Violaine Roussel: The Americanization of Popular Culture Should Terrify Us All
The verdict is in, and Hollywood has won the global culture wars, according to Violaine Roussel, a French scholar and professor who has had unusual access to the California entertainment industry. In her view, American culture, packaged neatly in film and television for global consumption, has cast a shadow over cultural products in much of the world.
“The influence of Hollywood has definitely grown these past years, these past decades,” the University of Paris professor tells Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence.” “That’s true in the realm of cinema, and, of course, maybe even more as far as TV is concerned.”
European nations, among others, are attempting to preserve their artistic industries through government subsidies. And yet state-funded works continue to fall short of the influence of multimillion-dollar American productions that flood cinema listings from Paris to Pittsburgh.
“The Americanization of the world [is] sort of a horrifying prospect when you extend it to cultural life,” Scheer remarks. “It’s one thing when we used to make very good cars, and maybe people wanted them. But what the world seems to be most influenced by [now] is our technology and our cultural output. And I find that depressing, because it suggests a certain uniformity; it suggests a certain commercialization, a certain jingoism, in a way. What happened to world culture?”
Part of the problem with the homogenization of Hollywood’s output is that conglomerates such as Comcast, Viacom and AT&T have taken over the entertainment industry. And while it may seem like movies make companies a lot of money, the profits are a pittance to these companies. The emergence of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon raised the possibility of greater variety, but they ultimately come with their own issues related to data collection. None of these companies, be it Netflix or Comcast, seems to truly care about film and television as artwork, however.
“The time of the great artist may be over in the world of entertainment that shapes the world’s culture,” Scheer tells Roussel. “The American entertainment industry that shapes the world’s culture—at least you could count on, somehow, the maverick director, the maverick artist, the person who could open a movie and yet had an idea, the great scriptwriter—and you can’t count on that anymore.”
“Hollywood has changed, and the power of the director, or the power of the star, is not what it used to be,” Roussel agrees. “So it’s another reason why we should try to find, collectively, any way we can to use the new tools to sort of reactivate or rejuvenate that power of the artist.”
Roussel and Scheer’s discussion, which you can listen to in the media player, leads them to different conclusions regarding the future of film and television around the world and whether it’s even possible for artists in the film and television industry to produce less uniform, more profound work, given the obstacles they face. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the credits.
Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, it’s professor Violaine Roussel. I probably screwed up the whole pronunciation already. She is a professor at the University of Paris, No. 8, which is not to be confused with the Sorbonne, which is No. 1 at the University of Paris. So, but she’s also here at the University of Southern California and is a—amazingly enough, because I always think of the French as having a great film industry. And when I was young, we were very excited to go to foreign-language theaters and see the movies of Godard and everyone, or the Italian films, “8½,” or what have you, and Fellini’s movies, and even some British movies. And that was the center. And we thought Hollywood was for dummies—simplistic movies and so forth. And we don’t hear that much about the foreign film market. And one reason I was curious to talk to you was because you’ve become a major expert on the Hollywood film industry. You wrote probably the best book ever written about being an agent in Hollywood; amazingly enough, these hucksters—these operators called agents—were willing to let you hang around with them, shadow them, see their life, and explore what their contribution is, whatever that is. And also, you’ve written a book about politics in the movies and so forth. So what I want to do is ask you just the first question: Is there much of a European film industry? Is it significant in any real way? I mean, is it—was its heyday really in the postwar period?
Violaine Roussel: Thank you, first of all, for having me. And everything you said was absolutely perfect. Yes, there are several, maybe, European film industries, I would argue. First of all, in France, where I come from and which is, maybe after Hollywood, what I know best, the state still has an important role and subsidizes the film industry in ways that you don’t really find here. So this helps, maybe, keeping some independent cinema alive that struggles a little bit more, or differently—or, I would say, has to find different avenues to exist in the U.S. or in other film industries. So that’s at a national level. And then the EU also has regulations and policies to help the cultural industries in general, and cinema in particular. But the influence of Hollywood has definitely grown these past years, these past decades. And that’s true in the realm of cinema, and of course, maybe even more as far as TV is concerned. Because there is still in Europe this sense that there is a European cinema; even if it doesn’t have the same reach as Hollywood can have, globally speaking, it exists, and there is quality to it. But the place, maybe, where the dominance of Hollywood is the greatest, I would argue, is television. Because it’s also not just something that has a global reach and impact—and what is the TV that we watch in Europe? It’s mostly American shows, but it’s also the ones that are supposed to have, to be, best quality. So, you know, it’s part of this revolution. But other than that, yes, there is still very much—
RS: See, that’s one of the most depressing things I’ve heard in a long time. [Laughter] I, you know, the movies that most influenced me—well, I don’t want to exaggerate. But I certainly grew up with, you know, Resnais and Godard and Fellini and so forth. And I think of it as the heyday of film.
