Sunset Boulevard – “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.”
The Trump administration will make a number of large changes in a number of areas such as economics, international relations and the judicial system. Many of these changes are not difficult to foresee given Donald Trump’s campaign promises. However, some changes are more difficult to predict. Specifically, difficult to predict are changes in the types of stories that will become popular under the Trump presidency.
All storytellers will be effected by the new presidency whether they are storytellers in advertising on Madison Avenue, in politics in Washington DC, in media around the nation, whether the stories told by business people, marketing people, branding experts or novelists, video-game creators, playwrights or screenwriters.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood and its storytellers were the most visibly shocked and devastated after the Trump win. As the results for the election came in, The Hollywood Reporter (THR) on 11/8/16 was quick to observe in a headline “Hollywood Devastated, Depressed After Trump Victory.” Yet, whether one voted for Trump or not, it is hard to deny the new president will have a great impact on Hollywood stories. As Joe Pichirallo, Chairman of the Department of Undergraduate Film & Television at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts observes, “Whoever is president impacts what the culture is talking about and that impacts the themes and stories that films deal with.” And, as Steven Zeitchik notes in the 11/22/16 LA Times, “The Trump victory is so seismic that it falls onto a very short list of events that change the way we perceive almost everything else. That includes — and maybe especially applies to — our cinematic escapism.”
* * *
Hollywood is beginning to speculate on the types of stories for films and TV on the horizon. What types of genres will be popular for them under the Trump presidency? What types of characters will they use? What type of settings will populate novels and screenplays?
A 12/16/16 article from The Hollywood Reporter notes TV networks and studios might be shifting strategies in the Trump Age. They question if they are telling the right stories in the upcoming Trump era. “The election made the ground shake underneath media,” The Learning Channel president Nancy Daniels told THR, “and now everybody is taking a hard look: Are we telling the right stories? Are we reaching the right people?” One network chief notes that “Everybody is taking a hard look.” In this atmosphere, an ABC creator courts right-wing writers, a studio head rethinks his slate and blue-collar viewers suddenly become a hot demo.
The article in THR notes ABC Entertainment Chief Channing Dungey acknowledges the rise of Trump and his blue-collar support forced her to question whether her programming was too focused on upper-income brackets. Similar check-ins have taken place across the TV industry as executives try to better understand and appeal to a demographic to which many hadn’t paid enough attention.
Overall, this demographic Hollywood has not paid much attention to are the 60 million Trump supporters and voters. While none of the Hollywood executives interviewed for the article suggested the TV landscape will be turned over to a slew of Roseanne rip-offs, many expect the working class, middle-America ethos to be better represented, particularly at the broadcast networks where Trump’s 60 million supporters are key to success.
This might mean an appeal to the great swath of non-urban America that painted the post-election map in red. Some networks and cable channels have already found success in this area with series such as NCIS and Tyler Perry. The article in THR notes A&E Networks CEO Nancy Dubuc suggests the success of Pawn Stars, American Pickers and Duck Dynasty on her networks was an early indicator of how the country was feeling.
* * *
Yet the question of type types of stories Hollywood will tell under the Trump administration becomes more difficult when one considers the increasing influence of the global market-place for Hollywood entertainment. In this sense, the current trend is a greater amount of film profit coming from foreign markets, and particularly China.
In the 11/15/16 Variety, Brent Lang and Ramin Setoodeh notes Hollywood’s economic fortunes will be tightly linked to Trump’s presidency. As they note, Trump made tough talk with China and foreign powers a central plank of his candidacy. If enacted, stricter trade measures could have far-reaching repercussions for a business that is increasingly globalized. They observe, “China is the world’s second-largest film market — on its way to being No. 1 — and is a vital center for box office revenues and investment. If Trump is serious about going after the Middle Kingdom for what he has charged is currency manipulation, it could result in Chinese authorities cracking down on joint ventures with American companies and other business partnerships.”
The Variety article quotes Aynne Kokas, a professor of media studies at the University of Virginia. “A Trump presidency will likely lead to a more heated relationship with China,” she suggests. “His rhetoric could generate anti-Americanism that could affect box office sales, new theme-park investments, and even the quota for film imports.” Variety notes China might use Trump’s rhetoric to justify limiting the number of foreign films it allows to screen annually. Currently, China permits 34 imported movies to show in its theaters each year and the bulk of them are major studio offerings. How will these regulations change in in 2017?
Yet this feeling is not universal and others feel that Trump will help Hollywood’s relationship with China. In the 11/22/16 THR, Colony Capital CEO and former Miramax chairman Thomas Barrack Jr. observes “Trump will renegotiate our trade relationship with China, providing better terms and protections to the media industry, increasing the exportation of films with fewer trade barriers while simultaneously protecting intellectual property rights abroad.”
What has Hollywood most worried is the possibility that China could use Trump’s angry rhetoric to justify limiting the number of foreign films it allows to screen annually. Currently, the country permits 34 imported movies to show in its theaters each year, the bulk of them major studio offerings. But those regulations are being renegotiated and are set to change in 2017.
