As I was completing my doctoral studies at the University of Southern California (USC), I moonlighted on various Hollywood sets—and sometimes they could be toxic.
One in particular left me feeling nauseated. It was a late-night shoot on the backlot of Warner Brothers for a popular primetime Fox show and, as on most sets, the day was long, we were behind schedule, and frustrations abounded. When we finally caught up with our scenes and got a rare break, I remember going over to the “crafty table” (i.e., snack table) to pick up a bite to eat. There I had a casual conversation with another worker. That’s when one of the “higher-ups” on the crew walked over, looked straight into my eyes, and said: “Don’t talk around me.”
Excuse me, I thought to myself.
Fortunately, I just let the situation bounce off of me. But this experience, like others that I have had in Hollywood, is not unique in terms of its toxicity; nor is it the worst of its kind or even the most common type of negative experience that vast numbers of people regularly report about the workplace culture of many Hollywood film and television sets, as well as studios and agencies.
My wife briefly worked in the entertainment industry, and she has similar experiences. There is, for example, the one at a famous studio where mid- and high-level people would make fun of a new mom who left the office at five because she needed to be with her child. They called the infant “baby Jesus” (because it needed “so much attention”), and mocked the mom for insisting on healthy work-life balance.
We’re not alone. Books like Burn It Down: Power, Complicity, and a Call For Change in Hollywood; End Credits: How I Broke Up With Hollywood; and many other articles, videos, and websites share stories about people who started out excited about Tinseltown, and then wound up not only quitting the industry, but going into therapy, waging legal battles over various types of harassment, and, in far too many instances, contemplating suicide. These are stories that could have been avoided with better industry standards and accountability, actual training in people and relationship management (which is nonexistent), and even more people speaking up and speaking out about the abuses they have suffered. While there are no systematic studies on how toxic Hollywood has become, from what I can tell, the anecdotes are overwhelming.
The most ironic part about this totalitarian Tinseltown culture is that, from my experience, it belies the overwhelmingly good, decent, and humane numbers of people who actually work in Hollywood, who don’t regularly engage in toxic behavior themselves. However, even those people feel they have to accept this culture to “make art,” “accomplish their goals,” “get ahead,” or, at the very least, keep their paycheck coming in.
As with the toxic culture of political polarization—where there is a well-researched “exhausted majority” who begrudgingly accept the minority of toxic ideologues who set the tone of politics—most members of the exhausted majority in Hollywood publicly stay quiet, fearing the retaliation that would inevitably and almost certainly happen if they demand change.
That change would include healthier workplace environments that insist on humane practices and behaviors establishing more professional and appropriate “office” communication (where verbal tirades, put-downs, and meanness are not the norm or, at the least, not so easily excused, rationalized, or dismissed); emotionally intelligent working environments (where authoritarian “little Caesars” don’t get a pass for mistreating others because they’ve had a few fleeting “hits” to try to justify their unnecessary behavior); and where less debilitating working hours are mandated and commonplace (14- and 16-hour days should also not be normal because they worsen mental health as well as performance, according to science).
But one of the biggest barriers to reform is the mindset—or, as I call it, the “mindwarp”—of “the ends justify the means” that some decision-makers in Tinseltown embrace. In other words, there is a prevailing mindset—not backed up by any science or data whatsoever—that says as long as the art is good (defined opaquely as either profitable or meeting some sort of subjective critical taste, or winning awards), then bullying behavior is OK or overlooked.
That belief is like the teacher in the 2014 Oscar-winning movie Whiplash (played by J.K. Simmons) who abuses and mistreats his students because he heard a single story about a kid somewhere who was mistreated—who also happened to perform well as an artist—and so therefore decided he needed to abuse all of his students to get them to perform well. But what Simmons’s character didn’t understand, and what this toxic mindset doesn’t understand, is that not only did the abuse lead the young artist he heard about to eventually commit suicide, but it created an unnecessarily toxic atmosphere that was less creative and less productive than it otherwise could have been, as countless related studies would demonstrate in the real world about the harmful impacts of toxic working environments.
When some toxically pre-disposed people in Hollywood anecdotally state that they worked on a project with a hellish work environment that turned out “good” or profitable, and further anecdotally assert they worked on a project with a good working environment that didn’t, they’re expressing what psychologists call confirmation bias: the tendency to only hear information that confirms existing beliefs. While there are many reasons why the industry is financially struggling, one important (and typically ignored) variable may be that toxic work environments are less likely to create high-quality products.
Hollywood isn’t the world’s only toxic industry, of course. All kinds of scientific studies show that toxic, unnecessary conflict reduces workplace productivity, creativity, morale, and good decision-making. These studies also show, conversely, that this type of conflict increases the chances of failure both for individuals and the organizations for which they work. Perhaps, if we’re able to create a better Hollywood, more positive entertainment will result—and that could influence other kinds of workplaces to turn in a better direction.