RS: Now, in that period—I guess that goes right through the 1960s, certainly the ’50s and the postwar period. And I remember sitting in the Thalia Theatre in Manhattan. My god, that’s what you did as a college kid, and you watched one foreign film after another. Even when I went to graduate school in Berkeley, we had the Pacific Film Archive—they actually still do—and that was a mark of your intelligence and sophistication—that you didn’t bother with Hollywood tripe; you went there. Now, of course, we did have important Hollywood movies. Now, during that period, was that a subsidized film industry?
RS: It was.
RS: So in addition to having an intelligent way of doing medicine, and having some government subsidy for medicine and for health care, you also had it in this area, where we’re very afraid of government involvement. The irony is that what I would consider the heyday of the French, Italian and English film industry—it was this dreaded thing, a nonfree market, to some degree. Right? Yet it was highly experimental, it was highly provocative and challenging of power. So that’s just an interesting footnote, I think, to make. And then, what you’re suggesting is that the Americanization of the world’s culture moved on and kind of steamrolled a lot of that, and when you throw in television. And now, you’re here studying, and have been studying for some time, the American cultural industry at a time when it is probably what people back home in France are watching most. Is that a good summation?
VR: At least as far as TV is concerned, definitely. There is still a vibrant film industry in France. It’s small, and it doesn’t have the sort of global reach that Hollywood has. But it exists. You don’t see that much outside of the EU; it’s possible to see some of it, you know; there is even a French film festival here in L.A., Colcoa, every year. And you see—you can see those movies, if really you want to make a great effort. But it’s much harder; it’s more confidential than it used to be in the great years that you described.
RS: OK. So let’s focus on this a little bit: the Americanization of the world. It’s sort of a horrifying prospect when you extend it to cultural life. It’s one thing when we used to make very good cars, and maybe people wanted them—that’s no longer the case. The irony here is our exports are primarily intellectual and cultural now, rather than our great engineering work. Agriculture remains an important export. But the irony is that what the world seems to be most influenced by is our technology and our cultural output. And I find that depressing, because it suggests a certain uniformity; it suggests a certain commercialization, a certain jingoism, in a way. What happened to world culture? Let me take advantage of your knowledge—I’m talking to one of the great professors of sociology, an expert on popular culture. And I’m going to mispronounce the name again, so I’m not going to try too often. It’s Violaine Roussel, right? Yes.
VR: Violaine Roussel. [Laughs]
RS: So much for my five years of French, or whatever it was. But let me take up that point. Because we have resistance against what’s called cultural imperialism. And I know, for example, the Chinese market looms very large in the mind of Hollywood. Increasingly, movies have to succeed in China. And they get tailored a bit. And then, yeah, we’re starting to see some movies made in China. India, of course, has a vibrant film market. So could you give me kind of a summary view? At this point in history, is the American cultural experience, whatever that means, extended through television and film, more powerful than ever in the world? Are there challenges to it?
VR: There are challenges to it. It’s probably true—it’s always difficult to respond in a very simple way to such a complex question. It’s definitely, at this point, a dominant industry, very influential; I think China is sort of a promised land for Hollywood, but Hollywood sometimes doesn’t yet know quite how to conquer it. It’s in the process of happening, but not—it hasn’t happened fully yet. And as far as Europe is concerned, there is a, you know, a dominant position of Hollywood. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that there is hegemony, cultural hegemony of Hollywood, in the sense that locally, there are local pockets of resistance with industries that still flourish and exist and have an audience. France is an example of it; there are other European examples. There are rules and regulations and limitations that are created, both by certain countries in Europe and also at the EU level, to try to limit the impact of this cultural dominance of Hollywood. And it works to an extent, but it does not—it’s not enough to really stop it. It just creates—
RS: OK, so give me a percentage. And maybe I’m simplifying, but after all, you know, we’re doing journalism here, not a doctoral dissertation. Let me ask you, I mean, is Hollywood responsible, what, for 50% of the—first of all, let’s take a worldwide picture, because you have expertise, or at least some sense of it. Worldwide, is the export of Hollywood culture—Hollywood defined as made in America, both television and movies—is it 50% of the world’s culture, 70%?
