It’s been years since I last visited a movie theater, an avoidance that began before the pandemic. I grew tired of people spoiling my movie enjoyment with incessant yakking, crinkling of wrappers, and kicking the back of my seat. The final straw was when I was seated next to a woman who was talking and texting on her cell phone throughout much of the movie.

My knowledge of the latest movies is reading about Hollywood, an industry that has long fascinated me. If your primary source of movie news is the corporate media, it’s likely you think that only Barbie and Oppenheimer are all the rage these days. Both flicks have received mostly rave reviews; the New York Times’ film critic mused whether a doll with “an ingratiating smile, impossible curves and boobs” could liftoff to become a feminist icon. That’s the blurb the Times published about its Barbie review, which seems to attach great cultural importance to the movie.

Readers of conservative media know there’s another movie that’s breaking box office records. It’s called “Sound of Freedom,” which the corporate media has trashed as a “Christian thriller” peddling a “false, violent QAnon conspiracy theory.” As described by Newsweek, the film is based on the life of former Homeland Security special agent Tim Ballard, played by Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. The plotline follows Ballard as he sets up Operation Underground Railroad (O.U.R.), an anti-child-trafficking organization. Mira Sorvino and Bill Camp are also among the film’s stars.

The media’s criticisms of Sound of Freedom are based on its supposed primary appeal to Christians and those who believe that child trafficking is part of a broader left-wing plot. I’ve yet to read an article that details the movie’s errors or misrepresentations. I doubt that only Christians and supposed conspiracy theorists are horrified by child trafficking.

Sound of Freedom was made on a shoestring $15 million budget and promoted on a crowd funded publicity campaign. The film has already crossed $100 million at the box office and going strong, unlike Disney films, which are hemorrhaging. According to one box office observer, Disney has lost nearly $900 million on its last eight theatrical releases.

I’d liken Disney getting trounced by an indie studio to Tesla’s humiliation of once mighty GM. The reference is apt because Disney previously owned Sound of Freedom, a property it acquired with its 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox. Disney shelved the film, and the film’s producers tenaciously reacquired it after years of wrangling.

GM was an earlier electric vehicle pioneer, having successfully launched various promising EVs that the company killed off, mostly under the leadership of CEO Mary Barra. How fitting that Barra has been a Disney director since 2017.

Barra’s Disney connection should be of great interest to Hollywood writers and actors walking the picket lines at various studios. The unions say the Hollywood studios are looking to cut their wages and retain more of the ancillary proceeds from their creative efforts through streaming and other initiatives. Another major source of contention is artificial intelligence, which Hollywood creatives and artists think could ultimately replace them.

Technology is what’s threatening Hollywood creatives and potentially on-screen talents, much like GM and other automakers are looking to use electric vehicles to reduce the wages of its workers. At GM’s lithium battery plant in Ohio, workers are paid less than $17 an hour. That’s about half of what GM pays its most senior U.S. vehicle assembly workers.

Working at a lithium battery plant is dangerous work. Although open less than a year, one worker has already been killed by a robot. The are multiple federal investigations of the plant’s safety standards.

Electric vehicles require fewer workers, which would be great for GM if it ever learns to profitably manufacture them. GM has another trump card: It can move more jobs to Mexico, which the Inflation Reduction Act encourages the company to do because EVs assembled in that country are eligible for significant sales tax rebates when sold in the U.S. Congress is using the taxes autoworkers pay to subsidize their displacement and redistribute the monies to GM’s management and the wealthy who can afford GM’s electric vehicles.

Striking Hollywood workers are angered by the disparity in pay between the CEOs who run the studios and their rank-and-file, some of whom barely make enough to cover their rent. One lightning rod is Disney CEO Bob Iger, who made more than $100 million in his previous stint as CEO and has a two-year contract that could allow him to earn an additional $62 million.

As Hollywood strikers are fast learning, paying CEOs obscene compensation results in the executives believing they are worth the money, fostering a giant disconnect between the CEOs and the “team players” who enrich them. Underscoring Iger’s cluelessness, in a recent CNBC interview while taking a schmoozing break at the Sun Valley Conference, he cavalierly dissed the demands and concerns of striking creatives and actors as not being “realistic.”

