PARK CITY, Utah — To get to the Sundance Film Festival, Hollywood never had to set foot in Trump country.
Like many gilded ski towns in the West, Park City is a liberal bastion in a sea of conservatism. Donald Trump won Utah by 18 points, but here in Summit County he lost by 15. Flying from Burbank or Brooklyn to Salt Lake, then by car into the mountains, celebrities and executives were comfortably in progressive territory.
But even at Sundance, which kicks off this weekend, the new political reality is inescapable. Trump’s inauguration took place just hours before the opening parties, casting a relative pall over the festivities. Weeks ago, the Hollywood A-list danced with the Obamas at the White House. On Friday, that building was occupied by a man who offends all their political, moral and aesthetic sensibilities.
Hollywood — that is to say, Hollywood’s liberal creative class — feels threatened. “All of us in this room really belong to the most vilified segments in American society right now,” Meryl Streep said at the Golden Globes.
In the pages of The New York Times, Hollywood angst has practically become subgenre: Judd Apatow is in Santa Monica, stress-eating (“There’s so many things that are hard to hear every day that you do want to have some Oreos”); Bill Maher is in Beverly Hills, self-medicating with alcohol and marijuana.
“This community was overwhelmingly anti-Trump, certainly more so than the country as a whole,” Andy Spahn, one of the top consultants to Hollywood’s most powerful political fundraisers, told CNNMoney. “This is a community rooted in speech, in community, in inclusiveness. There is a sense some of those values may be threatened under a Trump administration, very directly. Some of that fear and angst is very personal and very credible.”
Questions abound: What is Hollywood supposed to do? How is the creative industry supposed to respond? What is the role of liberal culture in the Trump era?
On the political front, Hollywood, like much of the progressive community, is still in the planning stages. “We’ve been talking to all the centers of power in Washington,” Spahn said, “from the Obama camp to the Center for American Progress to David Brock to Chuck Schumer, and we’re working our way through how we can contribute best going forward. The dust hasn’t settled.”
But there is also the question of what Hollywood creates — the films and shows and other art it makes in response to the new reality. And with that, another question: Does it even matter?
The country is polarized along cultural lines. As maps published recently by The Upshot show, there is a Duck Dynasty America and a Modern Family America, and never the twain shall meet. When Streep made an appeal to skeptical Americans — about how Hollywood was just regular folks like you and me — it wasn’t clear they were listening.
“Both Trump and Obama are very much representative of what America is, it’s just two different sides of America,” Graydon Carter, the editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair, told CNNMoney. “I don’t think you can speak beyond your bubble in this fragmented media environment. The days of ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ and the final episode of ‘Mash'” — when Americans from all around the country gathered around their televisions to watch the same thing — “are long gone.”
“The creative class talks about its work as ‘culture,’ but wide swaths of the country aren’t even tuning in,” Dr. Andrew Hartman, the author of “A War for the Soul Of America: A History of the Culture Wars,” said. “Modern Family? Nobody in Mississippi is watching that.”
Of course, Hollywood also creates, produces and owns many of the shows that are watched in Mississippi and across Trump’s America. “All of these things are coming out of ‘liberal Hollywood,’ whether it’s ‘Survivor’ or other reality TV, it’s the same creative community that’s generating these disparate properties,” Spahn pointed out. Like Streep at the Globes, he also reiterated that Hollywood’s creators “come from all over,” with “roots in Ohio and Indiana and Mississippi.”
“People sometimes forget that acting — it’s rarely a job where you join your fathers company,” he said. “You start with nothing and you labor long and hard to get a break.”
Still, there has long been a sense among conservatives that Hollywood’s liberal elite shove their values down America’s throats, and that sentiment has grown more intense in recent years.
Before Trump won the election, conservative columnist Ross Douthat argued that “the culture industry” had become so aggressively liberal that it had left everyone “outside the liberal tent” feeling “suffocated by the left’s cultural dominance.”
“To flip from Stephen Colbert’s winsome liberalism to Seth Meyers’s class-clown liberalism to [Samantha] Bee’s bluestocking feminism to John Oliver’s and Trevor Noah’s lectures on American benightedness is to enter an echo chamber from which the imagination struggles to escape,” Douthat wrote. “It isn’t just late-night TV. Cultural arenas and institutions that were always liberal are being prodded or dragged further to the left. Awards shows are being pushed to shed their genteel limousine liberalism and embrace the race-gender-sexual identity agenda in full.”
Erick Erickson, the conservative pundit, said he agreed with Douthat’s conclusion, and that the culture industry “seemed committed to silencing dissent and deciding that some views held by around half the country are hostis humani generis.”
“I think Hollywood suffered under the idea that the country had turned dramatically in their direction,” Erickson said in an email. “Yes, I think the country has shifted a bit to the left, but not as much as Hollywood thought.” He also bemoaned Hollywood’s tendency to award films “that scratch a Hollywood itch,” but do not have mass market appeal. “They make movies that make them feel good,” he said.
Hartman, who identified himself as a liberal, similarly argued that the Hollywood elite “are not very politically astute in terms of understanding wide swaths of America. They get together at awards shows and pat themselves on the back and think they’re speaking for a part of the culture that is morally superior.”
“To me, Meryl Streep’s speech seemed culturally obtuse,” he said.
More than two months since Trump’s stunning upset, Hollywood’s liberals haven’t shown much desire to reach across the ideological divide
Samantha Bee, the late-night host and principle target of Douthat’s column, told CNNMoney there was no plan to change her approach because of Trump’s victory. “We’re doing a show that is speaking to us,” she said. “We’re not making a show based on an algorithm of who we’re reaching or what our metrics are.”
Maher has similarly promised to give his liberal audiences the same thing he has always given them: “Let’s not go too far with the changes, because what people are going to want right now is comfort food,” he recently told Variety.
Like “La La Land,” which was all the rage at the Golden Globes, much of what people are buzzing about at Sundance this year seems to reinforce Hollywood’s image of itself. Al Gore is in town to premier his latest climate change documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel.” The much-discussed comedy “The Big Sick” seeks to offer a new portrayal of Muslim life. Outside the theaters, Chelsea Handler will be leading the Women’s March against the man she has described as “Our Predator-in-Chief.”
After Sundance, Hollywood will continue to pump out blockbuster action movies like “X-Men” and “Star Wars,” in which the identity of the heroes and villains is open to interpretation. (In the liberal imagination, “Star Wars” is the story of polyglot progressives fighting the tyranny of an all-white fascism. In the conservative imagination, it’s a rogue band of patriots fighting the tyranny of federal government.)
Meanwhile, Americans will increasingly stay home, where content is on-demand and progressives can enjoy satire and escapism while conservatives delight in reality shows and crime dramas. What’s missing is a shared narrative, some sense that we’re all taking part in the same story.
So, what is Hollywood’s new story?
For years, film studios have capitalized on old stories: Remakes of films that didn’t need to be remade; sequels that rarely lived up to the originals; franchises based on consumer goods like Legos and video games.
Sundance is actually one of the few places where new stories still get told. Soon, perhaps — though maybe not this year — there will be one that bridges the cultural divide.
“Hollywood reflects what is happening in the nation,” Spahn said. “There can be a production lag in terms of the time it takes to put a film on a screen, but throughout our history and in different periods Hollywood has always reflected events in the nation.”
— CNN’s Sandra Gonzalez contributed reporting.
CNNMoney (Park City) First published January 20, 2017: 4:28 PM ET