Hope you enjoyed part 1 of our series on Idea Theft, welcome to Part 2. Hollywood likes to project its utopian ideals, but the reality is it has a foundation rooted in piracy and a history of fostering inequality.
A day of reckoning awaits the entertainment industry’s thieves, liars and cheaters.
We have seen 1) the #MeToo, 2) under-representation and more recently 3) unacceptable abusive behavior challenge Hollywood’s old ways.
While not seeking to take anything away from those oppressed and affected from the first three, I began to wonder what the scope and impact of this fourth pillar of oppression – loosely described as “Idea Theft” – was to the disenfranchised, overlooked and racialized.
After all, it’s easy to “go woke” and jump to conclusions, but was there any data to suggest this was disproportionately affecting one group, or is this part of a more widespread phenomenon? You tell me: here’s a form to share your experience.
Before diving in to the precedents and case law (which we will do so in an upcoming part in this Series), anecdotally, it was easy to find patterns.
A System Based on Abuse of Power & Disrespect
Recently, actress Charlyne Yi opened up and said she quit “The Disaster Artist” because of James Franco, calling Seth Rogen an “enabler.” Yi was born in California, but according to her Wikipedia biography, has a “mother with Filipino and Spanish ancestry and a father whose ancestry is Korean, Irish, Mexican, German, French and Native American.”
Think about it: according to Yi, Franco’s “enablers” offered an actress who complained about his alleged misconduct a bigger role, plausibly to “shut her up,” instead of doing the right thing and telling Franco to keep it in (get used to the Seinfeld references).
As an actress in front of cameras, that may have been more than what aspiring writers would get when they complain about some injustice or another, as most are nameless and faceless. Indeed, this is how disenfranchised creators are kept down: instead of receiving the recurring, perpetuity-like revenue streams that come with creator and/or executive producer titles, they may at best be silenced with a token gesture, empty promise about future work or a one-time payoff. For an industry that largely lives pay check to pay check with no real stability, there’s little to gain by speaking up, and much to lose… so the cycle continues.
When Variety recently noted the under-representation of Latino creatives, I noted:
“Hollywood is facing a moment of reckoning for representation. The film and TV studios are under pressure to recruit and hire talent — both in front and behind the camera — who reflect the melting pot of American culture and ethnicities. While there’s been an improvement when it comes to Black stories and casts (looking at “Black Panther” or “Judas and the Black Messiah”), the Latino community is still waiting for its moment of recognition.
At this year’s Oscars, only 4 of the 23 categories had any form of Latino representation.
In 2018, a study by the Motion Picture Association of America found that Latinos had the highest moviegoing rate among ethnic groups, buying tickets to an average of 4.5 movies a year. But they don’t see themselves represented onscreen. A 2019 study, titled “Latinos in Film: Erasure On-Screen & Behind the Camera Across 1,200 Popular Movies,” showcases the absence. The study, by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative in partnership with the National Assn. of Latino Independent Producers and Wise Entertainment, examined Latino characters and workers behind the camera across the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2018. Only 4.5% of all 47,268 speaking or named characters across those 12 years were Latino, as were a mere 3% of lead or co-lead actors.”
Latinos aren’t the only ones affected. In a March 2021 study, consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company:
“concluded that America’s film industry is the country’s least diverse business sector and that its systemic anti-Black biases cost it at least $10 billion in annual revenue. Black content is undervalued, under distributed and underfunded, the analysis found. It also found that Black talent has been systematically shut out of creator, producer, director and writer positions. That is despite the fact that films with two or more Black people working in those roles made 10 percent more at the box office per dollar invested than films with no or only one Black person in those capacities.”
Again, I wondered: are incidents of idea theft disproportionately affecting these creators, further growing disparity between the have’s and the have not’s, or is this an industry practice that’s long been tolerated which is affecting everyone?
After all, it’s easy to envision a successful and powerful white, cisgender, male producer taking an idea or copyrightable concept from (for example) a Black, LGBTQ, single-mother struggling to make ends meet and trying desperately to break into the industry. However, instinctively, I wondered if this wasn’t ultimately more about power and greed than only a socio-demographic phenomenon. After all, it takes money and time to file a lawsuit. Perhaps there are more instances of female executives brazenly ignoring any “implied contract” regardless of who the victim was, or a gay, male executive threatening a more junior creative from speaking up regardless of sexual orientation. That’s one more reason I began to study the case law and collect data.
What do you have to lose?
Indeed, it’s rare to hear celebrities discuss this phenomenon that is as old as Hollywood itself. Speaking up boils down to how much you have to lose. More recently, Melissa Rivers, the daughter of late comic Joan Rivers, touched on the lack of courtesy and disingenuous nature of the industry, when discussing the inspiration for a character on Marvelous Mrs. Maisel:
Melissa Rivers is speaking out about the legacy of her late mom, revered comic Joan Rivers.
Melissa, 53, made an appearance on the Behind the Velvet Rope with David Yontef podcast Thursday and revealed her feelings about TV series The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, claiming Joan was one of the inspirations for the titular character but that the show never reached out to her about it.
"I understand both sides. I'm sure they were worried because, well also, the world is so litigious, but I wish I had gotten a note saying, 'Your mother was one of the inspirations for this, and we hope you enjoy it and here's a T-shirt. Here's a link to the first episode, to the pilot,' you know?" the TV personality said when asked about the Amazon Prime series, revealing that she's never seen an episode.
"Not even saying like, it's completely her, but to say she was one of our inspirations," she continued. "And because of that, I felt so violated in a weird way, and everybody's saying, 'Oh, it's Joan, it's Joan, it's Joan, it's Joan' and yet I never hear from the people that make it or the actors or anything saying, 'Hey, she was one of my inspirations.'"
A representative for Amazon Studios had no comment when reached by PEOPLE."
While that’s admittedly not the same premise as Idea Theft, it speaks to the lack of intellectual honesty and integrity in the industry. But that begs the question: Rivers is as much part of the entertainment establishment as the Hollywood sign; if she gripes about this, then it can’t be an isolated incident, can it?
Thievery, it seems, is color blind.
So if this is prevalent, why don’t people speak up? We’ll count the ways. But before we do, we’ll touch on the merits of a more diplomatic approach. Logically, before speaking out or taking action, a victim of Idea Theft reaches out to the person/party who ran with your concept. How they react – or don’t – speaks volumes.
Next up: Diplomacy Meets Intimidation: the Reasons Why Victims Don’t Speak Up. Meanwhile, if you want to share your experience or contact me, you can do so using this form.