VR: It’s really hard to give just a single number like that, because countries like China are able to limit that with their own rules much more—
RS: Well, let’s take the EU, then.
VR: In France, at least, it’s—it depends what kind of—you know, what categories of movie you’re looking at. If you are looking at blockbuster movies, the big franchise movies are really huge in France. And you have—I don’t have, like, a very precise number, but you have maybe 80% of what’s in the theater that is that. But you also have a lot of small—but that’s, you know, I really want to make the point that it’s not the only thing that you find. That you still have this industry and the small movies, and people go to the theater. Which is also something that’s at stake, why in France a service like Netflix has had so much trouble, so much that they had to move to a different country in the EU, in Europe. Because there is a real desire, I think, both from the government and the people, and also the professionals of the industry, to preserve this active practice of people that they go in the theater, and to see the small movies.
RS: OK. But it’s the conceit—it was the conceit, at least, of exponents of the value of French culture, Italian culture—let’s stick to those—well, we’ll throw in England, and OK, Spain, yeah, Germany, whatever. It was the conceit that you somehow would develop your own vibrant—or retain your own vibrant culture. And it extended to every aspect of life, the food, the way you consume food, the music, the way you relate, the conversation, and so forth. I know; I traveled to these countries extensively. And that was the assumption. And when we talk about blockbuster movies and so forth, you’re talking about capturing the imagination of the youth; you’re talking about defining a culture. And so the reason I’m trying to put this in some percentage terms, after all of this time—and now we’re talking, you know, a century, going, starting to get on a century of influence. Taking that 80%—and I realize this is a crude statistic—these are—the blockbuster movies—are also the ones that use the highest level of technology, the best special effects, you know, and so forth. So you’re really determining—it’s like the old thing about the cuisine being challenged by fast-food, you know, McDonald’s or what have you—you’re actually determining the culture of people in Italy and Germany and France, who were very prideful concerning the preservation of their culture. And you’re basically suggesting that war has been lost.
VR: Ah, I don’t want to be too—you know, I don’t want to go too far by saying it’s already lost. But it’s definitely, there is definitely dominance there from Hollywood.
RS: Dominance by the U.S., by America.
VR: And not just by America; by Hollywood. And you know, because there are also—I also don’t want to give the impression that in France or in Europe, it’s all indie movies, and here in Hollywood, it’s only blockbuster movies, because it’s not the case. There is also a culture of indie films here. And there are, by the way, one of the good effects of France still subsidizing film and cinema and offering stable conditions for partnerships—unlike China, for instance, where you know, maybe it’s a promised land, but tomorrow we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s pretty unstable—is that there are a lot of co-productions. Even if there is not like a co-production agreement signed between the U.S. and France, practically, there are a lot of joint productions between European countries and producers and artists and creators from the U.S. in the indie film world.
RS: OK. I get it. We live in a multinational world economy, and there’s a lot of transference. But I, you know, I’m old enough to remember, as I used the word, the conceit of—you know, I remember, I knew some of these French filmmakers, Resnais and Godard in particular, and so forth. And the fact is, they thought they were in a war against Hollywood commercialism and so forth. And again, it seems to me that war has been lost. Now, you have been to the belly of the beast. You live a good part of your life now here in Hollywood, right?
RS: Even here at the University of Southern California, where you’re an affiliated professor. But we are, even though we’re in downtown L.A., South Central L.A., we are nonetheless a center for Hollywood. We have a very big film school, we have a lot of Hollywood people; evidently some of them pay a lot of money to help get their children in here and elsewhere. So you know, what I’m asking you basically is, you’ve now seen these people up close. And in fact, interestingly enough, you took kind of the—I don’t know what the right word is; I don’t want to say sleazy—but you took the sort of hustler aspect of the business, the agent, right?
RS: And you decided to become an expert on Hollywood agents. And I find that fascinating. And I also find it interesting they let you in—they let you actually, you know, because they got security over at CAA and everything, you know, but they let you hang out with them, right? And be—so let me ask you about a particular movie, “The Player.” Are you familiar with “The Player”? Tim Robbins stars in it—
VR: Yes, uh-huh, yes.