Yet, others disagree and feel that Trump will help Hollywood’s relationship with China. In THR of 11/22/16 Colony Capital CEO and former Miramax chairman Thomas Barrack Jr. observes “Trump will renegotiate our trade relationship with China, providing better terms and protections to the media industry, increasing the exportation of films with fewer trade barriers while simultaneously protecting intellectual property rights abroad.”
Types of Stories Determined By Chinese Demand
Yet, even though the Trump presidency (like all presidencies) will greatly affect how stories are told, there are other areas besides the election of Trump determining what stories will be told in the coming years.
One of these areas impacting this is the fast-moving world of technology and the Internet. In this sense, stories are appearing on different screens rather than just movie and TV screens. Apart from offering different venues for the telling of stories, the Internet also offers more competition for the consumer’s entertainment time. Our new digital technology has created what some have referred to as “shorter attention” spans. People no longer take the time for to hear certain types of stories.
For example, novelists have responded to this new type of storytelling by dividing chapters into smaller and smaller bit-sized segments. And standard screenplay length has gone from 120 pages down to 90 – 110 pages. Stories are also subject to more collaboration via such phenomena as “fan fiction” and what USC Media Communications Professor Henry Jenkins notes as “spreadable media” in his book Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.
* * *
While the new type of stories America will be telling are still evolving in the surprise election of Trump, there are some things that might be predicted with some amount of confidence using the theories of symbolism and their movement in cycles. In this sense, the election of Trump does not usher in a totally new period but rather heralds the beginning of a new cycle, a cycle we have been through before. Cycles and their stages have been the topic of many of the greatest philosophers and psychologists of history. Books such as The Fourth Turning argue America goes through cycles with four sequences in them. The cycle theory is also an important part of psychological growth and theories developed by Erik Erikson as the eight life-stages they are acquired.
Cycles are also an important part of forecasting economic growth. One of the most famous and well-known is certainly Joseph Schumpeter’s theory of business cycles.
In the heated rhetoric of the times, the power of cycles and their relationship to human psychology have been given scant attention. For example, looking at dominant symbols from a large perspective, we might come up with the proposition that the grand symbols of a philosophy, a religion, a belief, an archetype, dominated all culture at a particular time within a continuing cycle. One might observe one perspective on the 20th century in that it showed the growth of one, totalitarian symbol called “mass culture” in the first half of the 20th century and the growth of “individual brands and segmentation” in the last half of the 20th century.
It was that change which takes place over an individual life. Jung might add that it might simply represent the symbols within one individual he had for a patient during his years of diagnosis. The change in culture, in civilization, in the world in the 20th century demonstrates the change in the movement of the feminine archetype symbol of equality, commonality and dominating the first half of the 20th century to the masculine archetype symbol of segmentation emerging towards domination in the last half of the 20th century and into our new 21st century.
Mass culture would be associated with the Feminine archetype so the first half of the 20th century was dominated by the Feminine archetype – one of the two symbols America was founded upon: equality, commonality, the child within the womb pre-birth, the world in a connected context). In fact the grand symbol of the astrological sign of Pisces the fish within an all consuming environment so all consuming the fish does not even suspect it is there, all around his or her life.
In the context of this symbolic zeitgeist, a persona named Donald Trump emerges. Many hate him for who he (they have heard) he is . For everyone knows our new President only by what they have read or seen. A very few know him for who he is as a person. There is such a battle of images of him in our current media. There is little doubt that Trump represents the reemergence of the masculine archetype in America. Always a back-and-forth affair.
Marilyn Monroe Portrait in Palm Desert – John Fraim
The best way, I think, to view this new shift is as a shift in grand symbols. These are like great planetary bodies that possess their own private gravity and magnetism. Everyone in the world seems to be staring into their smartphones. Once they argued television put a generation under a trance. But look at the present world of cell phone users. This might include your 90-year-old grandmother, who might (mistakenly) talk into her calculator a lot each day thinking she was talking into her phone.
In this environment of back-and-forth media blather hoping to induce a certain cyclic trance state. The challenge for those that support that symbol called Donald Trump is that they understand the emergence of a cyclic new masculine symbol or archetype in American culture and society. The opposition side to Trump is in the tizzy of emotions it seems. Unable to really understand where they stand.
Everyone on both sides of this battle of ideas today, need to understand that they are really a battle of symbols. In effect, the takeover of the Feminine symbol under the presidency of Obama to the Masculine symbol under the presidency of Trump. This is my analysis from the point of view of symbolism.Yet few even suspect that Trump is the embodiment of a grand symbol of our times that is finding expression in our society and culture.
* * *
The stories a culture tells relates to all these grand shifts in symbols but these grand shifts produce their own types and genders of stories, their own heroes and heroines and villains. Each year, various industries produce lists of the top-selling stories whether best seller books or block buster movies. For example, Box Office Mojo (among others) has created a list of top movies of 2016 at http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2016. The same lists are created each year. While the lists are used for a number of things, there is little attempt (if any) to relate the films on the list to lists of other years and see if there are trends and in fact cycles represented in these lists.
