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Hack WatchNewsletter | September 1, 2023

Don’t Fall For Hollywood Bosses’ New PR Spin

LaborRevolving Door
Don’t Fall For Hollywood Bosses’ New PR Spin

This article first appeared in our weekly Hack Watch newsletter on media accountability. Subscribe here to get it delivered straight to your inbox every week, and check out our Hack Watch website.

Today marks the 122nd day of the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike and 48th day of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) strike. The dual work stoppages have brought Hollywood to a standstill, with production halted on films and television programs, and premieres and other promotional events either scaled back or canceled. Both guilds are striking over demands that are more than reasonable, particularly given studio executives’ record pay. These demands include fair compensation for streaming media (particularly better residuals, which currently pale in comparison to what they are for network and cable broadcasts), robust studio support for health and retirement funds, and safeguards around the use of artificial intelligence. (For more on why WGA and SAG-AFTRA are on strike, read the excellent reporting of Jacobin’s Alex Press). 

In a move that has shocked…pretty much no one, Hollywood bosses don’t want to share their earnings with the very storytellers responsible for generating them. At the same time, they’re happy to make workers pay the cost for their own miscalculations about streaming.

The major Tinseltown studios – organized under the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers (AMPTP) trade association – remain stubbornly opposed to striking a fair deal with either guild. Under the leadership of AMPTP president Carol Lombardini, studios have employed brutal tactics to bust the strike, including threatening to drag things out until writers lose their homes and using management-friendly trade publications to pressure the guilds into accepting lowball offers. These tactics have backfired spectacularly: not only have they failed to end either strike, but they’ve also turned the public overwhelmingly against the AMPTP. A new Gallup poll finds that Americans back the WGA over the AMPTP by 72% to 19%, and SAG-AFTRA over AMPTP by 64% to 24%.

Aware of their reputational damage (but willfully ignorant of the anti-worker attitude that caused it), the AMPTP announced a “reset” to its approach this week – not by negotiating in good faith or meeting the guilds’ demands, but by hiring a pricey crisis-management PR firm to revamp its image! According to Deadline, the AMPTP has hired The Levinson Group – a D.C.-based PR shop best known for representing the U.S. Women’s  National Soccer Team in its campaign for pay equity – to “reframe the big picture for studio and streamer CEOs who have been characterized as greedy, imperious and out of touch.”

If you’re feeling like you’ve seen this movie before, you’re not wrong. During the last WGA strike 15 years ago, studio bosses hired former Clinton comms strategists Mark Fabiani and Chris Lehane to revive the AMPTP’s flagging public image. The revolving-door duo were paid a jaw-dropping $100,000 per month by the AMPTP to strike-bust, deploying campaign-style spin attacks designed to break the WGA’s resolve. 

As I wrote for The American Prospect in May:

“Fabiani and Lehane created a website with a live tally of the millions of dollars in income that guild members and on-set crew had purportedly lost by striking. They urged studio CEOs to publicly refer to WGA representatives as “organizers” rather than “negotiators” because the former “sound[ed] more Commie.” Lehane even told the press at one point that striking writers were “making more than doctors and pilots,” cynically arguing that the strike was harming “real working-class people” like below-the-line workers who had lost income from struck late-night talk shows […] Fabiani and Lehane were [also] the brains behind a “strongly worded and downright menacing” AMPTP press release breaking off negotiations with the WGA in December 2007. This move allowed the studios, which cited a protracted strike as an “unforeseeable event,” to invoke force majeure contract clauses and cancel multiple writer-producer deals worth tens of millions of dollars, severely demoralizing the WGA’s rank-and-file members.”

The parallels between 2008 and today are striking. Like Fabiani and Lehane (who have worked for scandal-plagued clients like Gray Davis, Bill O’Reilly, Lance Armstrong, and Goldman Sachs) the Levinson Group has no qualms about representing greedy and unsavory characters. Over the years, Levinson has done PR for predatory student lender Better Future Forward, reviled monopolist Live Nation/Ticketmaster, a talc mining company linked to the Johnson & Johnson baby powder cancer scandal, and Theranos fraudster Elizabeth Holmes

And just like the ex-Clinton spin doctors, the Levinson Group boasts close revolving-door ties to powerful politicians and the news media. The firm currently represents President Biden’s personal attorney Bob Bauer and previously represented John Podesta’s family lobbying firm. Levinson partners have previously worked for an array of influential politicians, including former President Bill Clinton, Senators Jon Tester and Amy Klobuchar, Representatives Maxine Waters and Ted Lieu, and former and current Los Angeles Mayors Eric Garcetti and Karen Bass. The firm’s founder and CEO Molly Levinson spent eight years working for CNN and CBS, while two of the Levinson Group’s top managing directors are alumni of CNBC and The Wall Street Journal. With a web of strong connections to power players in the entertainment industry’s twin capitals of LA and New York, along with the nation’s capital, Levinson could help the AMPTP tilt the regulatory and media scales back in the bosses’ favor. 

