Without Hollywood, What Happens to Los Angeles?

From a New York Times story by Shawn Hubler headlined “Without Hollywood, What Happens to Los Angeles?”:

Los Angeles County has 88 cities. Ten million people. Two hundred-plus languages spoken.

And a nine-letter sign that, for much of the world, defines the entire region: HOLLYWOOD.

Los Angeles has long been regarded as the global “company town” for show business, and as a rare actors’ strike upended the signature industry this week, the potential for cascading economic impacts across Southern California has emerged as a critical local issue. But economists disagree on just how extensively the simultaneous actors’ and writers’ strikes will be felt.

Even by the most generous estimates, Hollywood has never supported more than about 5 percent of employment in a region where many more people work in trade, health care, government and even Southern California’s diminished manufacturing sector. Yet Hollywood pervades Los Angeles life in ways as big as a movie backdrop or as small as a street detour on some awards night.

For many, the ceased productions and darkened premieres are not just a threat to the flow of dollars to restaurants and retailers that cater to film crews, but also a blow to the region’s cultural heart.

“To the extent that Hollywood defines America’s idea of where I live, Hollywood’s troubles become my troubles,” said D.J. Waldie, a cultural historian in Southern California. “When Hollywood stops, a great many things stop here, and not just a few studios.”

During the 2007 screenwriters’ strike, the California economy lost $2.1 billion, according to one study. The last time unionized screenwriters and actors staged dual walkouts, in 1960, the strikes did not settle for nearly six months.

Economists said the length of the two strikes will largely determine its financial impact on Los Angeles, though some were more optimistic than others.

Lee Ohanian, an economics professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who has written extensively about California, estimated that about 20 percent of the local economy could be hit, in part because the industry generates so much revenue and has so many highly compensated local employees.

Chris Thornberg, a founding partner at the Los Angeles consulting firm Beacon Economics, said the strikes might not be felt locally for a long time because so much of show business has been focused on exploiting and distributing existing content.

“As long as people are paying for Hulu and buying Disney movies online, we’re making money,” Dr. Thornberg said. “Eventually, there will come a time when the lack of content will start to pinch, but this is a slow boil, not a rapid one.”

The mayor of Los Angeles, Karen Bass, made it clear that she considered the labor standoff to be an urgent local issue and called on the studios and unions to “work around the clock” to reach an equitable agreement.

“This affects all of us and is essential to our overall economy,” Mayor Bass said.

Less tangible is the potential impact on Southern California’s self image. Show business is wrapped up in the region’s civic identity in ways that are unparalleled in less-renowned cities.

An audience of 18.7 million people this year tuned in to the Academy Awards, Los Angeles’ best known office party. Backdrops from Venice Beach to the Sixth Street Viaduct are regarded locally with pride as stars in their own right. Homeowners from the San Fernando Valley to South Pasadena run lucrative side hustles, renting their houses for film shoots and ads.

Though most of the famous names live in mansions behind gates, few Angelenos, even in far-flung exurbs, are without a celebrity story — the producer spotted in Joshua Tree, the famous face in the next lane in traffic.

“Everywhere I go, people ask me the same question: What stars have I met?” said Stephen Cheung, the president and chief executive of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “Nobody would ask me that if I were from another city.”

Born in Hong Kong, Mr. Cheung, 44, said that he saw his first real celebrity in Los Angeles when he was about 10, through a car window. “We were near the convention center in downtown, and all of a sudden, a car pulled up and I saw Madonna get out.”

Many also know stars the way anyone knows anyone in the nation’s second-largest city: as neighbors or fellow parents or people walking their dogs. Entertainers sponsor local schools, embark on second careers as politicians, stump for state ballot initiatives and occasionally get into scrapes with the mayor for trying to fill their own potholes.

Democratic leaders throughout the liberal state have long been supportive; earlier this month, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California extended a $330 million-a-year film and television tax credit program to encourage studios to keep productions at home.

Certain communities share a special bond.

“We have a lot of studio people who live in Burbank,” Mimi House, a retired medical clinic administrative worker, said on Thursday while lunching with a group of fellow retirees in the Los Angeles suburb’s “beautiful downtown” shortly after leaders of the actors’ union, known as SAG-AFTRA, announced the walkout.

Without the entertainment industry, Burbank would be a “ghost town,” added Virginia Bohr, a retired accountant at the table with Ms. House. Local officials recently renamed their airport Hollywood Burbank, though Hollywood is technically a neighborhood in Los Angeles, a separate city.

The region has long attracted show business aspirants from around the world who hope to catch their big break. Many scrape by for years before they find work outside the entertainment industry.

Thomas Whaley, a veteran teacher who for 23 years has coordinated an extensive visual and performing arts curriculum at the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, credited the entertainment community for drawing him to the region and helping to ensure the longstanding success of his program, which has become a statewide model for the breadth and quality of its offerings. Were it not for the local concentration of talent, he said, he might never have ended up in the job he has come to cherish.

“I moved to L.A. to play trombone for film and TV in 1990,” said Mr. Whaley, who grew up in Rhode Island and studied to become a studio musician on full scholarships at Berklee College of Music in Boston and the University of Miami. “My mother kept saying, Come home, Rhode Island’s great, and I was like, Mom, they don’t have what I need.”

Other Angelenos feel a disconnect with an industry whose workers have long been concentrated in parts of the city that are more affluent and white.

In Mid-City, a Los Angeles neighborhood several miles south of Hollywood that is predominantly Latino and Black, Rachel Johnson and Rosario Gomez, both 17, were more interested in frozen fruit treats from the local paleta shop than in the demands of Hollywood strikers.

“It’s the least of our concerns,” Ms. Johnson said of the picket lines, noting the struggling mom-and-pop businesses on their streets, rising rents and persistent homeless encampments.

“Yeah, there are bigger problems here, like gentrification,” Ms. Gomez added.

Nearby at La Cevicheria, a tiny eatery on Pico Boulevard, Yejoo Kim, 29, who works in geopolitics, agreed that Hollywood “can feel worlds apart,” even for Angelenos who were born and raised in the city, as she was.

But she and her roommate, David Choi, 27, also pointed to the large immigrant communities in Los Angeles that have been reflected with care in recent years in film and television.

“I feel a sense of solidarity,” said Mr. Choi, a novelist interested in the pay standards that Hollywood sets for its writers. “I’d be happy to participate in a boycott of a show.”

Corina Knoll contributed reporting from Los Angeles and Vik Jolly from Burbank, Calif.

Shawn Hubler is a national correspondent based in California. Before joining The Times in 2020 she spent nearly two decades covering the state for The Los Angeles Times as a roving reporter, columnist and magazine writer, and shared three Pulitzer Prizes won by the paper’s Metro staff.

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