Donald Trump’s media empire may actually be happening

Published: Salon (October 17, 2016)

Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly approached a major media investor about setting up a Trump television network after the presidential election.

Over the past couple of months, Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, has met with Aryeh Bourkoff, the CEO of a boutique investment bank known as LionTree, theFinancial Times reported Monday. Vanity Fair reported in June that Trump’s inner circle heard the Republican nominee mulling the idea of capitalizing on the “audience” that has grown around his campaign. Hiring former Breitbart News head as his campaign CEO Steve Bannon could, in the long run, be a first step in making a media company, especially if you consider that Trump’s other big-name advisor is former Fox CEO Roger Ailes.

The basic concept is that Trump’s media company would cater to the alt-right and other conservatives dissatisfied with more conventional right-wing media. Kushner already owns a pro-Trump newspaper, The New York Observer, in which Kushner haspublicly defended Trump in the past. Kushner has emerged as an influential adviser for the embattled Trump, and was responsible for the campaign’s attempt to seat the women who accused Bill Clinton of sexual misconduct in the Trump family box at the last presidential debate.

“Seeing Is Believing” – An interview about women as film directors.

Published: The Good Men Project (October 11, 2016)

While Cady McClain and I first met as potential (and then actual) collaborators, I’m happy to say that I now consider her to be a good friend. With that disclaimer out of the way, I have to also say that I was genuinely thrilled to hear about the new documentary she has coming out, “Seeing Is Believer: Women Direct.”

My interview with her makes up the bulk of this article, but before we get to that I’d like to offer a few words that are entirely my own. It seems to me that we are living at a seminal moment in the history of American gender relations. The most obvious reason is the impending election of America’s first female president, Hillary Clinton, although I’d argue the unprecedented and blatant misogyny displayed by her chief opponent Donald Trump is equally momentous (albeit in a negative way). That said, we’re also seeing a cresting in Third Wave feminism, one that is drawing attention to diverse issues from rape on college campuses to the intersection of race and other social justice issues with the feminist cause. Naturally, this trickles into our entertainment and artistic cultures as well, which explains why I thought it was important to draw attention to the issues that McClain discusses below. Because it would be presumptuous to insert my own perspective excessively into an experience that is manifestly not my own, I allow her words to speak for themselves. Aside from correcting a few typos, the transcript is completely unedited.


1. What inspired you to make this documentary (in terms of your own career?)

So many moments. It’s kind of a culmination of them that all came to a head one day.

I studied directing in the early ’90’s with the artistic director of EST (Ensemble Studio Theater) in NYC. It was revelatory. I loved it so much I went to my mom and said, “Mom, I want to quit acting and direct. I really love it.” I recall the moment clearly. We were sitting on the lawn, and looking out at a little lake in the distance. She took a moment, then said, “Please don’t. I’m dying.”

Now she really had me with that one. What could I say? She was struggling with cancer, after all, and the income from my work on soaps was what was paying the bills. Still, it was crushing. I was 23 years old and had quit high school to take care of us up until then. Clearly, my life would not be my own until she passed.

After she died (I was 25) I wrote a play. I was going to co-direct it with a female friend of mine, but I got shy and decided it would seem too much to be acting, writing, directing, AND producing it. So I gave her the directing credit. She did NOT direct the piece alone, mind you. The entire concept was mine. About six months after we closed I discovered she had taken the concept and got a grant to do her version of the piece. This just crushed me. A friend, a female friend at that, had taken advantage of me in a deep and painful way. It turned me away from directing and writing for a while. A long while.

Almost 20 years later, the man who became my husband and some friends started pushing me to direct a short film I had written. The script was something that just tickled me. I wasn’t working as much as an actor and I love to make myself laugh. When I got this idea, it felt so right. So I did it. I produced and directed what was to become Flip Fantasia. I remember distinctly sitting at a cafe in SOHO after a days shoot in the streets and saying to my husband, “THIS is what I was meant to do. THIS is where my talents lie. I love this more than any other kind of work I have ever done.”

On the plane ride home, to Los Angeles, I immediately started writing another script. I drew it, actually, in storyboards. It was a short film with almost no dialogue about a man who falls in love with a balloon. We shot it three months later, back in NYC. I was thrilled and on a roll.

