, all kinds of barriers to all kinds of folks. But on top of that, financially, I think there's more awareness. And tell me if you agree that most people are just wanting to make what the manager of a grocery store in Wheaton, Illinois makes. They're not asking to make  [the equivalent of] "I have to have two yachts." It's not great when a lot of people I know are having to exit the industry because even if they're being treated OK, which a fair amount of the time they're not, they can't make the finances work.

One of the major themes in your book is about toxicity. "Sleepy Hollow" is an example. There have been a number of examples. You had Harold Perrineau speaking out about his experiences throughout "Lost," but also just the difference now that he's in "From." Have you thought about whether those organizations can even try to mandate structures at networks — in terms of keeping those people safe, not just physically, but also in terms of reporting a toxic workplace?

Yeah, so here's the thing. I do think the guilds are limited. I'm just going to say it. They have beefed up, to some degree, reporting channels and resources. I have proposed, "Well, bounce people from unions, from guilds. If there's a pattern of serious misconduct of any kind, and that pattern is addressed and that person is given education and resources and support and then monitored, and it still keeps happening. Bounce them." And I've been told preventing a fellow guild member from working can really impact a guild negatively.

The whole point is that you're supposed to be in solidarity and helping people out, helping each other out and standing together. So I do think that the guilds are aware of this, but in the tornado of difficult stuff they're dealing with, this is probably not going to be something they're going to take on anytime soon.

And to some degree, I understand why I have a lot of thoughts about this and I'm going to start by saying TIME'S UP, as an advocacy organization, is dead. There's another organization that's less well-known than I talked about called the Hollywood Commission. One of its figureheads is professor Anita Hill. She's a high-level person in this Hollywood Commission that was formed in the wake of #MeToo that has a number of Hollywood big shots on the board. This was a big try to be some sort of clearinghouse or activist organization to make things better for workers.

They did a bunch of studies, they did some educational outreach. The study showed, I think you'll be surprised to find, Melanie, Hollywood is a difficult, punishing environment where people encounter racism, sexism and inappropriate physical encounters.

One thing that "Burn It Down" does that other books about Hollywood don't do as extensively is offer solutions. What are the things that you hope someone who is in a position of power can read this and say, "Yeah, I think I'm going to do this." What would you want it to be?

The thing that I want people to understand is this: toxicity, abuse, exploitation of all kinds is not an inevitability in a creative endeavor. It is a choice. It's not inevitable. People can have their issues in their baggage. And I want people with baggage to make my art because they make cool art. The way that baggage is worked out is not in assault, toxicity, bullying, all manner of terrible things in the workplace. So if you are allowing, if you have power, you are allowing terrible people to operate with impunity or near impunity. That's a choice. That's not an inevitability. You are not, "Well, I couldn't help it." No, you can help, but you're choosing not to help it. 

"We can be in the fight to make these workplaces less toxic, more professional, more healthy."

Please understand, people in Hollywood, when you are passive in the face of abuse and misconduct and bias and you ignore all the hurdles that people from historically excluded communities face and you pretend they're not there and you pretend the abuse, the misconduct, and the raging a**holery of it all is not there, that's not inevitable.

If you have power over those things, you choose not to exert it over those things, it is a choice, it's an active decision you're making. So first of all, make a different choice. You'll save money if you make a better choice. So that's one thing. And the second thing is: It's possible. People are doing it.

What I hope to provide throughout the book, but especially in that last third, was here are examples of working professionals who faced the abyss that so many people face. That abyss is, "I saw a bunch of bad examples coming up. No one educated me on how to be a good leader. Now I've been given a leadership position. What do I do? I don't know. No one's told me."

What I wanted to provide was the voices of people who have been through the trash fires and through trial and error. Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, on the set of "Crazy Ex-Girlfriend," I come around the corner and find a childcare room. I mean, they're like, "But it's not . . . we didn't . . . and it's not," I'm like, "No, but do you understand?"

It's there.

It's there. This is a thing.

Yes, there's not a ball pit.

It's incredible. Most other places I've been in, they have a tequila dispenser. And that's like, OK, but this is probably useful. So it's possible to be creative, to tell a good story, to respect people. And people do it all the time.

And the third thing I will say is: Good luck keeping this stuff under wraps.

If the old school playbook of just wait it out, cover it up, I'm not saying it doesn't work ever. It's always going to work for Hollywood, unfortunately, because there are just too many factors in play to shut people up. The old mentality that everyone in the media would just go along with this and that sources would not speak up as a group, whether they're on a picket line or whether they go to you as a journalist . . . as a group, people can make change and that is going to continue to keep happening.

So maybe nip the problem in the bud and don't hire people who are like this. The majority of people who want jobs in the industry don't want to be jerks, don't want to deal with jerks. Hire those people. There's a lot of them.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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