For example, what if the leading prime time television shows are looked at over a period of years and an attempt made to find general patterns in them? One instance of an attempt to do this is in The Complete Directory of Prime Time and Cable TV Shows lists “eras” of prime time American television. The authors locate seven eras of prime time television from the 1950s through the 1990s by listing the top prime time television shows during these years. More of this type of relational study needs to be done. Top entertainment needs to be categorized into eras and these eras related to corresponding large symbols such as mass culture and segmented culture and political systems and, yes, leaders of nations where the symbols are created. In other words, using a word in symbolism, there needs to be more studies of correspondence between leading stories and aspects of the culture when the stories appear.
In my book The Symbolism of Popular Culture I argued that leading products of culture could be viewed really as symbols. The leading stories of the times appear in the products of Hollywood and much can be learned from viewing them as symbols and subject to the laws and dynamics of symbolism.
* * *
One of the greatest observers of symbols and their dynamic movement was the psychologist Carl Jung. A key aspect of Jung’s theories is the cyclic movement of symbols between opposites. We see this movement between opposites on a daily basis with the movement between night and day. Or, the yearly movement of the symbols of the four seasons.
Jung made popular the word archetypes as symbols containing historic patterns going back to the beginning of humanity. As Jung notes in The Structure And Dynamics of the Psyche, “All the most powerful ideas in history go back to archetypes. For it is the function of consciousness not only to recognize and assimilate the external world through the gateway of the senses, but to translate into visible reality the world within us.” In other words, our leading stories represent the leading archetypes of the time and these archetypes move in cyclic patterns.
Perhaps Jung’s leading archetypes are masculine and feminine archetypes. Jung observes how the individual psyche moves from one archetype to the other and that both archetypes are contained in each person. Each archetype stands for far more than human genders but has a symbolic correspondence to many other things. For example, the feminine archetype is symbolized by (to name a few) youth, the moon, unconsciousness, darkness, water, wholeness and equality and commonality while the masculine archetype is symbolized by age, the sun, consciousness, light, fire, separation and freedom.
America has a unique relationship with the two archetypes of masculine and feminine as it was founded at the paradoxical intersection of the two archetypes with America’s founding ideals of equality (feminine) and freedom (masculine). The presence of both of the ideals in the birth of America has been symbolized in the basic ideals of the Democratic Party (feminine, equality) and the Republican Party (masculine, freedom). The 2016 presidential election offered one of the most visible clashes of the masculine and feminine symbols in many years.
As I argued in my book Battle of Symbols (2003, Daimon Verlag, Zurich) these great archetypes play out on a global level with the masculine symbols of Western culture in opposition to the feminine symbols of Eastern culture. Today, these symbols battle each other with the rise of freedom against equality represented in the emergence of the freedom of nationalism over the equality of globalism.
The Original Star Wars
There will be much debate (and perhaps even some real soul searching) on what the new stories of the Trump era will be. Hollywood might be against most things Trump stands for now but they still want to tell stories that resonate with the nation. It is a nation that is entering a new era, dominated by a new archetype and new symbols. The more Hollywood (and all storytellers) are able to place stories in a larger context of cycles, archetypes and symbols and analyze things from this perspective, the more the stories they tell might be stories that many identify with. In this sense, maybe some of the recent massive failures at the box office might be understood in a new way and something learned from them.
Hollywood once told stories for all of America but it has gotten away from stories for all of America, mired in increasing genres, outlets, cable channels. Great screenplays like Sunset Boulevard were written before all the theories of Hollywood screenwriting today. There was not the debate between the number of steps in screenplay structure or the various types of screenwriting schools I identify in my manuscript Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenplay Theories, Books and Courses. (In progress)
Once the new symbol of the age is identified, stories might be big again, telling the stories of many that need to be told, rather than small stories written for niches and segments. There are glimmers of this looking back to old stories in the commercial and critical success of the romantic musical La La Land. Not that romantic musicals will become a dominant form of new stories for Hollywood. But perhaps there will be an end to the turf wars between the Hollywood screenwriting gurus and some type of agreement on a new type of screenplay structure and the characters to put into this structure.
The election of Donald Trump has been a type of “final straw” in a something set in motion long ago. The end of one cycle and the beginning of a new cycle. Those who determine the dominant symbols of this cycle will become the new George Lucas or Steven Spielberg of our times. And they will create the new Star Wars for our times.
TV Networks, Studios Shifting Program Strategies in the Trump Age: ‘Are We Telling the Right Stories?’
Hollywood Reporter 12/16/16 – Lacy Rose
In the Wake of Donald Trump’s Victory, Some Movies Don’t Feel Like They Were Intended To
LA Times – 11/22/16 – Steve Zeitchik
Variety 11/15/16 – Donald Trump’s Tense History With Hollywood Comes Full Circle
Brent Lang & Ramin Setoodeh
Hollywood Reporter 11/22/16
Hollywood Reporter 11/8/16
Farnoush Amiri , Joey
Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Books & Theory – John Fraim (In Process)
Battle of Symbols (Daimon Verlag, 2003) – John Fraim