The Hollywood dream job is dead. Did it ever really exist?


The recent Barbenheimer extravaganza in Hollywood, which featured the release of Warner Bros.' "Barbie" and Universal's "Oppenheimer," has garnered widespread attention and generated over $1.2 billion in ticket sales. However, beneath the surface glamour, the entertainment industry is currently grappling with labor disputes that have led to strikes by both the Writers Guild of America (WGA) and the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA).

These strikes, the first joint action since 1960, have effectively brought the entertainment industry to a standstill. The workers are demanding basic workplace protections, fair pay models, and better treatment by movie studios and streaming companies. Additionally, concerns about the use of artificial intelligence and other technologies by these employers have also come to light.

The labor disputes in Hollywood have shed light on the harsh realities faced by many workers in the industry. Despite the headline salaries of A-list celebrities, a significant number of on-screen actors struggle financially. Union president Fran Drescher revealed that more than 85% of those represented by SAG-AFTRA earn less than the $26,000 annual threshold required to qualify for health benefits. Some actors have shared stories of being paid so little that they need second jobs to afford their rent.

The entertainment industry has long been seen as a realm of beauty, art, and wealth. However, recent revelations have challenged this perception, exposing the industry's workplace problems, including exploitation, abuse, and discrimination. Maureen Ryan, author of "Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call for Change in Hollywood," argues that the industry has used its false reputation to cover up these issues.

The stories of economic hardships faced by industry workers resonate with the broader corporate American landscape, where CEOs earn several hundred times more than the average employee. Warner Bros. Discovery CEO David Zaslav, for instance, has faced criticism for his leadership decisions and compensation package. As the merger of Warner and Discovery took place in 2022, Zaslav was ranked as the second-most "overpaid" CEO on the Fortune 500 list.

The striking workers' stories have exposed deep-rooted problems in the entertainment industry that predate recent movements like #MeToo, #OscarsSoWhite, and others. While there has been some progress in addressing issues of discrimination and harassment, author Maureen Ryan believes that much work remains to be done. Her book extensively covers the industry's problems with diversity, inclusion, and workplace misconduct.

As Ryan was writing her book in 2021, she noticed the growing rumblings of broad labor unrest in the entertainment industry. The financial hardships faced by writers, actors, and other industry workers during the pandemic, coupled with the unequal distribution of profits in the streaming era, contributed to a boiling point of frustration among industry workers. Ryan expanded her focus to address not just issues of harassment and abuse but also the existential crises facing the industry.

It is clear that the entertainment industry still grapples with systemic problems, despite efforts to address them following Harvey Weinstein's downfall. Ryan's book exposes instances of toxic workplace behavior and the condoning of such behavior across Hollywood. Case studies include the "relentlessly cruel" and "racist" writers' room of "Lost," the long history of misconduct and abusive dynamics on "Saturday Night Live," and the reputation of producer Scott Rudin as one of the industry's vilest bosses.

The decision to merge her larger thesis on systemic issues with captivating examples of behind-the-scenes workplace problems has resonated with readers. An excerpt from her book, focusing on the toxic workplace behavior on the set of "Lost," went viral, propelling her book onto the New York Times best-seller list.   

Acknowledging that her approach of highlighting shocking workplace behavior was a deliberate tactic to capture attention, Ryan emphasizes the need to dispel the misconception that instances of racial and sexist bias and other forms of abuse are a thing of the past. By presenting Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a workplace plagued by familiar problems found across corporate America, Ryan exposes the mounting disputes between profit-driven employers and the workers who create the products. This extends beyond the confines of Tinseltown, affecting white-collar or "knowledge" jobs that were once considered prestigious and secure.

Employers in law firms, consulting firms, tech companies, and universities are increasingly adopting practices that erode job longevity, job security, and consistent paychecks, essentially turning employees into gig workers. Additionally, CEOs openly discuss replacing human workers with artificial intelligence, further undermining the concept of the "dream job." 

The situation is particularly evident in Hollywood, where the gloss of a creative utopia is steadily fading, revealing a harsh reality. Ryan herself has personally experienced disillusionment with the Hollywood dream and openly admits that she would prefer her son to work as a bank teller rather than on a Hollywood set.   

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