But overcoming this mindwarp and this institutional culture is not impossible. There are many proven ways to do this if people get serious about reform and making Hollywood a more humane place to work, which might not just help the industry and the people in it, but also help make America become a more humane place to be, too. Here are just a few of those suggestions.
1. Incorporate proven research practices that train industry professionals in humane communication and people-management practices
According to many studies, training leaders, managers, and everyday workers can be incredibly helpful in changing the overall environment of a workplace. That training can include how to engage in emotionally intelligent communication, give feedback, get team buy-in, manage their emotions and body language under stress, and be supportive of their colleagues. Such training can also explore the consequences of abusive and narcissistic behavior on individual physical and mental health and team performance.
Professionals around the world receive that kind of training—but few in Hollywood do. And the higher the salary, the more aligned the professional should be to personally model these skills and qualities, with executives and high-ranking crew members expected (ideally) to be the best-behaved professionals in Tinseltown. Because there is near zero training in intelligent interpersonal communication and people management, especially on sets, the industry needs to invest in training this behavior, first for the mental and emotional health of its own people, and secondly for the sake of improving its performance, profitability, and reputation.
2. Invest in the research about Hollywood’s behaviors and practices, both on set and in office
Organizational performance data, outside of ratings and revenue, is notoriously difficult to come by, in part because of system-wide inaccessibility and lack of transparency. This prevents Hollywood from making better, data-informed decisions about numerous things, like other industries do which actually collect wide-ranging workplace performance data about themselves.
Not only do we not know, for example, the true state of worker satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) in Hollywood, but we do not know how actual behavior on set or in office translates to success or failure for various projects, nor do we know if any of this translates to positively or negatively affecting society through the stories Hollywood tells. Knowing these facts should result in better decision-making.
3. Immediately decide to emulate on-screen the empathy it will start practicing off-screen by adopting these recommendations
Anyone familiar with Hollywood’s impact on real-world thoughts, behavior, and social outcomes, a process known as media priming theory, will know that Tinseltown is scientifically and significantly shaping what people do and believe in real life, for better or worse. Anyone who is familiar with this will also note that Hollywood has an opportunity to help undo some of the negative social phenomena that it did not cause but undoubtedly contributed to, not only in its own industry but throughout society. These include:
- The historic rise in real-world narcissistic behaviors that children and adults engage in, which may in part be fueled by watching the narcissistic anti-heroes Hollywood increasingly features. All of these narcissistic behaviors, taken together, are contributing to and perpetuating society-wide bullying, the epidemic of self-harm and suicides, gun homicides and mass shootings, political polarization, and beyond.
- The real-world dehumanizing and “othering” of individuals, which are very common on TV and in movies. These stories feature people and groups who are unable to responsibly resolve their differences without resorting to toxic acts of aggression, especially aggression based on stereotypes, because they do not see people who are different from them as real people. Right now, because the majority of Americans have no day-to-day interaction with people who do not look, think, or act like themselves, they are relying on the information presented by Hollywood to form impressions of people who are not like them, and using this as a guide for real-world behavior. This behavior, based on findings from my doctoral dissertation at USC, has historically been used to harm, not help, people.
Hollywood does not cause real-world narcissism and dehumanization, but as a part of society with more social influence than any other industry or institution on shaping and contributing to our culture and behavior, it is responsible for trying to do something about it. In a time when a majority of people believe America is heading toward an imminent civil war, the stakes could not be any higher to try to bring people together.
In other words, Hollywood is not exempt from doing good in society just because its primary business is entertainment; nor is it exempt if it donates a few million dollars to charities working to reduce “dehumanization” and does not do good with the tens of billions of dollars it spends in promoting dehumanizing toxic behaviors through its primary business on screen.
This is true for other industries. Ford’s primary business is selling cars, for instance, but it is still held responsible for reducing carbon emissions in its actual business practices, not just donating to climate-fighting nonprofits. Hollywood, like Ford, has social responsibilities in its core business. Fortunately, these trends can be reversed if the right type of training is recognized and sought after by Tinseltown.
Amazing groups like Resetting the Table, for example, train Hollywood storytellers in entertaining on-screen prosocial storytelling methods to improve understanding between groups and decrease conflict in society. This process is called entertainment education, and it has been demonstrated to be wildly successful in helping to reduce dehumanization. This training, by the way, has also been reported to have empathy-generating benefits for crew member behavior and culture on set, which is a powerful complement to the positive society-wide benefits it is designed to provide.
Of course, it will take enormous will to make any, or all, of these things happen at any scale—but they are not impossible to get done. Countless other domestic or international industries already do or have done each of these things—industries that are also complex and public-facing—so there are examples to look to for Hollywood to dig in.
The majority of good and decent people in the industry should not have to endure abuse just because it has been the norm, it has previously been passively expected and mercilessly enforced, or they don’t feel able to air their true thoughts. Hollywood is better than its historic mistreatment of its workers. Hollywood can be a leader in creating better conditions for itself—and in helping create better conditions for America.