RS: And what interests me about “The Player”—and before we take a break, let me, I just want to settle that idea—it presented a notion of Hollywood and the agent and the people in the front office and their relation to the creative part, the writer and so forth. And—it was Altman’s movie. And what was interesting is so many famous Hollywood actors and actresses gave their time at rate, at the low rate, because they believed in it; they thought it was a good movie, an accurate movie; you could even find Whoopi Goldberg in there, you find a lot of people; Dustin Hoffman, I believe—I don’t know, maybe he’s not in there. But there are a lot of famous actors. And everyone I’ve talked to in the industry—because I show that in my classes—they tell me it was a very good, certainly for the time, a very accurate depiction of Hollywood. And basically, what that movie suggests is when it comes to content, ideas—it’s just gimmickry. It’s just, you know–oh, you have an idea; let’s change it. And the whole dialogue in that movie at the beginning is, oh, I see—it’s some, you know, whatever, something, but we add music and it becomes something else. And it’s all how do you sell it, how do you package it. I’m going to hold that thought and take a break, but I’m going to ask you, as having spent so much time and written a really important—the most important book on Hollywood agents, really, who are they? How much power do they have? And you know, is this an exaggeration to say that they control the action? They certainly make a lot of money. [omission for station break] OK, we’re back with Violaine Roussel. We’re talking about her book about Hollywood agents, her study; major professor from the University of Paris, not the Sorbonne, but No. 8 in the university; the No. 1 is the famed Sorbonne, but I also, I gather they’re all of great value, equal value. And you’re here at the University of Southern California, which is certainly a center of film culture, film analysis. And you are teaching in the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. So let me rephrase that question: How important are these Hollywood agents? Do they dumb down the product, do they package it? And you, tell us about your experience. You went in the door. And why did they let you in the door?
VR: Oh. That’s a very good question that I asked myself. So when I decided, that was almost 10 years ago that I started doing the investigation for this book that came out in 2017; “Representing Talent” is the title of the book. And my project initially was to study the agents in the agencies, Hollywood agents, mostly because it had never been done before, at least not from a social science, sociological perspective. And I was really curious, really, you know, not having a lot of preconceived ideas, because I’m really, literally, coming from a different world. Especially then, I was just arriving in California from Paris, and I didn’t know a lot of people in Hollywood at all. And I was really curious about their role and their power, given that the biggest agencies—CAA—WME now—UTA, ICM, what they sometimes call the Big Four agencies—they are huge organizations. They have thousands of employees, sometimes. And so all of this activity, and the power of the very famous figures of agents, was very, just, puzzling to me. So I decided to study what they do, what is their impact, what’s their role, and how do they really affect and maybe contribute to shape the art.
RS: So what’s the quick and dirty answer? Are they a sleazy bunch who just want to make every buck they can? Or, as they often pride themselves, they elevate the product, put together the magical director with the actor, wonderful things happen, and they are basically the master chef who produces the wonderful cake?
VR: I think they are both. So on one hand, of course there is business in show business. And they are the guardians of that sort of dirty secret of Hollywood: that there is business in show business, and it’s—in a way, you know, it’s easy to blame the agent for worrying about the money. But the clients, the artists, also want to get paid and make money, and make good money, if possible. So even though they are, for the most part, really dedicated to making good art. So the—what I was looking at, and what I was able to see when I was—you know, at the beginning it wasn’t that easy to get into the agencies, and being able to interview—I interviewed 122 agents and their counterparts, or the Hollywood professionals that they are working with.
RS: Did any of them offer you jobs?
VR: Ah—[Laughs]. Ah—yeah, I almost got offered a job at an agency—
RS: Or did you offer them a script?
VR: No, not at all. [Laughter] And what I’m doing is really different from what they can make money off. But I also made it clear that I couldn’t, I couldn’t be affiliated with any agency in particular, because you are very quickly placed in the game. And I couldn’t be associated with one agency and then do my observation—
RS: The reason I make that point is, my experience with these folks, the money—you mentioned the money; yes, they want to make good money. The money is incredible. And you know, yes, people don’t talk about it; they talk about the art, they talk about everything else. But when you’re there and when you’re in on it, you know, my goodness. People are cognizant of the money. It’s a drug; it’s everything. And these people, if they make this decision and they put you with that one and you get green light and you go, then suddenly we’re talking about megabucks, right?