When I finished editing “Flip” I was told “THIS is a festival film. They are going to LOVE it!” My hopes were high. The reality was, the festivals didn’t love it. It was too long, too weird, too surreal. The one festival it played at, Macon, had the audiences roaring with laughter. THEY got it. I couldn’t figure it out. What was going on?

Billy Bush likely out at “Today”: Reports say suspension over lewd Donald Trump conversation about to be permanent

Published: Salon (October 11, 2016)

According to a new report, it seems as if Billy Bush’s suspension from “Today” is likely to be permanent. According to the Hollywood Reporter, Bush and the network are negotiating his exit, which could be official as early as this week.

Bush’s ouster from the show doesn’t come as a huge shock, since there was alreadytalk of a mutiny from NBC employees outraged over how he conducted himself during a now-infamous episode on the “Access Hollywood” set. Donald Trump may have been the one bragging about sexually assaulting women on video, but Bush’s fawning admiration and frat-boy camaraderie were pretty repulsive in their own right.

Ironically, Bush had reportedly bragged about the existence of this tape to network colleagues while in Rio covering the Olympic Games this summer, even though he apparently didn’t disclose its existence when joining “Today.” An unnamed NBC insider tells Page Six this almost certainly constitutes a violation of the “morality clause” of his contract with the network, especially since Bush’s brags apparently focused on how he had caught Trump “being a real dog.” That was what prompted “Access Hollywood” to seek out the footage in the first place.

It’s often mentioned as a fun fact that Billy Bush is a cousin of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whom Trump bested in the Republican presidential primaries earlier this year. While Jeb may have been humiliated by Trump at the ballot box, though, his cousin’s disgrace is far deeper. He wasn’t merely defeated by Trump; Billy Bush allowed Donald to drag him down to his level.

The truth is, he’s out there: Blink 182 lead singer Tom DeLonge really wants to tell the Hillary Clinton about UFOs

Published: Salon (October 11, 2016)

Blink 182 is well-known for their use of toilet humor, but who knew they were gazing into the stars as well as the sewers?

Former lead singer Tom DeLonge wanted to introduce HIllary Clinton’s campaign manager, John Podesta, to some “very interesting” sources on UFOs, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.DeLonge was referring to either military personnel or other former government officials, which isn’t in itself surprising.

Prominent state officials from astronaut Buzz Aldrin to former President Jimmy Carter have claimed to see UFOs in the past. That said, they may not always do this in total seriousness, as indicated by this tweet sent out by one of President Barack Obama’s senior advisers in February 2015:

1. Finally, my biggest failure of 2014: Once again not securing the of the UFO files. cc:@NYTimesDowd

Here is the bigger question: Why does the erstwhile Blink 182 frontman have a direct line to the Clinton campaign in the first place? Could he be to a future Clinton administration what Elvis Presley was for Richard Nixon: an addled celebrity who believes his connection to power gives him real influence? In 46 years, will there be a tongue-in-cheek comedy celebrating DeLonge’s quirky interactions with an awkward President Clinton?

A fanciful thought, perhaps, but President Obama is already cornering the grand space fantasies with his earlier announcement of an impending American mission to Mars. That leaves us to speculate about the less likely fantasies, such as DeLonge being the key to the world finally learning the truth about our planet’s extraterrestrial visitors.

Interview with Franchesca Ramsey: Yes, Trump supporters are deplorable!

Published: The Good Men Project (October 4, 2016)

A brief thought on the kind of person – well, let’s be honest here, the millions of people – who may wind up electing Donald Trump as the next American president. Unflattering things have already been said about them, and deservedly so, because their behavior is frankly deplorable.

But let’s start this article on a happier note. Last week I had the pleasure of interviewing Franchesca Ramsey. You may not recognize her name, but if you watch MTV or casually browse YouTube’s politics videos, you already know her face and voice. She is most famous for “Decoded,” a series of educational lectures and comedy skits that break down sensitive topics such as race and gender.

Her most recent video, “A Retirement Home for Donald Trump Supporters,” also ranks as one of her best. While I won’t spoil the various gags and punchlines, it’s fair to say that the video illustrates how the “greater” and “simpler” America for which Trump supporters yearn is really just one in which the last sixty years’ worth of progress for women and minorities has been wiped away. Naturally, it also clearly demonstrates how the vast bulk of Trump’s core supporters are motivated by racial bigotry and misogyny. Considering that Hillary Clinton recently got in trouble for referring to these same Trump supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” this is a pretty bold statement for Ramsey to make… and many Trump supporters are complaining about precisely that on the message board.

