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Fine Cheese or Bad Meat: Media in Los Angeles

Here’s the thing about working in the industry in LA: predators are everywhere and they are usually your boss.

Here’s the thing about working in the industry in LA: predators are everywhere and they are usually your boss.

On Friday October 6th I got a message from a former colleague:

“Have you seen the news about Andy?”

Andy is Andy Signore: former head of Screen Junkies, former Executive Producer at Defy Media, Streamy award winner, MTV Movie Award winner, multiple Emmy nominee, my former boss.

“Check twitter.”

I did, and then I launched myself directly into the swirling morass of absolute deplorability. I spent the weekend fighting with people online, being thanked by some people, being called a pedophile, being accused of complicity, being interrogated for details I wouldn’t release in public (but have since put on the record with Defy Media’s HR department as part of their investigation), arguing whether blatantly sexist remarks were sexist, arguing whether female cosplayers are asking for it, arguing whether we should believe the accusers, arguing whether I should take more care to not harm a male celebrity’s career, and taking a mental stock of all the times I didn’t call out questionable behavior. It was not a fun weekend, but it was necessary.

We all know Hollywood is rotten, but if you try hard enough you can convince yourself that it smells like fine cheese, rather than fetid flesh.

Andy is a predator. I was shocked at the content and gravity of the allegations, but I wasn’t surprised. Turns out many people weren’t surprised. It doesn’t appear that anyone on the team was directly aware of Andy’s assaults or the threats he sent to keep women silent, but in my direct experience Andy Signore was problematic. Having problematic bosses is just part of the Hollywood experience.

I’ve been an editor for more than a decade. I’ve left a job with a very progressive documentary company partly over my producer’s treatment of a female researcher. I’ve counselled younger editors when they realized that they were being paid less than their male peers for the same experience and work. I’ve seen an assistant editor introduced and the response: “Oh good! She’s cute!” I’ve spent way too much time listening to stories that are all too familiar: sexist comments, being passed over for promotions, being routed to job roles with more emotional labor, bad jokes, creepy comments, unspoken pressure.

But all that didn’t really help me at Defy, at least not when it really counted. My first 2.5 years with the company were generally good. I worked with a fairly diverse team. I saw new talent cultivated. I worked for a channel that had women calling a lot of the shots. And they succeeded: Clevver not only grew in terms of audience numbers but also drew to it a more radical, progressive online audience. But it still had some of the same problems that we see from many organizations, and many of my coworkers vented their frustration. Post departments, in my experience, don’t tend to be the most diverse places and that lack of diversity brings certain pressures.

When film was still in its infancy editing was mainly done by women. It was seen as menial work, too lowly and technical for the creative male directors of the time. As editing techniques developed and became more powerful the women were pushed out. Once it was prestigious to edit film the men took over. Of course this isn’t a hard and fast rule, some of the most celebrated male directors owe much of their success to the female editors that shaped their films. Sally Menke leaps to mind for her work with Quentin Tarantino. There’s a good argument to be made that George Lucas would’ve prequeled up the original trilogy if it wasn’t for Marcia Griffin’s contribution. Marcia edited American Graffiti and Taxi Driver, garnering Oscar nominations for both. But Sally Menke and Marcia Griffin aren’t really household names, whereas George and Quentin are multibillion dollar brands unto themselves. There’s a Patton Oswalt bit on the dynamic of male directors wielding phallic cameras like hormone addled teenagers leaving a mess for the female editor to structure into a watchable film; and it’s probably worth noting that even here we equate a camera to a phallus: it is something that intrudes, not receives.

There’s a lot to unpack here, but one thing that I want to touch on is the false scarcity that drives and enables this kind of power dynamic. Jobs in the entertainment industry are highly coveted, fairly well compensated, situated in urban centers, and privileged to access. People want to work in media, in new media, in film, in TV, in podcasting, in vlogging, in Snapchat (look I cut Snapchat videos about food right now, I’m not one to judge.) At smaller, independent places like new media companies your job can quickly expand, the more technical skill you have the more in demand you will be for projects, but rarely will that result in more compensation. Even though wages are lower than they should be for large sectors of the industry there is still incredible demand.

Demand in this case is driven also by a flood of young talent and the explosion of digital technology. Not getting into USC’s film school is a kind of rite of passage into the Philosophy major, existential crises and whatnot. Schools from the east coast have campuses in Hollywood to feed talent directly into LA. Young talent in LA is working on corporate content, vying for positions that are limited and intense.

Getting your dream job, even when the dream is in the job title rather than the content, is an accomplishment that is hard won. People want to keep creating, they want to keep driving forward in their careers. As long as content distribution is narrowly controlled there will be fierce competition to secure a job. And these corporate structures rely on this pressure. Maybe you won’t bill for a sick day, maybe you’re afraid to ask for a raise, maybe you’re told overtime is mandatory not mandatory, maybe the company has a policy of not telling freelancers about certain benefits, maybe HR doesn’t return your emails, maybe HR doesn’t have a desk at your branch, maybe they pay for your healthcare, maybe you don’t want to risk it.

In these environments it is easier to exploit people’s desire for self-preservation. If you want to keep your job, keep creating, keep the perks, then you need to not make waves. Hierarchal structures like this will always be a feeding ground for predatory behavior, the rot is in the bones; and that’s not a bug, it’s a feature of the system. Hungry dogs hunt harder.

Now that entire system can be undercut. The same raw talent and technology that feed these cycles present the chance for breaking their hold on creation and distribution. Flat, equitable production companies and alliances of creatives are the way to move forward. There are substantial hurdles: access to healthcare leaps immediately to my mind, but continuing to tie our financial and physical health to corporations that see allegations as more of liability than actual assault seems to hollow out whatever authentic core that drove our creativity.

Beyond crowdfunding we need to find ways to create organizations that put the worker and creative labor first. We need to leverage media distribution and collaborative structures to tackle the financial burdens of healthcare and pension savings. This doesn’t happen through the primacy of a few wealthy or successful voices that are quickly taken by corporate structure.

The only way out of this morass is to remove the power structures that enable the predators. We don’t need massive studios who “get” tolerance and diversity. We don’t need corporations who buy politicians to sponsor awareness campaigns. We don’t need behemoth new media companies owned mainly by the major telecoms to deliver innovation. We don’t need the veiled threat of a safety net. The path forward is one of allyship, collaboration, and agility.