Future of Netflix? Consolidation? Layoffs? Amid unprecedented tumult in entertainment (and the world), The Hollywood Reporter talks to execs and underlings struggling to cope in an age of anxiety, the experts soothing nerves and the fortunate few who are finding peace in troubled times: “You learn to not let your stress control you.”
In mid-December, Adi Shankar boarded a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, ready to embark on the two-day journey to Bangalore, India. He was agitated and unable to sit still. An undefined sense of dread was consuming the 33-year-old producer, a feeling of fear and uncertainty that seemed to grow ever worse the better he did professionally. With credits such as 2012’s Dredd and the current Netflix series Castlevania, he’d become successful, but he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight; in tip-top shape physically, thanks to a grueling exercise regimen and hyper-nutritious diet, he was functioning in a mental fog.
Shankar had been living with angst for years, at least since moving to L.A. in 2009, but over the past few months it had skyrocketed, fueled by the immense pressure on his time, the increased competition with others and his sense of working in an industry that feels more and more lacking in any core community. What had begun as moderate disquiet had blossomed into a full-blown emotional crisis, “like having a constant panic attack,” he says. “I was operating in fight-or-flight mode.” When he blew up over a minor location faux pas on a TV project, “I realized, I’m losing control of my emotions.”
And so, here he was, setting out for his homeland and the AyurvedaGram Heritage Wellness Centre, where he would bury himself in a boot camp run by yogis, sacrificing his freedom, his friends and even his smartphone, all in the hope of restoring some sort of balance. “I needed a mental shift,” he says. “And when my mind shifted, everything else took off.”
Call him lucky or call him deluded, Shankar was experiencing something thousands of Hollywood insiders are grappling with, to a greater or lesser degree. Speak to writers, producers, actors and executives — speak, in fact, to the whole chain of employees toiling across the film, television and music industries, as THR did — and you’ll have trouble finding people who won’t admit to heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, three interlinked mental-health issues that have escalated over the past decade in the entertainment sector. “I’m always having anxiety,” says Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman (Crash), echoing dozens of others interviewed. “Stress seems to happen every day in Hollywood. There’s anxiety all around.”
At its most extreme, this can lead to despair and even suicide, which became tragically apparent in June with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Suicide “has gone up roughly 25 percent over the last decade — it’s astonishing, it’s epidemic,” says Judith Weissman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. While no one would claim that Hollywood is dealing with bigger problems than the countless men and women facing mental-health challenges in the world at large, for the hundreds of thousands of employees who work in entertainment and digital media (365,000 in the L.A. area alone), the current industry turbulence has set alarm bells ringing louder than at any time since the Great Recession.
The business has been rocked by the arrival of deep-pocketed digital players such as Amazon, Apple and especially Netflix that threaten to transform not only the cozy old relationships of buyers and sellers but even the way viewers consume (and pay for) product. Historic studios that once represented the pinnacle of the culture business are being swallowed by vast corporations that think nothing of merging these long-discrete entities together. Movie companies that previously jostled for equality at the box office are living in the shadow of a modern-day Goliath, Disney, and all of them are battling a shrinking North American marketplace that has been dwarfed by international territories. Meanwhile, cord-cutting is accelerating and Netflix, which plans to spend $8 billion on content this year, is sounding a death-knell for the traditional “bundles” of channels that make up the TV business (while Netflix missed its growth target for the recent quarter, it still added 5.2 million users, bringing total membership to 130 million).
In each of the major studios and networks, a lack of clarity about long-term prospects has left top executives with no certain future, and that inevitably has a cascading effect on all the downstream employees. This isn’t just a matter of whether Disney and Fox will merge, or whether one executive will remain in place and another leave; it’s about tectonic shifts arguably unparalleled in the history of the content business.
Even the lucky few who’ve landed jobs with such leading change-makers as Netflix and Amazon are uneasy; these firms’ competitive salaries are matched by their speed in getting rid of underperforming hires and those who don’t fit in with the unrelenting culture. Similarly, a 20-something employee who landed a post at a top management company notes, “Even if you get promoted, if you don’t make money, they quickly let you go.”
The uncertainty she feels is affecting young and old, men and women, newcomers and veterans alike. “Anxiety is extraordinarily high because different things are valued than [were] valued before,” observes Tom Pollock, a former chairman of Universal Pictures and now an independent producer, who believes the content industry is seeing changes as great as any since “the advent of television disrupted the movie business.”
