How do you take the measure of 4,000 jobs lost in an industry with the size and scope of Hollywood?
That’s the number of pink slips being handed by Disney to Fox employees now that the merged mega-studio won’t need them anymore. Four. Thousand. Jobs. It’s undoubtedly the largest layoff from a single entertainment company in a generation — maybe ever — a fact that has not been widely discussed in an industry that has no context for this kind of consolidation.
Myself I’ve been trying to think about what it means. I grew up in Ohio, where these were the kind of statistics you used to read when General Motors shut an automotive plant. Or when a tire manufacturer moved overseas and left Youngstown. The kind of thing when Boeing moved its headquarters from Seattle to Chicago. But not previously in an industry of movie and television creators.
These are, potentially, 4,000 mortgages. Tuition. Braces. Art classes. Elder care. For some very fortunate it may just be skipping spring break vacation in Hawaii with the kids. But for most of the people involved it’s serious stuff, the existential issue of surviving everyday life.
Many of those fired will not find new employment in the entertainment industry. The jobs are just not there to absorb these kinds of numbers. Even Netflix, as big as it has gotten, is not in a position to take on this much talent if it wanted. (Netflix has added nearly 4,000 full-time jobs in the last three years, going from 3,500 to 7,100 employees, according to Statista. But that is in an environment where traditional entertainment companies have been contracting, from shrinking Sony, Paramount and MGM to the disappearance of Relativity and The Weinstein Company.)
From folks who I’ve spoken to, this wasn’t a big surprise. Job losses were expected from the moment that Disney’s Bob Iger announced that Rupert Murdoch had given up on growing his empire and instead was cashing out at a $71 billion price tag. Some had been quietly departing for new gigs over the last few months. The rest, however, have been waiting in agony to find out their fates.
And from what I hear, few expected a number this large. “For the last 36 hours, I’ve been grieving,” one longtime Fox employee who was officially cut told me. “I’ve been reflecting on my growth as a human.”
This person added: “Nobody’s mad — go on, integrate it. We’re all relieved. We’re thrilled it’s over.”
Job losses are not a new thing to Hollywood. Studios have shut down before, especially art-house divisions like Warner Independent or independents like Trimark and the aforementioned Relativity. For a couple of decades producers have been packing their bags to chase the cheapest places to shoot rather than finding a space on the studio lot. And visual effects specialists have been globe-hopping for years, from Vancouver to London to New Zealand, in a quest to go where the jobs are but never seem to remain.
In an in-depth Fast Company piece last November titled “The Death of Hollywood’s Middle Class,” Nicole LaPorte looked at the decline of many of the elements that used to support the creative class — residuals and development deals.
“Much as with the rest of U.S. industry, Hollywood’s middle class has seen the stability that reigned from the 1940s to the 1980s slowly chipped away in pieces over the last several decades. In 1993, the so-called fin-syn laws, which prevented companies from owning a production studio and a network, were abolished, ushering in an era of consolidation that reduced competition. Around the same time, cable television exploded, which diverted eyeballs and advertisers from the Big Four networks, which had been the most reliable providers of job security and good pay. In addition, most original programming on cable networks was produced on the cheap. In 2007, a Writers Guild strike, just as the global economic collapse began, led to a contraction from which workers have not fully recovered. Networks slashed their budgets for lucrative overall development deals for writers who were in any way associated with hit shows, and salaries were slow to return to pre-downturn levels.”
But here’s what strikes me, and what makes it so different from the union jobs that went away as global industrialization killed manufacturing in America.
The people in the entertainment industry are generally already those who have sacrificed to get here. Those who grew up in Nebraska watching “Freaks and Geeks” and vowing to be a part of it. Those who memorized every word of the “Star Wars” canon and had no choice but to head West and do anything to get close to it all. Those who begged their parents to let them study film instead of accounting and scraped by at $15 an hour until they made it up into the ranks of a real job with benefits and vacation and could drive something other than a clunker that broke down on the 101.
So to have fought your way into the dream machine and made it, only to find that after years of quality work there is no job for you — that is one harsh blow.
Nobody meant it to be the case, but it’s true. The entertainment industry is getting smaller, following the pattern of all industries in the age of technology. Disney-Fox will go on and do great things, but many of these workers are now part of Hollywood history.