VR: Yeah, yeah. Well, the money—there is big money, especially towards the top of the game, meaning what I called “big Hollywood.” Because there are—you know, when I started this study of agencies, I also realized that there are really two Hollywoods, two film and TV worlds, two entertainment industries in one, in a way. One is this world of the very small, sometimes just one person, or small agencies that have clients that are either developmental—you know, people who are not yet very well-known, who are just starting—or people who have fallen out of favor. And they work with casting directors, and for the most part, their clients find, you know, a role in a, a job in a TV show or something like that. And then you have the big Hollywood, with the big agencies—what I called before the Big Four agencies—and this is really where the power play is happening, with the big studios being the counterparts and the stars being the clients. So, of course, this is where there is big money. And, but this is also where people want to—or everybody wants to make a lot of money, not just the agents. So—and that’s interesting. You know, right now there is this big controversy between the Writers Guild and the Association of Talent Agents regarding what they call packaging. And for the most part, packaging for television— putting together the key elements in a show and selling it as a package to a buyer, the buyer being the network, the studio. And the agency is making money from that, a fee from, packaging fee from packaging television shows. And there is this controversy with who—where is the money coming from, who is benefiting the most. Is it the client, is it the agency, is it both? Because normally, and legally, the client and the agent have exactly the same interest. The agent is making—or not the agent, but the agency—is making 10% of what the client is making. So it’s in the agent’s best interest that the client is making more money, and vice versa. So there is also this very close tie between, you know, who is on the side of the, on the business side of show business? Everybody. And who has an interest in having some quality work attached to their name as an agency? It’s also everybody.
RS: OK, I understand that. But the, again, the scam here—and it comes out in the Academy Awards more than any other place, but the other awards as well—is that there is somehow important art content controversy associated with these things. And, of course, there is, to some degree. But Hollywood is one of the most amazing industries in being able to hold both an enormous sense of market corruption and advancement and greed in your head with a notion of idealism and art and saving humanity. It’s stupefying to experience, both from the outside watching some of this—and yes, there are great movies, there is great art, and so forth. A lot of it is crap, a lot of it is exploitive, and so forth. It’s an odd industry in that respect. And one thing that I’ve noticed—I happen to actually belong to the Actors Guild and the Writers Guild, only because I was required working on different things. Not that I’m against them; I think the guilds are wonderful. But I’ve noticed when I go to these guild things, screenings of movies and so forth, 95% of the people haven’t worked regularly in their life. You know, they had one thing; one thing popped up. Most of the time, they’re sitting at Starbucks working on some project that hopefully will get to turn around, but never be turned around, and so forth. Now, I understand that. But you have a weird industry where you have a medieval notion of the guilds, the unions. And there is a pretense that there’s some order to it, moving up the levels and so forth, you know, the Directors Guild and all that. And on the other hand, you have these cartels owned by, you know, very powerful, you know, foreign companies, often, or big companies, who are squeezing every dollar and maximizing every bit of sales. And didn’t you find—don’t you find it kind of one of the oddest, most hypocritical, confused centers of life?
VR: What I would say is that the way the industry is currently transforming is making it much less about art and much more about turning a buck. And the whole media conglomerates, global growth, concentration that we are now observing, has an effect that, you know, you could think is a terrible effect. Because what’s happening in the movie industry itself doesn’t matter that much anymore for these very big conglomerates and for—
RS: Name some of those conglomerates as an example.
VR: Well, the big studios are now owned by Comcast, Viacom, AT&T. So, you know, the movies—
RS: Where they’re getting most of their money from other things.
VR: Exactly. And it doesn’t move the needle if a movie makes it or doesn’t, is good or is bad, and even makes a lot of money or doesn’t. Because this is—this is not that much money for those big media conglomerates. And that, to me, presents a risk. In terms of impacting—
RS: So Hollywood is now the tail of the dog, right?
VR: Yes. [Laughs]
RS: Well, no, I mean, because most people thinking about it, when they watch, you know, stars, and when they watch the academy—oh, these people are setting the whole culture. No, they’re responding to commercial market people, right? Who see them as just sort of one of their smaller lines of activity.
