“In the near future, the theatrical business will be relatively robust. But three to five years? It’s anybody’s guess…. I change my mind about that about every day.” That uncertainty, from one of Hollywood’s most successful producers, Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions, was one of the sobering but riveting moments of the 45th Annual UCLA Entertainment Symposium, which unspooled over a series of four weekly webinars in the month of June.
Titled “The Show Must Go On…line? Life after Hollywood’s Longest Year,” the month-long series focused on prevailing issues including post-pandemic content distribution and the new burst of efforts to boost equity, diversity, and inclusion in the business. The symposium has been a flagship event of the entertainment industry for 45 years and is typically held on the UCLA campus each spring. In 2021, for the second straight year, it moved online.
“The symposium in fact reached a much broader audience than when we meet on campus,” says UCLA School of Law Professor Doug Lichtman, who serves as the faculty director of the Ziffren Institute for Media, Entertainment, Technology, and Sports Law. “So despite the move to the virtual arena, we were gratified and excited to line up so many impressive participants and keep the tradition running smoothly until our awaited return to hosting an in-person event.”
The symposium kicked off on June 2 with industry analyst Tom Wolzien’s annual survey of the state of the business, which showed in stark detail the pandemic’s impact on the volume and means of entertainment consumption by global audiences. Then, a panel called “From Intent to Impact: How Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Make (Necessary) Business Sense” zeroed in on the increased efforts to make the entertainment business a more open and welcoming place for people from all backgrounds, particularly in light of the national reckoning over systemic racism. UCLA Law alumna Catrice Monson ’97 of Right Size Media moderated the discussion involving leaders on the front lines of the movement.
“A single job or two early in someone’s career has a disproportionately large effect: Opportunity piles on opportunity piles on opportunity,” said FX chairman John Landgraf, who recognized the need for stronger pipelines and diversity in entry-level positions. “There’s also a vitality that comes from embracing intersectionality and a multitude of identities from different cultures. It’s an explosive amount of energy.”
Other panels included an examination of the theatrical movie business after COVID-19, the state of backend participation deals, government responses to speech on private social media platforms, and the explosive growth of brand influencers. (For a full rundown of all presentations and participants, visit the Entertainment Symposium’s website.)
UCLA Law alumnus Ken Ziffren ’65 of Ziffren Brittenham, who founded the Ziffren Institute, introduced the final evening’s webinar, which started with the annual John H. Mitchell Panel on Ethics and Entertainment, sponsored by the Patricia W. Mitchell Trust. Titled “The Truth or Not the Truth: That Is the Question” and moderated by UCLA Law Professor Scott Cummings, the discussion featured a distinguished group of leaders in the law and judiciary who weighed in on the state of legal ethics in the present media age – an era studded by the unorthodox behavior of attorneys representing former President Trump and others.
Blum then concluded the symposium in a conversation with journalist Lucas Shaw of Bloomberg. Known for producing blockbuster horror movies including the Paranormal Activity series and Get Out, as well as prestige fare such as BlacKkKlansman, Blum admitted that making and releasing entertainment during the pandemic was a haphazard struggle. While his company continued to produce lower-budget films and TV fare, he said, “We, like everybody else, had a real plan to shoot a movie in July  in quarantine, and it fell apart. I couldn’t pull it off.”
Temporary production setbacks don’t concern Blum, however. The prominence and dominance of in-home viewing does. “We may be teaching people to unlearn the habit of going to the movies,” he said. “You don’t appreciate a movie nearly as much when you see it at home versus when you see it in a movie theater.”
Still, it is clear that with so many devices, video games, social media platforms, and more now vying for consumers’ attention, changes are inevitable. “It’s not healthy for our business to pretend it’s 1983,” he said. “It isn’t anymore.”