I recently came across the obituary for my pioneering producer great-grandfather Sol M. Wurtzel in Variety’s April 16, 1958 issue. Sol was assigned to handle production at William Fox’s Hollywood studio in 1917. Sol produced more than 700 movies during the course of his extensive career as the president of Fox Studio.
My mind was blown by one little paragraph. Wurtzel fought for his crew in 1933 when a three-month closure of the Fox Studio Western Avenue lot was a danger, and he refused to cut any salaries. The studio was kept operating, and expenses were used to his subsequent projects. Wow, a studio head cared enough about his staff to keep them on the payroll precisely 90 years ago.
My great-grandfather wagered the home during the height of the Great Depression so that his staff members would have money for rent, food, and medical expenses. He put his future career and finances at danger since he was an avid gambler.
He bluffed his way through, anticipating that if he gambled sufficiently and stretched the few resources in his budget, his subsequent films would enable Fox Studio to continue operating. His audacious bet was profitable. His group helped Shirley Temple and Will Rogers become overnight successes in 1934. He was able to save the studio and gain the enduring devotion of his staff. In 1958, more than 400 individuals attended his burial.
What a contrast to today’s studio executives who check the time on their costly Patek Philippe and Vacheron Constantin timepieces while sitting in their air-conditioned C-suites while striking writers and actors broil in the August sun and deal with uncertain financial prospects. As the months pass, the employees lose their union health insurance, their ability to pay their rent and groceries, and their multimillion dollar wages. The likelihood that Hollywood union members would abandon their “unrealistic” demands and accept for less increases as the strike continues.
Far be it from the executives to genuinely care about the creatives given their concentration on maximizing business profits and satisfying shareholders. They are the worst examples of late-stage capitalism and pose a grave danger to our democratic values and freedom of speech. Without our regular dose of masterfully crafted political satire presented by comedians like Jimmy Kimmel and Seth Meyers, the cast of “Saturday Night Live,” and Bill Maher’s “Real Time,” how can we have fun challenging authority?
The heroic, self-sacrificing gamble made by my great-grandfather Sol 90 years ago today looks so unachievable as to be pure imagination. No one seriously considered adopting such selflessness when former Paramount and 20th Century Fox studio head Barry Diller proposed on “Face the Nation” last month that the current 10 highest-paid studio heads and actors take a 25% pay cut as a “good faith measure” to reduce the gap between Hollywood’s haves and have-nots.
The following sentence from Sol’s obituary caught my attention: “Providing entertainment for moviegoers was his prime concern.” That idea pushes the boundaries of what modern studio executives can reasonably be expected to do. The idea that executives care more about generating shareholder value and their own stock options than they do about entertaining moviegoers seems quaintly stupid.
Let’s be honest and say that the obituary represents the pinnacle of public relations. Current studio leaders want to be remembered in what ways. While struggling writers, performers, and below-the-line workers saw their hopes of being able to exist, much alone establish a family, in the film business vanish into the coastal fog, cold-blooded monsters who received enormous incomes did so? Or as sympathetic heroes who made sacrifices and ran the danger of angering shareholders in order to properly pay creatives, support their careers, and give them a chance?
Let’s hope that they will take into account how their Hollywood careers will be summed up during this upcoming round of labor talks. Compassion will be valued higher in the final accounting of life than annual stock ledgers.
Do they not want their great-grandchildren to have the same admiration for them as I do for my great-grandfather’s dedication to his employees? If so, they must stop counting down the minutes on their wristwatches that cost more than $30,000, look deep within to discover their hearts and souls, and take genuine steps to end the strike. Dreamers who provide the material that powers their businesses ought to get livable pay and have better futures.
Journalist Sharon Rosen Leib works as a freelancer and contributes to publications like The Forward, Times of Israel, and San Diego Jewish Journal. She authored the well-known piece “Jews Built Hollywood” for The Forward. The question, “So why is their history obliterated from the Academy’s new museum?,” was quoted by media sources worldwide.