VR: And star power, for better or worse, is not what it used to be. You know, partly because of that, and also in relationship to that to some extent, the studios are now, as you have all noticed, I’m sure, making a lot of these franchise movies, reboots and sequels, and not as much original one-off movies that could be more creative, more, you know—
RS: Right, and one of the things that’s confusing, particularly you find it with documentaries, where there are a lot of very good documentaries made that no one ever sees, or very few people do. There are a lot of small movies made that we like, we recommend it to our friends, and then you ask other people, they’ve never heard about it. And then the big blockbusters are the ones that get the attention. I want to conclude this, we’re going to run out of time, but I find this fascinating, because again, to get back to our original point, whoever owns it, the American entertainment industry, broadly speaking, sets the example, the culture, is the main educator. I don’t want to go too far, but it’s kind of the ball game in defining who we’re going to be as people, no matter where we live. What we think about love, what we think about integrity, what we think about race, what we think about gender—pretty much—sometimes it’s good. I think you could argue on the question of gay rights, Hollywood broke, made a revolution almost overnight. And that was very significant. You could argue in a number of other areas, some not so good when it comes to exposing corporate corruption or so forth. But, OK. The reason we need to know about this is it sets the world’s culture; it’s not isolated, it’s America’s main, most significant export, OK. Now I want to get to what people see as this great crack in the system, this great, where the light gets through, to quote Leonard Cohen, you know. And that is the new technology, the new streaming, the new distribution. And I know you’ve done a lot of work on it; we don’t have time to give it, do it justice. But give us the picture now. Is the industry changing in a fundamental way, and is this good or bad?
VR: It is huge. And I am still studying it; it’s my next book. The streaming platforms, the streaming services, and now the new giants that are on Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, and also the newcomers—Apple, Apple TV Plus just, you know, launched its program; Facebook and YouTube are creating original content. These are very, very important new players in this game that you just described that’s very influential for global culture. And it’s very interesting; there are many, many dimensions; it is changing what we consume, the way we consume it, the tool with which, on which we consume it. Now we can watch movies on our phone anywhere, cut it in small pieces. These are also entities, companies, that have a lot of money or put a lot of money out there, and sometimes directors, creators like it, because they are offered the opportunity to do some of the projects that they couldn’t do before in the old system. And it’s also, in this way it’s a great opportunity; it also creates a very complex situation in the new ways in which they are paid. They don’t get the same type of royalties that they used to get with television, for instance, where there was syndication; this is gone, practically. So it’s a revolution, and yes, it is changing what we get, you know, as viewers, as users of these platforms, what is the type of culture that we get? And how we get to—
RS: Well, but that’s what I want you—and I know we don’t have time to do this in a complex, scholarly way. But I want to know, you know, is this good or bad?
VR: I think it’s potentially good, but it could turn out to be bad if we are not paying attention. It’s really, as with technology; technology, to me, is that good and bad per se. So I’m not going to say it’s necessarily bad because it’s more technical or clinical, or anything like that, even if in Hollywood sometimes I hear people lament about the lost art of, you know, their old professional practice, it was much more intuitive. You can use technology and make it wonderful, but it’s only if, I guess, we as citizens are careful about the way in which it may just become the only thing that we are offered. You know, it’s really hard to sum it up in 10 seconds.
RS: Yeah, but let me—let me challenge you right there. We were discussing oxymorons before; the idea of a careful consumer is an oxymoron. The whole idea of sales, marketing, advertising, is to get people not to be careful. It’s to get them to lust for—I mean, I don’t want to oversimplify the whole history of marketing. But to put the, to define it as an answerable question, will there be a greater diversity, will there be greater choice, in the product? Does this liberate more people to make things that might find an audience?
VR: They want you to believe that it’s greater choice. It’s all—it’s all that Netflix tells you, that now they offer greater choice, and that they have a different model that allows them to create things for different kind of niche audiences that didn’t get their specific type of product before. On the other hand, they are using data, and the data that they have that we give them—this is where the citizen can be careful and have their eyes open, and not just—not be too naive in terms of what is the data that we willingly give to all of these big players. You know, Google and Amazon—they do a lot of things, you know, other than just making—
RS: I know. I recently wrote a book called “They Know Everything About You,” and it explored this. But when you say—
VR: Exactly. Yeah. So I think there is something for the citizen to do. It’s not just—
RS: I know, but you say there’s something for the citizen to do—this is, I think, the illusion, if I can challenge this. Because I sign on to Netflix, and say I want to watch a movie like “Fifty Shades of Grey.” OK, does this mean I’m a sadomasochist? Does this reflect—no. If it’s something that’s discussed, I want to watch it. In fact, I found it very boring, only watched it for five minutes. That data is in their system. Now that, then, defines me as a customer. Now, I really didn’t have much choice, because if you really want to sign on, can we use your data, can we use your location—all of this data is what makes the whole experience accessible. And if you rebel, you might as well go live in a shack somewhere and cut off the grid. Because the fact is, it’s not designed to empower us. That’s an illusion.
