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Hollywood's Next Act
An essay by John Ridley

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Sept. 28, 2001 -- As those of us in Hollywood get back to the high business of entertaining the lowest common denominator, we're finding out that the terrorist attacks -- to say the absolute least -- are going to be a real tough act to follow. The tragedies have left us with the problem of not only how to entertain people, but what constitutes entertainment in the new world.

Going on forever now, a staple of the Hollywood diet has been big-budget, low-concept action movies. If there's one thing we've learned to do well in Hollywood, and there probably is only one thing, it's how to blow stuff up for fun and profit. Cars, buses, boats, buildings... if it's vaguely combustible we'll put a match to it. But after days of seeing wall-to-wall video replays of planes flying into buildings and every gruesome after-image, how entertaining are fireballs and crumbling structures? How badly does anybody want to shell out nine bucks to see staged death and destruction once they've had a sickening taste of the real thing? Already the major studios are shelving movies that have anything to do with terrorism and bombings as if just now realizing that, hey, killing people and calling it entertainment isn't such a good idea.

"Most of us in Hollywood have no other marketable skills, and the idea of giving up show business for work that actually matters scares the avocado out of us, so we'll find a way to once again tell stories."

John Ridley

The broadcast networks, too, are faced with a primetime dilemma. With each of the big four networks premiering a show about spies or government operatives, there's a concern that audiences will have zero interest in programs whose underlying themes fairly scream of the tragedies, or offer sanitized, 55-minute solutions to the complex problem of fighting global terrorism. Even reality programs, a year ago the saviors of network TV, could wither from public disinterest. Over the last two weeks we've seen reality. And now, Hollywood's version, seems little more than what it is: semi-scripted dramas featuring non-union amateur actors. Even the names of the shows - Fear Factor, Survivor - now come across as limp and bland as sauceless spaghetti.

And beyond all that, there is a more significant alteration to the entertainment landscape that Hollywood is going to have to deal with. An indispensable part of good entertainment is conveying human emotions; making the audience connect with what's happening on screen. For the most part, subtle storytelling and character nuance is a habit we got out of a long time ago. But we've hobbled along offering cliche as character, and people bought it for lack of anything better to measure our product against.

In the last few weeks America has seen real character. Every one of us has felt genuine emotion. How do you show the depth of despair or the heights of heroism any more effectively than what we've seen as a result of these tragedies? Will the cops and firemen of movies and television ever again feel like anything more than celluloid imitations of life? Will the words of Josiah Bartlett, the president in the NBC series The West Wing, ever again be able to affects us, or will his remarks merely come off as overwritten dialogue approximating what our elected officials have said more eloquently and with true passion?

Most of us in Hollywood have no other marketable skills, and the idea of giving up show business for work that actually matters scares the avocado out of us, so we'll find a way to once again tell stories. And if nothing else, what we could all use now is a little escapism. But there's a new yardstick by which to measure what we do... and what we don't do.

John Ridley is a Hollywood writer and author of the books Love is a Racket and Everybody Smokes in Hell.