Welcome to Hollywood’s Age of Anxiety

Feeling a tad insecure these days, bunky? You aren’t alone. Stress has become the name of the game everywhere, and showbiz is no exception:

by Stephen Galloway

In mid-December, Adi Shankar boarded a plane at Los Angeles International Airport, ready to embark on the two-day journey to Bangalore, India. He was agitated and unable to sit still. An undefined sense of dread was consuming the 33-year-old producer, a feeling of fear and uncertainty that seemed to grow ever worse the better he did professionally. With credits such as 2012’s Dredd and the current Netflix series Castlevania, he’d become successful, but he couldn’t sleep, couldn’t think straight; in tip-top shape physically, thanks to a grueling exercise regimen and hyper-nutritious diet, he was functioning in a mental fog.

Shankar had been living with angst for years, at least since moving to L.A. in 2009, but over the past few months it had skyrocketed, fueled by the immense pressure on his time, the increased competition with others and his sense of working in an industry that feels more and more lacking in any core community. What had begun as moderate disquiet had blossomed into a full-blown emotional crisis, “like having a constant panic attack,” he says. “I was operating in fight-or-flight mode.” When he blew up over a minor location faux pas on a TV project, “I realized, I’m losing control of my emotions.”

And so, here he was, setting out for his homeland and the AyurvedaGram Heritage Wellness Centre, where he would bury himself in a boot camp run by yogis, sacrificing his freedom, his friends and even his smartphone, all in the hope of restoring some sort of balance. “I needed a mental shift,” he says. “And when my mind shifted, everything else took off.”

Call him lucky or call him deluded, Shankar was experiencing something thousands of Hollywood insiders are grappling with, to a greater or lesser degree. Speak to writers, producers, actors and executives — speak, in fact, to the whole chain of employees toiling across the film, television and music industries, as THR did — and you’ll have trouble finding people who won’t admit to heightened feelings of stress, anxiety and depression, three interlinked mental-health issues that have escalated over the past decade in the entertainment sector. “I’m always having anxiety,” says Oscar-winning producer Cathy Schulman (Crash), echoing dozens of others interviewed. “Stress seems to happen every day in Hollywood. There’s anxiety all around.”

At its most extreme, this can lead to despair and even suicide, which became tragically apparent in June with the deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain. Suicide “has gone up roughly 25 percent over the last decade — it’s astonishing, it’s epidemic,” says Judith Weissman, an assistant professor of psychiatry at New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital. While no one would claim that Hollywood is dealing with bigger problems than the countless men and women facing mental-health challenges in the world at large, for the hundreds of thousands of employees who work in entertainment and digital media (365,000 in the L.A. area alone), the current industry turbulence has set alarm bells ringing louder than at any time since the Great Recession.

The business has been rocked by the arrival of deep-pocketed digital players such as Amazon, Apple and especially Netflix that threaten to transform not only the cozy old relationships of buyers and sellers but even the way viewers consume (and pay for) product. Historic studios that once represented the pinnacle of the culture business are being swallowed by vast corporations that think nothing of merging these long-discrete entities together. Movie companies that previously jostled for equality at the box office are living in the shadow of a modern-day Goliath, Disney, and all of them are battling a shrinking North American marketplace that has been dwarfed by international territories. Meanwhile, cord-cutting is accelerating and Netflix, which plans to spend $8 billion on content this year, is sounding a death-knell for the traditional “bundles” of channels that make up the TV business (while Netflix missed its growth target for the recent quarter, it still added 5.2 million users, bringing total membership to 130 million).

In each of the major studios and networks, a lack of clarity about long-term prospects has left top executives with no certain future, and that inevitably has a cascading effect on all the downstream employees. This isn’t just a matter of whether Disney and Fox will merge, or whether one executive will remain in place and another leave; it’s about tectonic shifts arguably unparalleled in the history of the content business.

Even the lucky few who’ve landed jobs with such leading change-makers as Netflix and Amazon are uneasy; these firms’ competitive salaries are matched by their speed in getting rid of underperforming hires and those who don’t fit in with the unrelenting culture. Similarly, a 20-something employee who landed a post at a top management company notes, “Even if you get promoted, if you don’t make money, they quickly let you go.”

The uncertainty she feels is affecting young and old, men and women, newcomers and veterans alike. “Anxiety is extraordinarily high because different things are valued than [were] valued before,” observes Tom Pollock, a former chairman of Universal Pictures and now an independent producer, who believes the content industry is seeing changes as great as any since “the advent of television disrupted the movie business….”

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