VR: Absolutely. It’s built in, you’re right; it’s not designed to empower us. But that doesn’t mean that we cannot empower ourselves, by, for instance, using other platforms, other tools, or even building them. Right now there are, you know, there are also other options; that doesn’t mean that I’m not going to use Netflix, but I can try. And there are users that are trying to trick the system by using the sort of subgenres that Netflix is creating and typing them in in the, you know, the sort of subject line, and you can in this way, get another list of shows offered to you as your personalized, you know, screen that you wouldn’t with their algorithm.
RS: OK, I understand that, and if I’m being abrupt it’s just because we’re going to run out of time. But I want to push this a little bit further. And this is where government can come in, or other watchdogs, consumer and so forth. So we’ve had some pushback on the privacy issues, data mining, and everything from the European Union. They have actually challenged Google and Facebook, which make most of the money now, and they get it off invading your privacy and getting this data. And there’s been pushback. We don’t get much pushback in America, and protection of consumer rights. So let me ask you, as somebody who crosses the Atlantic frequently and so forth, will there be counterpowers in the world to this internet commerce and commercialization of everything? Is the pushback, say, from the European Union, is that significant?
VR: It is something that is happening right now, before our eyes. It’s difficult to know if it’s going to be successful and to what extent right now. But I think maybe I’m too much of an optimist; I’m playing the optimist right now. But I think there is, there are ways in which as citizens, and collectively by organizing, and maybe with the—
RS: No, as citizens—as individuals, it’s hopeless. You cannot—I’m sorry, I—
VR: No, collectively, but as citizens.
RS: Yeah. Through—that’s the whole reason for government, for God’s sake, it’s to extend the power of the citizen to provide more choice—we used to have antitrust; we don’t have that anymore. We used to break up cartels; we don’t do that anymore. We celebrate monopoly. We celebrate, basically, the monopoly of Google over search. We celebrate basically the monopoly of Apple over all sorts of new innovations and so forth. We celebrate Amazon, which has taken over much of retail, you know, so it’s not even the choice of an individual bookstore what to stock; we get this from this monolith. And what I’m asking you, and I think maybe the most important question—because it’s not, when you say the individual should do this or should do that, we know that doesn’t work. The question is, what should we demand our government do to protect us in this marketplace?
VR: The government is also very worried about getting money from those big companies that have sort of an extraterritorial status, in terms of where they pay taxes or where they don’t pay taxes. Like for instance, in the EU, one of the reasons why the EU wants to mobilize and create new regulations to control those Netflix and Amazon and Google and the likes, is not–I mean, I don’t want to say that they don’t care about protecting the citizens. But it’s also primarily because they want those taxes not to just, you know, disappear, but they want for the state to be able to restore some control about that. So, maybe as a side effect of that, we’ll also have some form of control—
RS: So we’re screwed. You’re basically saying we’re screwed.
VR: I wouldn’t—I mean, no, I think that collectively, if we organize, but not necessarily by expecting the state to solve it for us—maybe I’m not as hopeful.
RS: How do we collectively organize against Amazon? Let’s take Amazon as an example. They now are in everything—you want to buy organic food, they own Whole Foods. You want to buy this here—you know, they—they will present you with the choices. You want those earphones? Here, here are the other five you might consider. They have all your data, they can target you. And if you cannot think that through the democratic process, through government, that you can control this, it’s obviously hopeless.