“I see a lot of irony in that, especially for a candidate and for supporters who make wild generalizations about Mexican immigrants, about black people, about women, about LGBT folks,” Ramsey observed to me. “They continually make generalizations about marginalized people.” This is a vital point, since it speaks to the logical flaw whenever Trump supporters assume an air of victimhood. It isn’t simply that a political ideology is something you choose whereas racial and gender identities are inherent parts of who you are. The power dynamic between the forces backing Trump’s campaign and the marginalized groups opposing it is not equal, not by a long shot. “When you make a generalization about a Trump supporter, you’re talking about hurt feelings, versus generalizations about marginalized people that lead to their oppression and mistreatment,” Ramsey noted. “Hurt feelings are just not comparable to dead bodies.”

This doesn’t mean that every Trump supporter is a drooling maniac or howling monster. “Sure, I’m sure there are some Trump supporters who are nice people,” Ramsey explained. ‘But I think that we have to be really careful when we talk about ‘nice people’ versus ‘nice people who support harmful laws, ideologies, and beliefs.’ And so, you could be very nice to me and polite to me, but if you support a candidate who wants to take away my rights, who wants to profile Muslim Americans, who wants to uphold negative ideas that potentially have damaging effects for me and people that I love, then I have no problem saying that I don’t agree with that, and I think that those are not good people. I think that good people can support terrible things, and I think terrible people can occasionally do good things, and I think you have to be really good about separating those things.”

The point here is not that Trump supporters should be demonized, but that their problematic attitude need to be identified and called out. Because comedy is a powerful tool for doing precisely that, satirists from Ramsey to the Comedy Central lineup (including Larry Wilmore, for whom she writes) often point their barbs at these ordinary people and the bad things they do… such as supporting presidential candidates like Trump. The laughs may feel harsh to those on the receiving end of them, but that is nothing compared to the pain caused by the oppression which these individuals seek to perpetuate.

It’s uncomfortable to be reminded of this fact, to be sure. I can’t promise that those who watch Ramsey’s work won’t sometimes squirm in their seat as they view. That discomfort that they feel, though, merely proves that these are conversations which need to happen.

The best and worst moments in modern presidential debates

Published: Fusion (September 26, 2016)

As millions of Americans prepare to watch one of the most anticipated presidential debates ever, between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worthwhile to evaluate previous debates for a sense of what we should look for this year. What have been the best moments? What were the worst? When did our presidents and presidential candidates remind us of the best that our democracy has to offer—and when did their gaffes make us cringe for our country?

The Best:

John Kennedy (1960): Of all the televised presidential debates that have since become the stuff of legend, none are as important as the very first one. Seventy million people tuned in on September 26, 1960, to see Democratic candidate John Kennedy face off against Republican candidate Richard Nixon. The expectations couldn’t have been higher for Kennedy, whose comparative inexperience caused many to doubt whether he was up to the job of being president. Fortunately for Democrats, Kennedy instinctively understood what it took to excel in this format—namely, that you had to talk to the camera rather than your opponent. As journalist and historian Theodore H. White laterexplained, “For Mr. Nixon was debating with Mr. Kennedy as if a board of judges was scoring points; he rebutted and refuted, as he went, the inconsistencies or errors of his opponent. Nixon was addressing himself to Kennedy—but Kennedy was addressing himself to the audience that was the nation.”

Ronald Reagan (1980): While some observers believe the Clinton-Trump debates will break ratings records, at present the distinction for most watched presidential debate belongs to the single contest between incumbent President Jimmy Carter and his Republican challenger Ronald Reagan in 1980. As 80 million people watched throughout the nation, Reagan repeatedly humiliated Carter by reminding viewers of all his least popular qualities. When Carter attacked Reagan’s health care policy in shrill tones, Reagan cranked up his personal charm and quipped, “There you go again!” With the country amid an economic slump and chaos abroad, Reagan used his closing statement to ask voters the iconic question: “Are you better off than you were four years ago?” A week later they answered by voting him into office.