Business leaders are showing the effects of the stress daily; one became so incensed when an adviser pointed this out to him that he began to hurl objects around the room. For him, just like his underlings, “There’s unpredictability in their position, and unpredictability is a fundamental building block of anxiety,” says Michelle Craske, director of the Anxiety and Depression Research Center at UCLA, a port of call for many industry members dealing with mental-health issues. “That lack of control is paramount in entertainment.”
Craske knows how deeply uncertainty can affect the psyche. “There was a classic study done a number of years ago, where monkeys were yoked into two groups,” she continues. “One group was given access to food and toys totally under their own control, whenever they wanted food and for however long they wanted it. The other group got the same amount of food and toys but didn’t exert any control over access. The monkeys were tested later on, in terms of how much fear they expressed in response to naturally fearful stimuli, and the monkeys that had control were much less fearful.”
In Hollywood, the monkeys have far less control than in many other industries. Executives can be promoted or fired at will; actors might land a lead role or never work again. Because of this, “I realize that I’m incredibly anxious 24/7 and I never realized that,” says actress Rosanna Arquette. “I take on a lot of people’s energy, and I soak it up. It’s exhausting and affects everything.”
Deepak Chopra, the author and New Age guru, says anxiety in the entertainment sector is rooted in “a really deep insecurity that comes from what one might call ‘performance anxiety’ and approval. Most people [know] they’re only as good as their last film, song. It’s normal to get attached to the importance that everyone else is giving you, and then you start getting worried about whether you’ll be able to sustain it. I’ve seen almost every celebrity in the entertainment world. They have a chronic underlying, sometimes low-level, sometimes high-level anxiety.”
There are no statistics to distinguish these stars or other entertainment workers from the population as a whole, but there’s a wealth of evidence indicating that anxiety has been intensifying, in the U.S. as well as abroad. “The World Health Organization showed that globally the rates of depression and anxiety increased from 15 to 18 percent from 2005 to 2015,” says Craske.
Psychiatrists and academics interviewed for this story note that anxiety has been climbing since the turn of the century, influenced by social media and the growing ubiquity of the smartphone, as well as the chaotic political climate after the election of President Trump. Others say the 2008 recession unleashed a sense of economic uncertainty that hasn’t faded, despite the improvement in the job market. Add to that a pervasive disappointment stemming from unrealistic and unmatched expectations.
“If you look at the trend across the generations, from boomers to Gen Xers to millennials, there’s been a steady rise in expectations for income, for jobs and for education,” says Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University and author of Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. This, she says, is based in the increase in individualism, which has been rising since the 1950s and is especially marked in Hollywood, “and a cultural system that places more emphasis on the self and less on social rules.”
Job tenure is less secure, career paths more blurred, and the sense of being disposable more widespread. Studios, agencies and networks once bragged of employees who stayed for decades; that’s rare today. A mid-level executive just laid off at 20th Century Fox complains about the insecurity she felt at a studio that saw mass layoffs and buyouts two years ago and may see more if the company merges with Disney. “There’s no loyalty left,” she says. “It can’t just be a one-way stream.”
“When I started 30 years ago,” notes Beth Gulas, a management consultant who has counseled several studios and executives, “stress was primarily in technology, where a new way of working was evolving [that seemed to say]: ‘There is no certainty. You can be let go. The loyalty is gone.’ That began to erode the environment for people who’d assumed, ‘I’ll work at Polaroid for the rest of my life.’” This thinking spread to other industries, she says, and “the whole world of being an employee changed.”
Gulas has conducted several “force-field analyses,” or studies of the psychological and social factors impacting workplaces, for top Hollywood companies. Most of the time, she says, the source of anxiety “starts at the top. Unless that top person is prepared to institute serious change, anxiety spreads and can often turn into depression.” Everyone is impacted. “I know a good handful [of senior executives] who are in intensive therapy. They’ve started to fall apart. It’s awful because you’re living with fear, but you often don’t know what you’re fearing.”
Such inchoate fears colored the last months of J.C. Spink’s life, culminating in his death at age 45 in July 2017. While the producer-manager had underlying issues that began well before his arrival in Hollywood, in his last years he was aware that the industry was changing around him, and yet unaware of how he could change with it.