VR: It’s complicated, because right now governments are also challenged for not necessarily offering those democratic avenues that you’re talking about. And to compare with something that—we are as, you know, French people, we are living on a day-to-day basis right now, this big social movement of the yellow jackets—these are people who have first organized through the internet. It’s a really bottom-up movement. And whether you like them or not, because there is a controversy around them and their mode of action, they are an organized group using the internet—at the start at least, and even now—to tell the government, “We want more social justice, and we want more democracy in a more participatory way.” So I don’t think—I don’t want to say that the individual is a solution, but I do believe—maybe it’s naive of me, but I really do believe that collectively, there are possibilities. And I’m not saying that it’s easy, at all. But there are possibilities to organize. And of course, yes, use the governmental resources when we can, but also when the government doesn’t provide those responses, to go and get them.
RS: No, I understand. And I think it’s a good point on which to end this. The internet is the best and worst of all worlds. It has the potential of an Orwellian control of the population and every detail of life; it also has the possibility of a highly educated mass of people who can see alternatives, learn about other cultures. I think it’s good, it’s better to end on that, more accurate to end on that possibility than one gloomy perspective or optimistic perspective. But I do want to summarize, I think, and ask you as a takeaway from this. Basically what you’re saying is the old engines that were driving world culture are not what they used to be. Studios really don’t matter; the big filmmakers don’t matter; the big directors don’t matter in the old way. That they have now been overwhelmed by these huge conglomerates. And these huge conglomerates can now—and this is the example of Amazon or Netflix or whatever—they can also develop alternative ways of shaping our mind, our culture, our aspiration. And from my point of view, which is more pessimistic than yours, this is a prescription for the end of freedom. However—however, the yellow jackets, other movements people used to hold out the Arab Spring and what happened in Egypt, with Google, but then of course the military took over; they now can use the internet to more effectively control the population, and the Arab Spring seems to have been snuffed out. Maybe by the time this is even heard on the radio, the yellow jackets will have been snuffed out in France. So yes, it’s the best and worst of worlds, but you can’t take anything for granted, and you can’t even take the mythology of Hollywood, of a strong, independent director saying to the studios, “I’m going to make this movie”, and managing to get the movie. And for instance, just last night, here at USC, in class, I had one of America’s truly great directors, Oliver Stone, who dared use movies to challenge the dominant narrative, to raise questions. And that, really, is not possible anymore in this configuration. Yes or no?
VR: Yes. [Laughs] Absolutely.
RS: Yes. If you want to add another sentence, since you are a professor and deal with complexity, take two sentences.
VR: No, I have to agree with Oliver Stone that Hollywood has changed, and that the power of the director, or the power of the star, is not what it used to be. So it’s another reason why we should try to find, collectively, any way we can to use the new tools to sort of reactivate or rejuvenate that power of the artist. And I even think—maybe that’s a little bit of a provocation, but that some of the agents that I interviewed in my book, who were really nostalgic from that time where they were taking pride in representing great artists, would join us.
RS: That is—I know I keep promising to end this, but that’s a powerful thought. The time of the great artist may be over in the world of entertainment that shapes the world’s culture. The American entertainment industry that shapes the world’s culture, at least you could count on, somehow, the maverick director, the maverick artist, the person who could open a movie and yet had an idea, the great scriptwriter—and you can’t count on that anymore.
VR: It has become marginal. It exists, still—
RS: Marginal, that’s a good word. It’s become marginal. And the main activity is exploiting our privacy, our data, sales, shaping us—you may be an optimist, boy, that’s Orwellian. But maybe it’s reality, and we covered it here. I want to thank—should we wait for your new book, or should I hype your last book? Give us the titles.
VR: Well, my book on agents, “Representing Talent,” came out in 2017, and it was the University of Chicago Press.
RS: Yeah. And then the new one we’ll wait for. And that’s—I’m going to spell it in case you want to look it up. V-i-o-l-a-i-n-e—you who all took French can pronounce it your own way—R-o-u-s-s-e-l, Roussel. And I think your insight is really important. And you know, I don’t always praise the academy—not the Academy of Motion Pictures, the academic world. And yet what you’ve brought in your writing and your scholarship really is the excellence of academic life. And yet you applied it to the nitty-gritty of this real world. I want to thank you for your work, I want to thank you for sharing it with us.
VR: Thank you.
RS: That’s it for this edition of “Scheer Intelligence.” Our producer is Joshua Scheer. Our engineers at KCRW are Mario Diaz and Kat Yore. And here at USC at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, Sebastian Grubaugh has once again delivered excellent engineering at, I would say, the best school of communication and journalism in the country, if not the world. Thank you.