The first thing we do, let’s [REDACTED] all the studio execs
Would anybody even notice?
In his analysis of Shakespearean plotters Jack Cade and Dick the Butcher’s infamous plan to liquidate England’s lawyers during their rebellious ascent to the British throne, scholar (and attorney) Daniel Kornstein stressed in 2005 that the Bard’s murderous dialogue must be “understood in the context of a class revolt,” for which lawyers were “the very symbols of the inequities and oppression that provoke a revolution.” Cade, Kornstein notes, “tells his cohorts they were fighting to recover their ‘ancient freedom’ so they would no longer have to ‘live in slavery to the nobility'.’
Now, some five hundred years after Shakespeare wrote his Henriad, a different sort of rebellion has roused a similar sentiment across an entertainment industry paralyzed by SAG-AFTRA actors and WGA writers striking against the exploitation of big Hollywood studios. No one is, nor should they be, calling for actual murder (duh). But as the grotesque disparities between working union members and lordly studio heads become more and more apparent, so too does the notion that the current state of studio heads as a class unto themselves is fundamentally incompatible with anything resembling a sustainable future for the entertainment industry—and labor at large.
“The motherfucker who said we’re gonna keep this thing going until people start losing their houses and their apartments… listen to me, motherfucker, there’s a lot of ways to lose your house,” actor Ron Perlman growled in a since-deleted Instagram post responding to an anonymous studio executive who’d bragged that “the endgame is to allow things to drag on” until union members start being unable to cover rent and mortgages.
“Some of it is financial, some of it is karma, and some of it is just figuring out who the fuck said that—and we know who said that—and where he fucking lives,” Perlman continued. “There’s a lot of ways to lose your house. You wish that on people, you wish that families starve, while you’re making $27 fucking million a year for creating nothing? Be careful, motherfucker. Be really careful, ’cause that’s the kind of shit that stirs shit up.”
Perlman later claimed he’d merely gotten “quite heated” and didn’t “wish anybody any harm.” But his message of righteous action against the people—and the system—that has exploited so many of his colleagues nevertheless struck a chord among those who see these ongoing labor actions not simply as a fight for an equitable, livable future, but as a crucial step toward a wholesale realignment of industry power. Like my Discourse colleague Jack Crosbie wrote last week, “If Hollywood bosses want war, maybe they should get it”—not as a call for violence, but to instill a sense of scale and significance to what the striking actors and writers are working for. Like Shakespeare’s condemned lawyers, the studio executives making tens of millions of dollars annually are the revolution-inspiring “symbols of the inequities and oppression” inherent in the unacceptable status quo.
Consider what a Studio Executive like Bob Iger or David Zaslav actually does. Or better yet, consider nothing. A void. A distinct absence of any creativity or input or worthwhile contribution to our world. Yes, they have an impact, in so much as they make abstract “deals” about which apps get to air what franchises and for how long, and how much can they screw anything/one that doesn’t make their entirely imaginary cut. At their core, studio execs are glorified traffic cops. They either take things that already exist and shuffle them through a labyrinthine corporate morass, or they take things that could exist and choose whether or not to let them do so based solely on the cold mathematics of “how much money will I get?”
These moguls, people whose net worths eclipse some nations’ entire GDPs, are essentially being paid millions a year to act like they understand cultural “vibes” while they punch numbers into a calculator, and cash checks of their own writing. Remember Shingy, AOL’s “digital prophet” whose entirely pointless job was to speak in vague platitudes about the future of technology? That’s who these studio execs are, only they wear three-piece suits, and—unlike Shingy—can’t be bothered to even pretend to care about the artistic fields which they ostensibly lead. Studio execs are an invasive species of MBA schmucks who have attached themselves, carbuncle-like, onto vibrant industries, worming their way into positions of unimaginable wealth and influence while offering nothing in return to the people who actually contribute something of worth. Like most corporate CEOs, they are distinguishable from one another only by the degree of their insouciant cruelty and occasional moments of mask-slippage and mockery. In all other respects, they are unremarkable, interchangeable, and—to Shakespeare, Perlman, and Crosbie’s ultimate point—wholly unnecessary.
Ultimately, Shakespeare’s Cade and Dick never end up actually killing all the lawyers. Nor do I expect the ongoing WGA/SAG-AFTRA strikes to actually put an end to the concept of “studio executives” as the gods of the entertainment industry. But I do think that as the offensively lopsided nature of the entertainment industry comes into sharper relief for more and more people, it’s worth interrogating whether Disney and Warner Brothers and the rest actually need their Igers and Zaslavs and other robber barons of entertainment. And if not, perhaps it’s time to imagine a world where those guys actually have to work for a living instead.