Exuberant and larger than life, Spink, whose career had exploded with the spec script market in the late 1990s, had used his sales skills to launch movies including We’re the Millers and A History of Violence. But now, in the second decade of the new millennium, he was seeing his options shrink as the business became more corporate, the spread of information over the internet limited his ability to spin and the spec market collapsed. He turned to controlled substances, and on April 18, 2017, came the shocking news that he was found dead of an accidental drug overdose.
Sitting in a Hollywood cafe one morning in mid-June, his longtime business partner Chris Bender admits he’s still struggling to come to terms with what happened to Spink, his friend of two decades, with whom he had formed the management-production company Benderspink in 1998. “Like a lot of the big-personality types that we know, he was off-the-cuff, passionate, a rule breaker,” Bender reflects. “And funny — a really funny guy. Impulsive. Got himself into trouble. Put his foot in his mouth. But he was a great guy to be partners with, because of his energy.”
For more than a decade, their partnership functioned like a well-oiled machine, with each man concentrating on his particular expertise — for Spink, selling specs, and for Bender, development and production. Then “the business changed and the spec market went away,” notes Bender. “And that was J.C.’s thing. He loved selling. And in those last years, he was kind of frozen in time. He’d been the king of the spec sale, but he wasn’t doing it anymore. He couldn’t evolve.”
Spink started taking Xanax, the leading anti-anxiety medication and the most prescribed mental-health drug in America, taken by about 5 percent of the adult population. He had always been a large guy; now his weight ping-ponged. He tried dealing with it by attending The Meadows, a rehab center in Wickenburg, Arizona (later to gain a modicum of fame when Harvey Weinstein sought treatment there), and for a while had a trainer living with him; but nothing worked. He self-medicated, though Bender did not find that out until later. “He always had medicine — I never knew who the doctors were,” Bender continues. “He’d say, ‘Oh he’s a good guy, he’s a friend.’ [They were constantly] changing, and nobody could get a handle on it. So you’ve got a guy who’s a great salesman and an addict. You’re never going to figure it out.”
On several occasions, Bender sat Spink down for a heart-to-heart; he promised to change but never did. Instead, he showed up at work more sporadically. Once close friends, the two were leading separate lives personally and professionally. In May 2016, Bender decided to go out on his own. “I tried to sit down with him in the new year,” he explains, “but he kept rescheduling, and it became clear it was not going to happen.” In the end, they agreed to part ways via text.
A year later, Bender was at home when he got a call telling him Spink had died the previous evening. “What was crazy,” Bender reflects, “was the night he died, my wife and I were on a date, having dinner, and somehow his name came up, and I kept saying, ‘I have a bad feeling.’ And we choked up, it was so sad.”
Standing in a minimalist office with a panoramic view of Westwood, Alexander Bystritsky, a professor emeritus at UCLA and director of its Anxiety Program and Targeted Brain Stimulation Program, points to a sparkling-white piece of equipment tucked into the corner. The machine, an RTMS (for repetitive trans-cranial magnetic stimulation), uses magnets to alter the neurological circuits of the brain. “It’s approved for treating depression, but you could also treat anxiety,” says Bystritsky, adding that the Food and Drug Administration has yet to sign off on it for that purpose.
Patients place their heads in one of three helmets, each of which targets a distinct part of the brain. A course of treatments lasts 40 days and has had a positive impact on 60 to 70 percent of those who’ve tried it, though it’s expensive — $8,000 to $16,000 — and the benefits rarely last longer than a few months.
Bystritsky hopes to have even better results with new equipment he is developing that uses low-intensity focused ultrasound pulsation. “We are doing experiments at UCLA where we have woken up five people from a coma,” he notes. “We are writing up the protocol [for using the machine with anxiety], because this focused ultrasound could reach the amygdala, which is the center of alarm.”
“Alarm” is one of three stages that cognitive behavioral therapists consider when they speak about anxiety, along with belief systems and ways of coping — the ABCs of anxiety. “A is for alarm,” says Bystritsky. “We all have our internal alarm that is getting triggered. Then B is for beliefs — people appraise this alarm on the basis of certain beliefs. For example, if you park your car in Beverly Hills and you hear your car alarm, your reaction will be different than if you park it downtown. Beliefs [are about] how we view reality, how we interpret that alarm and arrive at C, which is coping, how you’re going to respond.”
