Emma Thompson rallied for creatives on Thursday, saying she finds the word “content” offensive.
“I think the relationship between the executives and the creative branch just has to be much, much closer,” she said during an in-conversation with CAA boss Bryan Lourd at the Royal Television Society conference in Cambridge on Thursday afternoon.
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“To hear people talk about ‘content’ makes me feel like the stuffing inside a sofa cushion,” Thompson continued.
“‘Content,’ what do you mean ‘content’?” she said. “It’s just rude, actually. It’s just a rude word for creative people. I know there are students in the audience: you don’t want to hear your stories described as ‘content’ or your acting or your producing described as ‘content.’ That’s just like coffee grounds in the sink or something. It’s, I think, a very misleading word. And I think it’s one of the things that maybe the language around the way in which we speak to one another, and the way in which the executives speak to creatives, the way in which we have to understand one another and combine better.”
The “Harry Potter” actor added that her experience of mentoring another young actor through BAFTA had given her another insight into the often rocky relationship between talent and executives. “You find your audience by being completely authentic,” she says. “These formulas don’t work… And then you sit there and you watch them and you wonder why, at the end of it, you feel a bit ill. And I think that’s something else that we don’t talk about as creators in television and in film. How does it make us feel inside ourselves after we’ve seen something?”
“I want to feel different after I’ve watched something,” Thompson said later in the conversation. “I don’t want to feel the same way. I want to feel as though I’ve been shifted slightly, even if it’s just my mood or I’ve learned something extraordinary. That is something we just have to keep on thinking about it because that takes you away from this thing of ‘content.’ What is the story that you want to hear and that you want to tell that you think will make people feel different, safer, stronger?”
Thompson also discussed the effects of the concurrent WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes, particularly on craftspeople in the industry. “Everyone is affected,” she said. “You know, I’ve been writing to friends who are crew people, who are costume people, who are make-up people who aren’t working. It’s a very, very, very hard time, people are suffering so much.”
“It’s sort of hidden, as well, because there’s something about the words, ‘Oh, well, an actors strike’ that doesn’t sound the same to people as ‘the doctors are on strike’ or ‘the miners are on strike.’ It’s got a different feel to it because we don’t work all the time and I suppose that’s the point is we’re self employed.”
Lourd also discussed the strikes and the “terrible, terrible effects that it’s had on individuals, not just the members of the guilds but the communities at large around them are profound. It’s an understatement.”
“What I believe is that they’re born from a misalignment of artists, and what they do, and the businesses that benefit from what they do,” he said. “It’s not my negotiation, so I’m not really qualified to say where things are or aren’t but what I do know as an observer for quite a long time, is that there is an urgency on all our part to take these relationships and these partnerships much more seriously, in a way that has never been true before. If we don’t do that, there’s going to be a knock-on effect that will shift what gets seen, how people get compensated, what kind of lives people can depend on in the creative world, that they can build or not build. Once this is over, and it will be over. there’s a healing and a commitment to partnership that has to occur or else will will destroy it what is an amazing industry and opportunity.”
“I’m confident that we’re closer to the end than the beginning. And I know that that there is now an urgency around these kinds of decisions and there wasn’t, and that’s a failure of leadership.”
Thompson also discussed how she has strived to have a varied career, having worked in television, theater and films as well as comedy and drama. She criticized the way in which actors can often become tied to a long-running project, citing Ted Danson’s experience on “Cheers,” which ran for 11 seasons.
“I can remember going on doing a tiny little part in ‘Cheers,'” she said. “And I just remember meeting Ted Danson, one of the nicest people in the world, and one of the most unhappy because he’d been doing it for so long. And I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘Why are you so unhappy?’ And it was because he wanted to be able to do other things but this has defined him for such a long time he couldn’t get out.”
“If you sign up to something… you have to agree that if it’s a success you then carry on playing the same character for what can be many years,” Thompson explained. “And I personally wouldn’t have developed what I’ve developed, in that I wouldn’t have the longevity that I have had. And I think that’s because I don’t like to have a comfort zone. I think I’m much more creative — and lots of people are more creative — when they’re not just repeating themselves.”
As part of the discussion, Lourd touched on the increasing reliance on algorithms as opposed to gut feeling in deciding what gets greenlit.
“We have both been fortunate enough to live through decades now of the different approaches to what gets made and how it gets seen, where it comes from, who it comes from,” Lourd told Thompson. “And the thing that I think is dangerous about the time that we’re living in, is that all the talk of data and algorithms and this analysis of formulas of what people want to see or don’t want to see — I think is not true. I think that the individual idea and that thing that grows in that tribe who assembled around it, is what makes for a hit.”
“I think it’s what drives our businesses and I think when we forget that — sometimes the business people, and a lot of business people have infiltrated our world now — [it can] confuse you and the noise goes off in your head that you’re supposed to second guess people and you’re supposed to get to something in the end that is familiar or that is like something that’s been seen before. And as we all know, oftentimes, it’s the executive that has a gut [feeling], that has the competence to pick and to bring themselves to it in a really brilliant way that is the capital and the confidence that the artist needs in order to get to the thing that resonates, that reflects our time and that resonates not just locally, but globally.”
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