“How did I become Tom Joad? I used to write for a living.”
Tom Joad was the hapless farmer in The Grapes of Wrath who fled the Dust Bowl to find a better life in California. The man who cited him this week is a successful screenwriter who’s been walking the picket line and asked that I not use his name.
While the cast of pickets might not mirror John Steinbeck’s characters in his great novel, still “the rhetoric of this strike has taken on a ‘rich against the poor’ obsession,” in the words of one studio CEO.
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The bargaining jargon once focused on residuals, but now it’s about “land barons” and “tone-deaf greedy bosses” (the words of SAG-AFTRA’s Fran Drescher). Little wonder polling shows only 7% of the public siding with the “bosses.” The “class warfare” has passed the 100-day mark, with L.A. city workers joining in Tuesday.
But who are the bosses?
Hollywood’s Tom Joads – the working stiffs – used to work for a curious amalgam of self-made show business autocrats like Louis B. Mayer or Jack Warner, who themselves always were locked in combat with their bankers. Their key weapon to fight their way out of the Depression was to make gangster pictures – the characters they most identified with.
Although resolute raiders such as Kirk Kerkorian and Charles Bluhdorn started buying and selling Hollywood assets in the late 1950s, it was arguably a charming maverick named Steve Ross who, in the early ’70s, created what is now “corporate Hollywood.”
Ross wasn’t born a show business maven; he’d started in the funeral business. But over a relatively short time he built an amazing array of assets — Warner Bros, Time Inc., HBO, Atlantic Records and Atari among them. He also threw glitzy parties, bought a fleet of private jets and prided himself in making his colleagues rich. He even brought soccer legend Pelé to the U.S. to make him richer.
“Ross loved risk-takers and rewarded them accordingly,” says Warren Lieberfarb, who was well rewarded as Ross’ video king. “It was a true entertainment conglomerate with style and swagger.” A typical Ross meeting would result in a quick deal and an invitation to fly to a party in Acapulco.
The party atmosphere was enhanced by bonuses and stock options that were distributed generously and secretly. Ross himself boasted in 1970 that his income totaled $40 million – paltry by present standards.
Ross’ death in 1992 left a confused maze of assets, some of which thrived, but the party was over: His corporate successors never matched his pizzazz or his dedication to spreading the riches.
Further, the SEC mandated a new era of restricted stock, creating an over-publicized generation of corporate leaders with mind-boggling multibillion-dollar stakes, such as Bob Iger and David Zaslav. Or brand names like Amazon or Apple.
Hence the creation of what The Economist this week called “The Overstretched CEO,” whose world is becoming “increasingly dangerous and disorderly.” The billionaire members of this clan face mounting pressure resulting not only from economic standoffs like Hollywood’s present melee but also from political crossfires such as “wokelash.”
Hollywood historically was accustomed to living with a mixture of admiration and anger bosses like Walt Disney, who denounced the unions, and Darryl F. Zanuck, who was always at war with his actors. But they were striving to create brilliant movies, not capitalize on corporate deals.
The community sensed it shared in their achievements. And even Tom Joad, if he got lucky, would pay to see their movies.
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