“It’s very disturbing to me,” Iger said when asked about the labor strikes. “We’ve talked about disruptive forces on this business and all the challenges we’re facing, the recovery from COVID which is ongoing, it’s not completely back. This is the worst time in the world to add to that disruption.”

Iger, who wormed his way back into his job with the help of former CFO Christine McCarthy and others stabbing his hand-picked successor in the back, thinks nothing about disruption when it benefits him. Understandably, Iger’s comment didn’t sit well with SAG-AFTRA president Fran Drescher.

“I found (the comments) terribly repugnant and out of touch. Positively tone deaf. I don’t think it served him well,” Drescher said. Speaking to Variety chief correspondent Elizabeth Wagmeister, Drescher continued, “If I were (Disney), I would lock (Iger) behind doors and never let him talk to anybody about this, because it’s so obvious that he has no clue as to what is really happening on the ground with hard working people that don’t make anywhere near the salary he is making. High seven figures, eight figures, this is crazy money that they make, and they don’t care if they’re land barons of a medieval time.”

The people with the responsibility to lock Iger behind closed doors are Barra and the other 10 directors who sit on Disney’s board. (Iger also sits on Disney’s board but given how impressed he is with himself it’s unlikely he’d support the initiative.) Barra would be on very weak ground taking issue with Iger’s compensation.

Since taking the helm of GM more than nine years ago, Barra likely has received $100 million or more, including $58 million in compensation the past two years. Unlike Barra, Iger for a period generated considerable value for Disney and its shareholders, although the company’s stock has been in the dumpster for most of his return. GM’s stock was trading at $40 a share the morning Barra took over; it closed today at $38.

Disney director Safra Catz definitely sees no issues with Iger’s compensation. Catz is CEO of Texas-based Oracle Corporation, and in the most recent fiscal year received — hope you are sitting down —  more than $130 million in compensation. It’s possible that Catz pulled in more money in her most recent fiscal year than all of Disney’s directors combined.

Disney directors don’t serve out of the goodness of their hearts. The base compensation is $125,000 per year. In addition to that cash salary, directors last year got stock awards of at least $236,657. And some directors received “other compensation.”

The lesson Drescher and her strikers need to learn is that corporate boards are stacked with other grossly overcompensated CEOs and executives, who all take care of each other. When an executive is inducted into the CEO club, they can continue to generate riches, even if they mess up royally.

Barra is fortunate that she is both GM’s chairman and CEO, which is widely regarded as poor corporate governance. GM’s lead independent director is Patricia Russo, architect of the $13 billion Alcatel-Lucent merger, which shows up on every list of the most disastrous corporate combinations of all time. Russo named herself CEO of the combined technology company with significant and critical operations in France, despite not speaking French.

Little wonder Barra has gotten away botching GM’s electric vehicles transformation. Russo also sits on the boards of nearly a half dozen other companies, including serving as chairman of Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

If I was a member of the privileged CEO and director cabal, I wouldn’t be enjoying the bon bons and other gourmet goodies I imagine are typically served to them when they get together. There is a growing anger among U.S. employees that’s evidenced by the rhetoric emanating from the Hollywood picket lines and elsewhere. UAW leader Shawn Fain, who repeatedly has referred to automotive executives as “greedy,” has made it clear he is itching for a strike if he can’t secure favorable terms during current contract negotiations.

AP, July 25, 2023

The better run companies understand the national mood. UPS today settled with the Teamsters, given them the wages and working conditions they demanded. Michigan Medicine, the unionized teaching hospital of the University of Michigan and a nationally respected healthcare institution, last October agreed to a generous contract and improved working conditions for its nurses.

Iger and Barra are the wrong leaders for these troubled times. Unfortunately for the employees of Disney and GM and others who rely on these companies for their livelihoods, the directors overseeing Iger and Barra have yet to demonstrate they are any more capable than the overpaid CEOs they are responsible for managing.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.