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Rob Long

‘Cheers’ Writer Rob Long on Soft Power and Hollywood

Hollywood writer/producer Rob Long (Cheers, Kevin Can Wait) spoke with Robert Haigh, CEO of Brand Finance, on January 14, 2021, about the influence of Hollywood on the image of America. The webinar was part of the promotion for Brand’s annual Global Soft Power Index and Soft Power Summit taking place next month.

Rob Long

Long first spoke about his background and the changes that have recently manifested in the film industry. Then David Haigh, CEO of Brand Finance, interviewed him about “soft power,” also known as “image” or “social influence.”

Three Changes

Long started by pointing out a seismic shift in the industry that had occurred over his career. “In the 1980s, I was a 22-year-old film student at UCLA,” he recalled. “One of my classmates looked at a script I had written and commented, ‘This seems like television to me.’ She meant it as an insult, but I didn’t get it. Back then, television was where movie stars went when their careers were over. Now, everything is television.”

He supported that point by referencing Warner Brothers’ recent decision to release everything directly to TV. But then he mentioned an important change.

“When I started out at Cheers, we aired on Thursday nights. We’d come in Friday morning to see our ratings. There were only three and a half networks then, so we’d get 25 to 30 million viewers. Nobody gets numbers like that now. It went from three networks to this.”

Long brought up a graphic on the screen behind him showing all the possible markets for a film or TV show.

Rob Long
Long displayed a graphic that tries to explain todays chaotic video market

“Only one thing hasn’t changed,” he added. “There are still only 24 hours in a day, and you’ve got to compete with all of these outlets for viewers willing to give you some of those hours.”

Not World War II

The second change in the industry Long pointed out had to do with the perception of Hollywood’s power.

“After 9/11, in 2001, the mood in Hollywood was ‘Why don’t you use us to sell America to the world?’,” Long recalled. A meeting was set up and Karl Rove, one of President Bush’s advisors, came to Hollywood. American troops were all over the world at that point.

“Rove only had one request,” Long explained. “He asked if the administration could get early releases of films so they could be screened for the troops. People in the meeting were surprised. They had pictured an effort like Hollywood had done during World War II. They were not seen as being as important as the Hollywood of old.”

Long continued, “Now we have Netflix and Amazon and Google and their businesses are global. Ten years ago, it would have been astonishing to think that people would be watching TV series from other countries, but as the pull from outside the US increases, there is more production in the rest of the world.”

Everything is Entertainment

Third, Long pointed out that the omnipresence of video was having an impact on areas beyond Hollywood.

“Until the 1980s basketball was kind of an obscure American sport,” he said. “Then they realized, ‘We’re in the entertainment business.’ The ball is this big. You always know where it is, unlike hockey where you can totally lose track of the puck. Only five guys on a small court. You can see their faces. We can have a star on every court. That’s when basketball really took off.”

He continued, “When other countries figure this out, they will ask, ‘What show can be our basketball?’.”

Robert Has Questions

After Long’s presentation ended, Robert Haigh had questions.

Haigh speculated that with so many video outlets, talent was being spread thin. He asked if there would be a decline in quality or would more talent be found.

Long answered, “Talent is distributed all over the world. Not just Hollywood, and Bollywood or Pinewood Studios. More good news is that the cost of production has declined by 90%. The next big international hit may be shot on an iPhone.”

Netflix the Crusher

Haigh speculated that Netflix was going to crush the studio system like Amazon had crushed brick-and-mortar stores.

Long disagreed. “Their most popular shows are reruns of American sitcoms. They will lose those soon,” he explained. “The studios didn’t see the market. They licensed a lot of their content to Netflix because they didn’t take them – those people who rent you DVDs – seriously. They’ve realized their mistake and they’re not doing that anymore. Netflix realized this and are building up their own titles.”

Long then pointed out that the Netflix business model was different from traditional Hollywood. “Entertainment was profitable because you were selling something else. Movies made money because theater owners sold you awfully expensive candy. Apple can last forever because they are selling something else. Traditional television sells ads. Netflix is trying to make money just from entertainment.”

The Future

Haigh asked if in the future we would see more quirky indie films, or blockbusters with no intellectual content.

Rob Long
Rob Long has been making people laugh in front of their TVs for 30 years

Long said, “It was always a pendulum with these two things. People tell you to figure out the formula and make sure it’s in there. A few years back, Wonder Woman was a big hit. So, someone said ‘Give me that, just mix it up a bit.’ So, they did, and it was a disaster. People hated it. The unfortunate truth is that you have no idea what is going to work. You simply have to take a risk each time. How do you make a small fortune in the entertainment business? You start with a large fortune.”

Haigh referenced the current political polarization in the United States. He pointed out that when the Iraq War happened many anti-American films bombed at the box office.

“People don’t want a message,” Long observed. “They want a story. When your primary goal is to convince people of a position, people see that coming and they shut you off.” He also pointed out that sometimes political objectives can backfire. “There was a British comedy – Till Death Us Do Part – that was adapted for America into All in the Family. The main character was a satire of a right-wing kook from Queens. They were going to skewer him. But the people liked him. He went to war, bought the house, and paid the bills. Liberals were surprised that they created a Conservative hero.”

The Martini Shot

In summing up what he saw over the horizon, Long said he chose optimism. “Disney has been flawless,” he observed. “Bob Iger is the best ego-free film executive in the world. He has created content that is loved worldwide. That’s the pattern for the future.”

To hear more from Rob Long you can check his weekly “Martini Shot” segment on NPR’s All Things Considered and on Apple podcasts and explore his other creative efforts from his about.me page.

About Leo Sopicki

Writer, photographer, graphic artist and technologist. I focus my creative efforts on celebrating the American virtues of self-reliance, individual initiative, volunteerism, tolerance and a healthy suspicion of power and authority.

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