Damien Chazelle’s Babylon is a clash of nostalgias. It’s where the #TCMparty crowd of Singin’ in the Rain meets the #TCMorgy fans of Kenneth Anger’s wallow in grime and degradation, Hollywood Babylon. Chazelle’s Babylon stars Diego Calva as Manny Torres, a young studio fixer and eventual studio boss; Margot Robbie as a self-invented star who becomes an actual star, Nellie LaRoy; and Brad Pitt as Jack Conrad, the reigning king of silent Hollywood. Conrad talks excitedly and vapidly about silent film and wanting to reinvent the form; then the monkey’s paw curls and gives him talkies.
Babylon opens in 1926, at the peak of the silent era, as a truck pulls up on a dusty road in a still-rural Bel Air, Calif. The driver expects to pick up a horse to take to a mansion on a hill, but it’s not a horse. It’s for a studio mogul’s party, so of course it’s something far more grand—an elephant. The driver won’t do it, then a cop says they need a permit, but Manny greases the wheels by offering both men passes to the party. Manny manages to get that elephant up that hill, but not before it defecates on the man pushing it, drenching him in excrement. That’s the basic idea of Babylon: The grimy reality behind the dream is pretty bad for anyone not at the top of this industry’s food chain.
At the extended party sequence that follows, Nellie LaRoy crashes it (literally, driving into a statue when she arrives), and Manny has a problem to solve, the classic movie dilemma of getting an overdosed/dead woman’s body out of a house unseen. Since this is the opening chapter of modern Hollywood, Manny has to figure this out without benefit of seeing the thousand other movies that will use the Pretty Dead Girl trope in the future. He then gets the job of babysitting a drunk Jack Conrad and getting him onto his set the next day. There, the extras refuse to work. When asked if he has any experience handling strikes, Manny nods, borrows a pistol from a cowboy actor, and forces them to work by herding them like cattle. Thus begins Manny’s rise to the top as a boss and our introduction to the movie’s most sympathetic character (amoral as he is), a can-do guy with only one illusion, that he can save Nellie LaRoy from herself.
Ostensibly, Chazelle wanted to make a movie about the end of the silent era. Babylon depicts something else. It revels in the industry’s libertarian Wild West era of no-rules filmmaking. On Manny’s first day at the studio, Chazelle presents a chaotic outdoor tableau of adjacent silent movies all filming at once. It’s day when a Nellie LaRoy walks onto a Western saloon set for the first time in her life a wannabe and walks off a star, when a crew member on a medieval battlefield scene ends up dead (a scene played as black comedy), impaled by a spear—the whole day seemingly justified when Jack Conrad gets a perfect sunset golden-hour shot. The sound era brings morality cops, homophobia, racism (and another dead crew member, also played for a laugh)—all of which somehow never seriously figures into the silent era.
Chazelle isn’t the only one enamored of the unregulated days of movie magic in Babylon. He has a lot of company at Netflix, Amazon, Disney+, and HBO Max, among others. Today, the ghost of the great alpha mogul Irving Thalberg has much to smile about. With streaming now the dominant form of exhibition, the balance of power has shifted decisively back to the studios, and for the exact same reasons as 1926—oligopoly and vertical integration. The streaming revolution means the streamers control every aspect of their business—from hiring creative talent to production to exhibition—just as the studios did that day Manny wrangled the extras with that gun.
It’s an issue the entertainment industry thought died out in 1948, but the streamers and our conservative legal establishment have brought it back. On May 1, 2023, the current contract for the Writers Guild of America (WGA) expires, and on June 30, so do the contracts for the Directors Guild of America and the Screen Actors Guild (SAG). It’s a rare alignment of timing and mutual interest among the three unions, as they also agree on the number-one issue of the day: streaming residuals.
In the 1920s, the Federal Trade Commission investigated the film industry as an oligopoly for violations of the Sherman Antitrust Act. The movie studios owned their own theaters. Without unions or regulation, the old studios profited at every level. Today, streamers refuse to release data to unions to determine profit-sharing with talent—which allows them to profit at every level.