Ronald Reagan (1984): Four years later, Reagan found himself in desperate need of a similarly fantastic debate performance. The first debate against Democrat Walter Mondale had been something of a disaster, with Reagan falling seven points in the polls after a performance that was widely regarded as lackluster and rambling (similar to criticisms made of President Barack Obama in his first debate against Mitt Romney in 2012). He needed to bounce back in the second debate—and he did. Asked by journalist Hank Trewhitt if his tired demeanor during his first debate against Mondale was the result of his age—Reagan was 73, making him the oldest presidential candidate in history up to that point—the former actor famously replied, “Not at all, Mr. Trewhitt, and I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” The reply didn’t address the substance of his critics’ concerns, but won over the audience by reminding them that their supposedly aging president could still employ his sharp wit.

Bill Clinton (1992): The town hall debate between Republican candidate President George H. W. Bush, Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, and Independent Ross Perot perfectly illustrates the importance of seizing on the opportunities arising from your opponent’s mistakes. After Bush was caught checking his watch during a question from an audience member, reinforcing the notion that he was out of touch, . Clinton showed off his personal charm At one point, the then Arkansas governor engaged with a voter who opened up about how people she knew had lost their jobs and homes during the ongoing recession. Clinton conveyed a sense of genuine compassion but also deftly transitioned to the themes of his campaign, including job creation, education, and health care reform. The moment encapsulated Clinton’s signature style—policy wonkery wrapped up in empathy—and propelled him to a win.

Lloyd Bentsen (1988) – Honorable mention: Though it is a vice-presidential debate moment, our next selection has nonetheless become one of the most quotable and iconic moments of televised political debates. Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis had selectedLloyd Bentsen as his running mate in large part because of the Texas senator’s extensive experience in Washington. A younger senator, George H.W. Bush’s running mate Dan Quayle, defended his thin resume by saying that he had as much experience as “Jack Kennedy.” Bentsen’s face could hardly conceal his horror, responding with an endlessly quotable put-down: “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Quayle replied that the attack “was really uncalled for,” but Bentsen quickly rebuffed that by pointing out that Quayle had made the comparison. ”Frankly,” Bentsen said, “I think you are so far apart in the objectives you choose for your country that I did not think the comparison was well-taken.” Ouch!

The Worst:

Richard Nixon (1960): While Kennedy may have set a positive example for future candidates in the first televised president debate, Nixon wound up serving as a cautionary tale. Although he applied pancake makeup to conceal his facial hair during pre-debate preparations, he still appeared to have a heavy five o’clock shadow throughout the night. Even worse, the powder began to melt off of his face, causing visible beads of sweat to form that made him come across as anxious and uncomfortable. To top everything off, Nixon’s light gray suit only accentuated his pale skin tone, completing a sickly appearance that was made all the more unattractive when compared to Kennedy’s youthful vibrance. As media historian Alan Schroeder later wrote, “You couldn’t wipe away the image people had seared in their brains from the first debate.”

Gerald Ford (1976): Shortly before the 1976 Republican National Convention, President Gerald Ford was presented with a strategy notebook from many of his party’s top political minds (including then-Chief of Staff Dick Cheney). As reporter Jules Witcover later wrote, the notebook emphasized that his campaign had no room for “any substantial error.” Unfortunately for Ford, he committed a terrible error in one of his subsequent debates with the Democratic nominee, Jimmy Carter. Asked if the Helsinki Accords conceded dominance of Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union, President Ford infamously replied, “There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, and there never will be under a Ford administration.” After a follow-up Ford reiterated that “each of those countries is independent, autonomous; it has its own territorial integrity. And the United States does not concede that those countries are under the domination of the Soviet Union.” Whatever Ford intended to say, his poor phrasing made it sound like he was unaware of this basic fact of 1970s geopolitics. For a president trying to fight an image of bumbling incompetence, this was exactly the kind of error he couldn’t afford.

Jimmy Carter (1980): To date, only one third-party candidate—Ross Perot in 1992—has ever appeared with both major party rivals on a nationally televised debate. But a dozen years earlier Independent candidate John B. Anderson, a liberal Republican congressman from Illinois, came close when he was accepted in a debate with both Carter and Reagan. Because Anderson was expected to take more votes away from Carter, though, the president opted not to appear on stage that night; his absence wound up doing tremendous damage to his re-election campaign. Both Reagan and Anderson seized on the opportunity to take the high ground, although Anderson’s observation was the more insightful one: “President Carter was not right a few weeks ago when he said that the American people were confronted with only two choices, with only two men, and with only two parties,” Anderson remarked. “I respect [Reagan] for showing tonight.” As Carter learned the hard way, losing votes to a third-party challenger is nothing compared to the risk of allowing your main opponent to look magnanimous.