Therapy can help with coping, and so can drugs, including marijuana. A rep for the MedMen chain says that sales at two of its L.A. stores with a heavy entertainment clientele have gone up each month since cannabis was legalized in California at the beginning of the year. Then there are more serious forms of medication, though Bystritsky points out there have been few new anti-anxiety medications since Xanax was introduced in 1981.
Bender, for one, vehemently opposes Xanax. “I’ve learned Xanax is highly addictive when taken regularly,” he cautions. “There’s short-term memory issues, and if you try to stop taking it without supervision, you’re at risk for seizures.”
He adds: “If you’ve been prescribed a psychiatric medication like Xanax, your doctor should insist on seeing you every few months to look you in the eyes. If not, you should get a new psychiatrist.”
But some other drugs now being developed are proving highly effective when combined with therapy and modern technology, including virtual reality, says Craske. These drugs don’t alleviate the symptoms of anxiety per se; but, used while therapy is taking place, they impact the parts of the brain that process learning. Scopolamine, a drug often used for motion sickness, “has an influence on the hippocampus,” says Craske. “The hippocampus is the part of the brain that’s involved in coding temporal learning.” By using it when patients are being exposed to new ways of thinking, “the exposure therapy does not get constrained to the place where that learning is happening.”
As to VR, Craske has taken a page from Hollywood in using it for treating some patients. “We use virtual reality as a training to help people attend to positive events and savor positive experiences,” she says. “Because when people are depressed or anxious, they tend to dismiss the positive.”
In a large, brick-walled room just off La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles one evening in June, two dozen men and women are doing everything to experience the positive without either technology or drugs.
A young woman with a soothing voice sits in a lotus position against one wall and urges everyone to take a deep breath, let the breath filter all the way down to the stomach, then roll it around and bring it back up and out of the mouth. Soft music wafts over them, some choral, some New Age, all designed to calm and soothe. One woman starts to snore gently, but nobody objects.
This is The DEN Meditation, a complex created in 2016 by Tal Rabinowitz, a former NBC staffer who turned her back on the media world after losing her job as an executive vp in comedy development. She was 41 and had spent 16 years in entertainment when she learned her contract wouldn’t be renewed. To her surprise, she felt relieved.
“The volume used to be like 80 scripts, minimum, a year,” she recalls. “It was crazy. So I was really tired, and I remember saying to my boyfriend, ‘I need a break. What I would give for three months off.’ I stayed with that feeling when the contract ended. People didn’t believe it. Someone would call and give me an offer, and I would say, ‘No, no, no. I need some time.’”
Sitting in one of her meditation rooms, Rabinowitz laughs at the memory. She’s a sparkplug of energy, the last person one would associate with meditation. And yet that’s precisely the field she decided to conquer when she had trouble finding a center where she could hop in and out during work breaks. “I used to block off 20 minutes each day,” she says. “But ideally, you should be doing it twice a day, and I was struggling with that. I kept looking online for, ‘Where can I go meditate in the morning before work?’ or ‘Where is there a class I can jump into in the middle of the day?’ And it wasn’t there.”
After discussing the idea with her boyfriend, she opened DEN and is now riding the wave of popularity that meditation is enjoying in Hollywood. Major studios, agencies and networks have adopted it: NBCUniversal and OWN have offered meditation programs, and even Ari Emanuel, the type-A CEO of WME, has expressed support for it — he attended an Indian retreat in 2017 and had One World Academy guru Preethaji lead a staff meditation.
Rabinowitz has already opened a second meditation center in Burbank and hopes word spreads that this can change lives, before it’s too late. “I’ve watched a lot of my friends burn out,” she reflects. “As much as they love their jobs, they can’t bring themselves to continue.”
Meditation may not be the panacea Rabinowitz might like it to be, but it’s proved fruitful for her, just as it did for Shankar. “You learn to not let your stress control you,” Rabinowitz says of Hollywood’s new age of anxiety. “There’s mornings when I wake up and one of the first things I say to myself is: ‘Well, where do I feel it? Oh my God. It’s right in my chest. OK. That’s anxiety.’ And I’ll just sit there and breathe into that space and watch it disappear.”