Though this may sound demoralizing, striking writers and actors shouldn’t lose hope. For one, consider a surprisingly uplifting parallel between 2008 and 2023. Fifteen years ago, after Fabiani and Lehane took the AMPTP’s contract, the SEIU and other unions that had previously worked with the duo severed ties with them for trying to bust the writers’ strike. Fast forward to this week: the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team Players Association (Levinson’s star client!) publicly rebuked the firm for doing the AMPTP’s dirty work and voiced support for the dual WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. If history is any indication, it’s only a matter of time until other pro-union Levinson clients – like the majority SEIU-owned Amalgamated Bank – follow suit and sever ties with the firm. 

There is also one crucial way in which 2023 is thankfully not like 2008: The Levinson Group is bad at their jobs. 

Consider an August 27th New York Times article about AMPTP President Carol Lombardini*, which was almost certainly pitched or otherwise molded by Levinson flacks. The article goes to ridiculous lengths to rehabilitate Lombardini’s image:

  • The article passively describes Lombardini’s tenure as “marked by labor peace until now” (a peace that she has now broken) and shifts blame for her unpopular decisions to anonymous AMPTP members (how convenient!).
  • Article co-authors Brooks Barnes and John Koblin quote a 2014 email from then-WarnerMedia CEO Kevin Tsujihara praising Lombardini’s negotiation skills and recommending she receive a $365,000 bonus. Curiously absent from the article is any mention of Tsujihara’s high-profile 2019 resignation from WarnerMedia for pressuring actresses into non-consensual sex.
  • Barnes and Koblin attempt to paint a “she’s just like us” picture of Lombardini (who reportedly earns a $3 million annual salary), mentioning her upbringing in a “working-class town outside Boston” and love for Red Sox and Dodgers games.
  • Barnes and Koblin paint a rosy picture of the AMPTP’s “sweetened proposal” (their words) to the WGA, describing the studios’ August counteroffer as “including higher wages, a pledge to share some viewership data and additional protections around the use of artificial intelligence.” Barnes & Koblin never quote the WGA’s well-founded reasons for turning down this lowball offer, saying only that the WGA is “holding firm to demands related to staffing minimums and transparency into streaming-service viewership.”
    • Bizarrely, the core issue of underpaid streaming residuals (the main reason writers are demanding greater streaming transparency) is never mentioned in the article.
  • Barnes and Koblin frequently imply that criticism of Lombardini is unfair, describing her as an “easy target” for the “grievances of striking workers” and singling out a tweet purportedly “mocking [Lombardini] as a fuddy-duddy who hangs out at chain restaurants”.
  • Barnes and Koblin quote a pre-strike September 2022 Deadline interview with Teamsters organizer Lindsay Dougherty to claim that Lombardini has the “grudging respect” of union leaders who see her as a “fair individual.” They did not quote more recent statements from Dougherty, who last month tweeted that the “greedy” AMPTP had “declared war on Hollywood Labor” by refusing to negotiate in good faith with WGA and SAG-AFTRA.
  • In one unintentionally eyebrow-raising line, Barnes and Koblin state that Lombardini was “inspired to become a lawyer by reading articles about F. Lee Bailey.” Neither Bailey’s sordid clients (like OJ Simpson) nor his multiple disbarments are mentioned in the article.

And it’s not just me who finds the Levinson Group’s efforts laughable. Discussions of the NYT story on Reddit and Twitter are dominated by comments tying the story’s blatant reputation laundering for Lombardini to the AMPTP’s concurrent hiring of Levinson. A recent New Yorker puff piece on Warner CEO David Zaslav has been met with similar ridicule – with many commenters also pointing to Levinson’s potential influence. So too have recent stories from management-friendly trades like Deadline – all of which have failed to make a dent in strong public support for WGA and SAG-AFTRA. This is a good sign: not only is the public more inclined to side with striking workers than it was in 2008 – it’s also seemingly more attuned to the role of corporate PR flacks in shaping the media narrative. If studio bosses think they can remake the same movie and end another strike with flashy spin-doctors, they’re sorely mistaken. 

So here’s my advice to the AMPTP (and it won’t cost you six figures per month to hear it): the way to fix your reputation problem is to end the strike by giving writers and actors what they want. No strike-busting comms team can rescue you from the hole you’ve dug yourself into. 

As the LA Times’ Mary McNamara recently put it, “You’ve lost the war. The best thing to do now is negotiate the terms of surrender.”

*For an intentionally hilarious depiction of Carol Lombardini, check out this parody account of her on Twitter. 

LaborRevolving Door

More articles by Vishal Shankar

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