George W. Bush (2004): Like Ford in 1976, President George W. Bush needed to shake his image of ineptitude during his re-election campaign in 2004. While he ultimately prevailed over the Democratic candidate, Senator John Kerry, the Republican nominee was nearly derailed by a wardrobe malfunction that confirmed many voters’ suspicions about his intellect—or lack thereof. As television viewers and Internet commenters quickly pointed out, a black bulge was plainly visible on the back of the president’s suit during their first televised debate. Although the White House tried to laugh off the allegations that this proved he was having answers secretly transmitted to him, a NASA photo analyst soon declared, “I am willing to stake my scientific reputation to the statement that Bush was wearing something under his jacket during the debate.” Common sense confirms this assumption, and even though this wasn’t a disaster for President Bush, it remains one of the most obvious and shameful moments of chicanery ever exposed during a televised debate.

Bernard Shaw (1988) – Honorable mention: When the story of the 1988 presidential election is told, much focus is placed on the ineffectual campaign waged by the Democratic candidate, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukaki. Yet while Dukakis did make many mistakes, he was also the target of one of the most tasteless questions ever posed by a debate moderator. Referring to his wife, Kitty, Bernard Shaw asked Dukakis, “Governor, if Kitty Dukakis were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty for the killer?” The inappropriate question put Dukakis in the lose-lose position where he would either come across as overly-emotional if he became visibly upset, or insensitive if he stuck to his policy positions. For better or worse, Dukakis opted to do the latter, reiterating his opposition to capital punishment. In retrospect, his composure was admirable, but he still walked away as the perceived loser that night, and unfairly so.

What to watch for tonight: If Clinton and Trump can learn anything from these past contenders’ debate experiences, it is that you win debates by playing to TV as a medium—looking good, producing memorable lines, exuding empathy—and that you lose by being unprepared or behaving in a transparently unethical manner. Sometimes factors beyond one’s control also intervene, be they overactive sweat glands or unfair questions from the moderators. But for the most part, televised debates offer candidates an ideal opportunity to sink or swim based entirely on their own efforts.

My Tribute to “Leprechaun 4: In Space”

Published: The Good Men Project (September 6, 2016)

If I’m ever asked to name my favorite movie, I’ll usually select Paddy Chayefsky’s brilliant 1976 satire “Network.” Certainly that movie has shaped me as much as any film I’ve watched; it is a sharply insightful look at how corporations and corporatist logic govern our modern world, although it’s best remembered today for prophesying the ascendancy of sensationalism in TV news.

Yet while “Network” is without question a great movie and one I tremendously admire, it isn’t the movie I most enjoy returning to. That distinction belongs to a strange little horror comedy named “Leprechaun 4: In Space.”

Since this film defies logical analysis, I’m not going to write a traditional critique. All I’ll say is that, whenever someone lists so-bad-they’re-great movies, “Leprechaun 4: In Space” should always be there, right next to the likes of “Troll 2” and “Plan 9 from Outer Space.”

For those who like to overthink their bad movies:

  1. This movie has a very obvious drinking game. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith and writer Dennis Pratt make no effort to conceal their movie’s derivative origins. Take a shot every time you catch a reference to another movie, in particular sci-fi and horror films from the ‘70s and ‘80s. If you’re a movie buff, you’ll be sloshed pretty quickly, but if you find yourself faltering there, take a shot when a character brags about how brilliant they are. That’ll do the trick.
  2. A funny little detail I haven’t seen noted anywhere else: The antagonist is never referred as a leprechaun. Since there is no continuity between sequels in this franchise, each one can be reasonably considered its own self-contained universe, and since Warwick Davis’ character is first introduced to us as an “alien son of a bitch” from a distant planet, we have no reason to assume he is any kind of Earthly mythological creature… such as a leprechaun. He is just an alien who happens to dress, look, and act like a leprechaun.
  3. In a similar mind-tripping vein, the “leprechaun” may actually be in the right here.The movie’s story begins when a group of space marines invade his homeworld so they can mine its resources and steal his personal property. The leprechaun wrongs a grand total of one person – the Princess Zarina, who he kidnaps so he can coerce her into marrying him. Everyone else he goes after has already tried to kill him and continues to do so, all because they consider him an inferior being. He can hardly be blamed for scheming to take over the universe so he can get a little respect. If “Starships Trooper” (which was also released in 1997, nine months after this movie) can be praised for its implicit critique of imperialism, why not this movie?
  4. Leprechaun with a lightsaber! The film starts out a bit slow, but things pick up roughly twenty minutes in, when yes… The leprechaun grabs a lightsaber and kills his first victim with it. That’s when things start getting good. Perhaps “leprechaun with a lightsaber” is the opposite of “jumping the shark” when it comes to schlock quality?
  5. The leprechaun does something very unexpected. I’m not going to spoil it, but suffice to say that everyone who has watched the movie with me has expressed surprise when they see this moment.
  6. Dr. Mittenhand should be a meme. I have absolutely no idea why this hasn’t happened yet. Guy Siner’s performance as the mad scientist Dr. Mittenhand defies description. It was clearly conceived as a hybrid of Dr. Strangelove and Seth Brundle (aka The Fly), but Siner’s grandiose mugging and histrionic overacting turn it into the stuff of legends. He steals the movie in every scene he’s in.
  7. The leprechaun’s best kill outdoes “Spaceballs.” I personally didn’t find “Spaceballs”’ shoehorned jab at the chestburster scene from “Alien” to be very funny. When the leprechaun decides to play off of that famous “Alien” moment, though, it actually causes me to laugh out loud every time I see it, especially when one character later remarks that the victim “would have wanted it that way.”
  8. The sets are reminiscent of “Star Trek.” This is not a good thing, since I’m referring to the original 1960s TV series “Star Trek.” The alien planet looks like a laser tag arena, the CGI spaceship could have been put to shame by PC screensavers from the same era, and the spaceship’s interior could have been built in a high school. Even by ’90s direct-to-video standards, it’s really bad. That said…
  9. There are genuinely impressive makeup effects here. This movie has a weird relationship with its $1.6 million budget. The CGI and planet exteriors are unjustifiable by that standard, and yet the makeup is incredibly impressive. Props must of course go to the work on Warwick Davis’ so-called leprechaun, but the work on Dr. Mittenhand (in both his iterations) is hilariously over-the-top… and yet oddly effective.
  10. The movie has some of the most awkward microaggressions imaginable. Because our entertainment incorporates the prejudices of the culture that produced it, one is often forced to wince through tasteless jokes about men in drag to get to the good stuff in a movie. That’s what happens in “Leprechaun 4: In Space,” and it’s an extremely offensive dark spot in what is otherwise a delightfully silly little comedy.

I’ve wanted to write a tribute to “Leprechaun 4: In Space” for several years, but since I’ve been otherwise engaged on St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween for the past few seasons, I figured I’d seize my chance to promote its cause now. “Network” may be the favorite movie that I mention when it comes to what I revere, but “Leprechaun 4: In Space” is about as much fun as I can have when watching a movie. If each of us is only allowed one public guilty pleasure, then “Leprechaun 4: In Space” is mine.

How the “Sausage Party” gets made: Why Seth Rogen’s talking-food cartoon’s labor controversy matters

Published: Salon (September 2, 2016)

“Sausage Party” is a surprisingly smart, visually creative comedy that has been rightfully praised for its satirical take on organized religion. This makes it all the more unfortunate that the movie is currently wrapped up in a labor controversy that, if it is grounded in fact, could convince potential viewers to pause before spending their money on the film.

“Sausage Party” currently finds itself in an unflattering light because of online reports that Vancouver-based Nitrogen Studios, which produced the movie’s animation, did not pay its employees for overtime hours and created a hostile working environment in which employers could threaten crew with termination if they didn’t meet excessive demands. Because British Columbia’s Employment Standards Act has an exemption for “high technology professionals,” companies like Nitrogen may be claiming that animators are high-tech professionals to justify not paying them overtime. (High-technology professionals are defined as individuals who use specialized knowledge and professional judgment on tech-related issues for at least 75 percent of their work time, so that could apply to animators, although it depends on where the line is drawn between strictly tech-related work and activities that are more artistic and creative in nature.)

