It’s only January, but it’s hard to imagine Hollywood will have a worse month this year.
The industry’s most celebrated film festival, Sundance, opened its doors for the first time since the pandemic ravaged the globe.
That’s where the bad news begins.
If u read 1 thing today…read this article👇🏼-‘Why Film Festivals Are Steering Clear of Controversial Movies-Jihad Rehab’@LorraineAli @ZaidJilani @powellnyt @gcaw @colinfreeman99 @bariweiss @TimesKennedy @KonstantinKisin @MattBelloni @coldxman @jessesingalhttps://t.co/RR77F0rWMh
— Meg Smaker (@Meighon) January 18, 2023
Earlier this week, Variety ran an atypical (for the liberal outlet) story bemoaning the film festival landscape. The article exposed how most are so fearful of social justice blowback they’ve begun rejecting films with “problematic” content.
In fact, that quick-to-capitulate reflex underscores a new, unspoken modus operandi in which festivals — once the bastion of provocative, button-pushing fare — are desperate to avoid controversy and the wrath of any identity-focused Twitter mob.
The 2022 documentary “Jihad Rehab,” now known as “The UnRedacted,” set this downward spiral in motion. A Cancel Culture mob descended on it following its Sundance debut. The attacks were so unfair even liberal outlets like The Atlantic and The New York Times cried foul.
Why do weak-kneed film festivals matter?
Festivals not only promote indie fare that might otherwise get overlooked, but they also support emerging filmmakers whose voices aren’t fully formed yet. Along the way, they share provocative stories that do what art should – spark conversation.
Plus, films that spark excitement on the festival circuit often snag distributors, press attention and other perks in a crowded marketplace.
Now, festival programmers are so fearful of blowback they’d rather err on the side of social media caution. It’s a terrifying trend for free expression, and one likely to get worse before it improves.
If only that were the lone Hollywood development in recent days.
I’m trying to imagine Sundance participants who require loyalty oaths surviving something like WWII. https://t.co/0S6Ew65YLh
— Awards Daily (@AwardsDaily) January 19, 2023
We learned through a Wall Street Journal op-ed that anyone who wants to watch Sundance films will have to sign what the outlet dubbed a “loyalty oath” for the privilege.
I had to promise to be “vigilant in the fight against the spread of COVID-19,” to avoid “unwelcome sexual attention, harassment, stalking, and inappropriate physical contact of any kind,” and to refrain from “abuse or intimidation including that related to race, gender, position, or wealth.”
That extends to patrons who watch Sundance screenings online, like that reporter attempted to do.
The festival even set up a reporting process where snitches could tattle on oath-breakers to Sundance’s “Safety & Belonging” team. (Yes, that’s an actual body within Team Sundance). Break the rules and you may never see a Sundance screening again.
George Orwell wouldn’t be this bold in his fiction.
What’s even worse?
Why did it take a WSJ scribe to break the “loyalty oath” news? Surely other critics across the country, and scribes who work for Variety, The Hollywood Reporter and related sites, had to sign the pledge.
Did they think it wasn’t newsworthy? Or did they realize it might embarrass Sundance for news of it to leak?
The worst-case scenario? They agreed with the oath.
This week also saw the release of “Justice,” a new documentary dredging up old accusations against Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh. The film, according to early reviews, is hopelessly one-sided and leaves out critical information that debunks much of its arguments.
That film, of course, got a Sundance closeup. No social justice mob will rise up against it – the documentary shares the approved message on the subject in play.
That’s where the arts are today … express approved opinions only.
A related news story also deserves attention. ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith had to apologize this week after he wasn’t deferential enough to pop superstar Rihanna. Smith, known for his blustery opinions, suggested he’d rather see Beyonce perform at this year’s Super Bowl than Rihanna.
Cue the Cancel Culture mob. Smith immediately backpedaled, a surreal notion given that he praised Rihanna but considered her less appealing than her celebrated peer.
Comedy Central guest host Leslie Jones excoriated Smith for having a simple opinion from her temporary “Daily Show” perch.
Leslie Jones Blasts ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith for Comparing Rihanna to Beyoncé, Criticizes Apology https://t.co/DwglFSa9ub
— The Hollywood Reporter (@THR) January 20, 2023
What do all of these stories have in common? No outrage from the press, particularly entertainment outlets. Nor have any artists, to this reporter’s knowledge, spoken out against the loyalty oath or the new, unwritten rules overseeing the film festival circuit.
We’re still waiting to see if anyone has Smith’s back for sharing a mild barb against a pop superstar.
Add them all up, and 2023 is off to a terrible, no-good start for Hollywood.