For much of the rest of the world, Los Angeles is Hollywood. The Walk of Fame. The views from the hills. The awards shows. TMZ. The black, chauffeur-driven SUVs. For many Southern Californians, L.A. is a separate place entirely. It's a vast, nearly three-quarters minority county where factories, warehouses, aerospace research, fast fashion, hotels, universities, car customizers, skaters and surfers thrive. Most of us have stars in our eyes pretty much none of the time.
When Hollywood comes asking us for our tax money every few years, local politicians usually have the film and TV industry's back. They'll argue that the business is a massive job creator and, seeing the hundreds of millions of dollars a single film franchise can gross, we usually believe them. These leaders will say Hollywood is practically holding Los Angeles together — and that we can't live without it.
Here's an idea: Maybe L.A. would be better off without Hollywood.
For one thing, those jobs Hollywood has promised in exchange for nearly $1.6 billion in tax breaks over five years are dubious. California is majority minority, and Latinos are the biggest ethnic or racial group in the state. Yet the last USC “Inequality in Popular Films” study found that Latinos were seen in only 3.1 percent of big-screen roles in the 100 top-grossing films of 2016. Data about behind-the-camera jobs, which politicians claim are more diverse, is hard to find, but you damn well know the industry is dominated by white folks (a UCLA report found that 90 percent of major talent agents were white). Nepotism can compound the situation. And anecdotal research by yours truly has almost never found a SoCal native among industry workers he's encountered. A vast majority have been from out-of-state.
So we're paying to have a major, Wall Street–driven industry import talent and eschew the locals? Does this make sense?
What's more, Los Angeles is in the midst of a historic housing crisis. In 2012 the L.A. Economic Development Corporation found that the average entertainment industry salary in L.A. was $117,000. That figure is more than twice the L.A. County median family income ($56,156) and nearly four times the individual median ($28,337). Yes, median and average are different measurements, but this gives you some sense of financial scale.
When you look around and see luxury housing developments going up downtown, when you see people being evicted from apartments in Hollywood and Koreatown so rent can go up to “market rate,” and you ask yourself, who can afford this? Hollywood can afford this.
Yes, the same people who are asking for your tax dollars, the same folks who are moving to L.A. to take jobs not made available to the average Californian (she's a Latina from K-town), the same bros who are turning places like Highland Park and Echo Park into Williamsburg? They're also increasing homelessness by boosting rents. Importing high-wage workers undoubtedly has an impact on rents and home prices, and we've seen it with median real estate surpassing $1 million on the Westside, homelessness increasing 23 percent and evictions on the rise.
And, after all that, Hollywood doesn't even like L.A.!
If the city isn't descending into a dark future, cracking up in a giant earthquake or becoming a haven for brown criminals, it's portrayed as a delightful and picturesque playground for white kids who just want to make it, à la La La Land. So sweet. The 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself got it right: Los Angeles has long been misrepresented by this industry of outsiders. Hatred, racism and contempt often drip from the big screen when Los Angeles is the setting.
We're not calling for Trump-like xenophobia in film and TV hiring (out-of-state immigrants are taking our jobs!). The best minds from around the world come here to work for Hollywood, NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Caltech, UCLA, USC and Big Auto design firms. They often make Los Angeles a better place. But film and TV acts like this is office space and nothing more. The locals are good for parking cars.
Hollywood might be forgiven for getting L.A. wrong, at least in tone. After all, it's an industry of transplants. But when it comes to its intractable diversity problem,there's no excuse. If a Hollywood executive ever were to throw a stone over a studio wall, he'd hit a Latino. The business continues to ignore the city's diversity, despite years of criticism. In a climate in which Mexicans are vilified as criminals, Muslims as potential terrorists, Asian-Americans as people you wouldn't want to rent to and African-Americans as unpatriotic, we need Hollywood to depict us as who we are — true Americans. More than ever.
What's more, in this environment where, as one analysis found, “You officially have to be rich to rent in L.A.,” the city needs Hollywood to hire real Angelenos, and not just as security guards and craft services workers. Jobs mean justice, and Hollywood has not been just to L.A. If even a fraction of those $117,000-a-year gigs went to people who looked like L.A. we'd have a much different city. Instead, the film and TV business only serves to exacerbate the divide between rich and poor and between brown and white in this town.
We need less of that, not more of it.