The studio denies the claims. “Nitrogen Studios followed all employment regulations, so the claims being made against Greg as well as the studio are unfounded. Nitrogen also fulfilled all of its contractual obligations with its employees,” said Nitrogen President and CEO Nicole Stinn in a response to Salon. “These allegations are without merit and Greg has had an overwhelming amount of support from current and past employees in the last few weeks.”

Nitrogen’s claim that Tiernan has employee support is difficult to dispute, as it’s hard to put real names and faces on the workers’ allegations. According to Jennifer Moreau, vice president of Unifor Local 2000 (which has offered to help the “Sausage Party” animators), “People in this industry are very nervous about speaking out. They don’t want to be blacklisted, they don’t want to be denied a job on the next contract.”

Moreau points to how the animation, visual effects, and video game industries are structured to explain the reticence, and why she thinks the issue goes beyond claims made about one animated film.

“What we’ve heard is that people do a lot of overtime unpaid. There’s a sort of emotional blackmail or intimidation factor at play in some cases, where the employer will pressure people to do the unpaid overtime when crunch time for a project hits,” said Moreau. “The message they get is, if you don’t do this, you’re not getting hired on the next contract.”

The video game industry is particularly notorious for exploiting its animators and other low-ranking employees. “Video game development is an artistic passion, and as such, those who engage in game development have an unstoppable drive to design, create, and build interactive experiences — much in the same way that writers write, painters paint, filmmakers perfect their films and so on,” said Kate Edwards, executive director of the International Game Developers Association. “Historically, many companies in the game industry have been known to take advantage of that passion, and expect a certain ‘above and beyond’ level of employee engagement for long periods.”

Like Moreau, Edwards identified the concept of “crunch time” as a tool used by employers to pressure

But cinematic animation studios and video game developers aren’t the only parts of the industry affected by labor issues. “Where I see abuses is more in the television area, not so much in the theatrical area,” said Steve Hulett of the Animation Guild, which represented the animators for the TV show “Rick and Morty” when they staged a walk-off in 2014. “They were not paying overtime to crew and the crew went and organized with us and we threatened a job action and we were actually able to get a contract pretty quickly.”

Indeed, even though “Rick and Morty” co-creator Justin Roiland initially made headlines for denouncing the union (albeit based on how they handled their grievances rather than the actual grievances themselves), Roiland has made it clear that he sympathizes with his industry’s behind-the-scenes workers. “I believe that artists who work tirelessly to bring animation to life should not have anything to worry about financially or medically,” he wrote to Salon. “They are the unsung heroes of the industry and I can honestly say that I would go to battle to protect my crew.”

Roiland’s sentiments are laudable, but more importantly, his assessment of animators’ importance is absolutely right. Animators and other crew members may not be the main creative forces developing video games or movies like “Sausage Party” or TV shows like “Rick and Morty.” They may not appear before the cameras or develop separate careers as celebrities. But they are as essential to the process of creating our popular entertainments as the directors, writers, and actors. Without their skill and ingenuity, we’d be missing out on a lot more than the opportunity to see Seth Rogen voice a talking hot dog.

Socially-conscious consumers should take behind-the-scenes labor conditions into consideration when deciding which projects to support. While we may not know all of the details surrounding “Sausage Party” specifically, there is good reason to believe that labor exploitation is an industry-wide problem among animators and visual effects artists in film, TV, and video games. This presents audiences with a critically important question: To what extent are fans responsible for allowing these kinds of adverse labor conditions to flourish? Consumers who care about economic justice have a responsibility to pay attention to the conversation around how their entertainment properties are produced.

Most importantly, though, consumers need to recognize that the passion which inspires creative and tech savvy individuals to work in animation or visual effects warrants respect. It appears that in these industries, animators are concerned that they can be treated like disposable cogs in a machine rather than full participants in the creative process. Just as advocates of social justice would rightly refuse to see a movie or play a video game that worked behind the scenes to marginalize women or people of color, so too must advocates of economic justice consider whether to support products that are revealed to have not treated their workforces fairly. While the full story isn’t yet known about “Sausage Party,” it has opened a door for on-going conversation about labor practices in the industry. If evidence points to worker mistreatment in this case or in others, consumers will be ethically responsible, too, if they continue to reward the companies and the entertainers who allow it to happen.