The cynics just received new evidence from Netflix.
Hollywood has been the guiding star on many social justice issues, including the recent #MeToo movement and racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd. In June 2020, Netflix was among many entertainment companies rushing to support racial justice and Black creators.
Now the company is pulling back from a slew of projects by some of its best black names, including an animated series based on Antiracist Baby. It also alerted staff that it won’t bow to internal pressures to remove “harmful” content, pressures like last year’s staff strike over a Dave Chappelle special.
“If you’re having a hard time supporting our breadth of content, Netflix may not be the best place for you,” reads the company in an outspoken “culture memo.”
This appears to be part of a broader trend in Hollywood to move away from the overt activism of recent years. “Over the past few weeks,” the Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday, “the corporate-level entertainment industry has gradually retreated from liberal social activism, at least when it comes to making big public statements on specific issues.” Companies that have issued unreserved statements of support during the Black Lives Matter protests … have said next to nothing about the likely overturning of Roe vs. Wade by the US Supreme Court.”
It’s probably too harsh to say that Hollywood’s supposed social justice obligations are merely marketing strategies that companies have abandoned once sentiment has shifted. But a gentler cynicism seems warranted: Hollywood was happy to make big, token gestures so long as they weren’t too expensive, but suddenly they look expensive.
Education polarization may have made it seem less risky for companies to take sides on contentious issues than it used to, because the wealthiest customers — and the most educated employees — were all on the same side. It seemed profitable to comply with her opinion, even if it infuriated a bunch of less well-heeled people.
But downscale customers also spend money on films and streaming services. Perhaps more importantly, they vote.
Earlier this year, during controversy over Florida’s new parental rights law, inside activists wanted Disney to use its considerable power as a major Florida employer to pressure lawmakers to drop the law. Disney executive Bob Chapek initially resisted, saying he didn’t want the company to become a “political football,” but after news of the dispute broke, he eventually relented.
The resulting spat with Florida lawmakers resulted in Disney being stripped of its special powers over the Disney World area, where the company essentially functioned as local government. Well, the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this month, business leaders are asking themselves one question: “How can we avoid becoming the next Walt Disney Co.?”
At the very least, Disney has a growing streaming business, with stronger-than-expected subscriber growth last quarter. Netflix lost subscribers over the same period and is now faced with a slowing economy, inflation-stricken budgets, and rising interest rates that must be unnerving for a company built on a mountain of debt. Layoffs quickly followed, and corporate idealism was apparently shown the door.
That’s exactly what you should have expected. Netflix is a business, not a charity. Condemn capitalist greed if you will, but of course greed is just a business leaving consumers to their own devices.
Netflix believed to have refused to cancel Dave Chappelle in part because management believes the service will gain more subscribers if it keeps its shows than it will lose — and canceled “Antiracist Baby” because it doesn’t think it will the project will generate enough subscribers to justify the cost. If you think those decisions should be reversed, your dispute is with the audience, not Netflix.
Of course, it wasn’t crazy to think that Netflix and its brothers could use their power to change the minds of some in that audience. But that power has always been severely constrained by corporate economic needs, something the left seems to forget as it pressures corporations to adopt the best possible stance on everything. There is no corporate shortcut to social change that avoids the need for politics and advocacy, because when companies are given a choice, they will always make money rather than make history.