In the early 1990s, there was a story that has possibly been exaggerated over time. It is said that Disney executives asked 12-year-old actress Sarah Polley to remove a peace sign badge she was wearing, and when she refused, she was blacklisted by Disney. However, this story lost some of its significance with the recent news that Polley would be directing the new live-action version of Bambi. This came as a shock to fans of Polley’s career, as she has always been known for her strong independence and has previously worked with acclaimed directors such as Atom Egoyan, David Cronenberg, and Hal Hartley before even turning 22 years old.
This week, Polley’s name resurfaced as the highly anticipated release of Barbie, directed by former independent film queen Greta Gerwig, garnered attention. Gerwig, following in Polley’s footsteps a few years later, was so dedicated to the indie scene that her films were not even shown at Sundance, but rather at South by Southwest. When she transitioned from low-budget mumblecore productions to a scripted film with Noah Baumbach in 2010, Greenberg, The Guardian described it as her first attempt at entering the mainstream. Despite having a budget of $25m, Greenberg did not break even; now, Gerwig has taken on the task of directing Barbie for Mattel’s film division with a whopping budget of $145m. This move into the true mainstream raises the question: does the term “selling out” hold any significance anymore?
Gerwig and Polley are not the only directors who have recently taken this approach. Barry Jenkins, for example, has just wrapped up work on The Lion King sequel for Disney. Jenkins’ debut film, Medicine for Melancholy, premiered at South by Southwest in 2008, the same year that Greta Gerwig debuted as a director with Nights and Weekends, which she co-directed with Joe Swanberg. Interestingly, many articles now fail to acknowledge this little-known film as Gerwig’s first, instead choosing to focus on her more recent success with Lady Bird, which received an Oscar nomination nearly a decade later. When Jenkins’ Moonlight won the Oscar for best picture in 2017, ABC News dubbed it “the little film that could,” while IndieWire questioned how a $1.5 million independent film managed to secure eight Oscar nominations. But was it Moonlight that conquered the industry, or was it the other way around?
The companies Mattel and Disney are both very large and may appear to represent values that go against those of these filmmakers. By observing the state of film in 2023, it is clear that these powerful corporations have the ability to overpower smaller individuals. In a recent article about Barbie in the New Yorker, even Gerwig’s own agent acknowledged that creative artists and filmmakers are restricted to creating content based on consumer demand and mass-produced items. It is uncertain whether this is a positive aspect of the industry, but it is the reality of the business.
Why has the idea of compromising one’s principles for financial gain lost its cultural significance in modern times? On the internet, there is an abundance of people defending these filmmakers, proudly pointing out that they were inspired by acclaimed directors like Max Ophüls and Jacques Tati. It is as if this somehow legitimizes using intellectual property to generate profit for a toy company that promotes superficial, sexualized dolls. There is a similar pattern at play here: the notion of Barbie dolls being harmful in any way is now viewed as old-fashioned, just like the idea of selling out. The prevailing attitude seems to be: the bad guys have won, so we might as well conform; since we are already overly sexualized, we might as well do it in a more equal manner; and since large corporations hold all the power, we might as well have someone with artistic talent as the face of their product.
The recent strikes by writers and actors in the US demonstrate that compromising one’s values is not just a personal ethical dilemma, but a concern for the entire industry. When a director chooses to align themselves with big players in the entertainment world, it not only benefits the larger corporations, but also limits opportunities for smaller films and creators. David Sirota, a screenwriter and activist for the film “Don’t Look Up”, emphasized this point by stating that the success of movies and TV shows is driven by the work of writers and actors, not the billionaire CEOs like Disney’s Bob Iger. This is a fact that cannot be ignored. Even Mark Ruffalo, who gained fame as the Incredible Hulk but started out in independent films, acknowledged the importance of supporting independent projects during the strikes. However, it is worth noting that Ruffalo and others in his position always had the option to work on independent films, yet they chose to pursue projects with large corporations like Disney. While it is understandable that creators must take advantage of any opportunities available in an increasingly compromised industry, they also have a responsibility to consider the impact of their actions on the industry as a whole.
It is uncertain how the ongoing strikes will impact the film industry. There is a possibility that they could result in a resurgence of independent movies, serving as a counter to the dominant influence of Disney and their focus on intellectual property. Mattel has plans to produce movies based on popular characters such as Barney, He-Man, and Polly Pocket, which may disappoint film journalists. In addition to Disney’s new releases of Bambi and The Lion King, there are also numerous reboots of old intellectual property in the works, including a remake of The Aristocats by Questlove, the director of the independent documentary Summer of Soul. The upcoming Barbie movie will likely be well-made and imaginative despite the challenging circumstances, and it may even lightly satirize the iconic doll and its wealthy customers. As the film industry evolves, the battle for its artistic integrity continues.