What ended the era Babylon actually depicts was not sound but money, or rather the scarcity of it. During the 1920s, the studios massively over-leveraged themselves to banks by gobbling up those theaters and refitting them for sound. With FDR’s election, the studios used his March 1933 bank holiday as an excuse to cut employee wages 50 percent. In the Roosevelt administration’s first 100 days, the WGA was formed and SAG was incorporated. In 1936, after the Wagner Act and establishment of the National Labor Relations Board, directors founded the Directors Guild of America.
Thalberg and other studio bosses fought organized labor and antitrust litigation a lot harder than they ever fought sound. It took decades for the Supreme Court to finally hear The United States of America v. Paramount in 1948. Using their theaters, the studios enforced “block booking,” meaning that independent theater owners who wanted to show Paramount movies had to buy the entire slate of Paramount movies for the year, sight unseen. They got the A-list movies by great directors with popular stars, but also had to book the dreck. Block booking also limited consumer choices by keeping competing smaller studios and foreign films from getting distribution. The streaming era has its own variation on this captive consumer model. As a pandemic-bound viewer, you may just want to see a single new show on Disney+, not also pay for every frame ever filmed of the Star Wars franchise, but you have no choice.
The Supreme Court’s 1948 ruling, known informally as the Paramount Decrees, forced the studios to sell their theaters. It essentially broke the studio system via the ensuing steep decline in revenue once captive consumers and theater owners had actual choices. In 2020, the Trump Justice Department got a federal court in New York to throw out the decrees, instituting, a sundown period that ended in 2022. As finance professor Abraham Ravid told NPR’s Marketplace, “We’re now back to where we were, in the sense that the leading form of exhibition, which is streaming, is owned by the same people who are producing the shows. All the studios except for Sony essentially have streaming services.”
Our current golden age of cinema has already sparked lawsuits from stars; Scarlett Johansson, for example, sued over her movie Black Widow’s getting competing theatrical and streaming releases, with the latter cutting significantly into her theatrical ticket sales and boosting the profits of Disney+. Currently, producers and unions have no agreed-upon or reliable accounting system to assess residual payments for streaming. Streamers notoriously keep their talent in the dark about the audience draw for their work—and to no one’s surprise, their sub rosa data regime makes talent a lot less money. As one anonymous showrunner told Vulture last summer about working for streamers, “You will never be approached with any information. If you choose to expend your social capital in such an ask, you will be politely handled, but you will not be given anything that has any kind of context to it.”
It’s common for actor salaries, blockbuster budgets, and other financial information to leak in the media. In the case of streaming platforms, however, it’s an Edward Snowden–level security breach. After Netflix released Dave Chappelle’s special The Closer in 2021, several Netflix employees angry over Chappelle’s transphobic jokes went public. Management accused Terra Field, whose Twitter thread on the controversy went viral, of crashing a senior management meeting of 500 executives and suspended her (while denying that her dismissal was retaliation for her widely read takedown of the company). Netflix also accused B. Pagels-Minor, who helped stage a public walkout of company employees, of leaking internal numbers on the special to Bloomberg News (a charge that Pagels-Minor denies). The numbers showed that The Closer fell short of a break-even point for Netflix. Industry trades report on movies that lose money every day, but Netflix retaliated by firing Pagels-Minor. Both Pagels-Minor and Field filed complaints to Irving Thalberg’s old foe, the NLRB, and eventually dropped them to settle privately with the streamer.
As more streamers pop up to compete for market space, and viewer numbers drop as the pandemic streaming boom fades, the streaming industry will be more desperate to hold on to that data. But with a three-union shutdown possible, even Manny Torres’s six-shooter might not be enough for the streamers to hold out. The balance of power has to even out in streaming. There’s got to be a more equitable way to get that elephant up that hill.