On this season of ABC’s The Bachelorette, Rachel Lindsay — an attorney from Dallas, and the first black lead in the history of the franchise — has continued to be as engaging, smart, funny, and insightful as she was on Nick Viall’s season of The Bachelor earlier this year. Yet despite Lindsay’s charms, the ratings for this season of the show are down considerably when compared to the previous season, which starred JoJo Fletcher.
Monday night’s episode reflected the season’s downward trend, drawing an audience of 5.6 million viewers and a 1.4 in the 18-to-49 demographic that advertisers seek the most.
Comparing the ratings for the first five episodes of Lindsay’s season to Fletcher’s for the same period last year, The Bachelorette has lost a million viewers when looking at those who watch the show live or almost live (5.7 million viewers versus 6.7 million). Among 18- to 49-year-olds in live-plus-same-day ratings, Lindsay’s Bachelorette has drawn a 1.6 compared to Fletcher’s 1.9. The Bachelorette‘s ratings are always lower than those for The Bachelor, but this decline is striking considering that Viall’s Bachelor season was the only show on network television to grow in the 18-to-49 demographic year over year.
Considering the usual racial makeup of show’s audience, it may be that the ratings deck was stacked against Lindsay’s Bachelorette from the start — and it probably doesn’t help that one of its hours has been up against VH1’s Love & Hip Hop: Atlanta series, which is a hit with black viewers. Like most unscripted shows on network television, The Bachelorette‘s audience is more than 80% white. Fletcher’s audience was 86% white and only 7% black, according to Nielsen’s live-plus-seven-day statistics (viewers who watch the show within a week). Viall’s Bachelor season had the same breakdown by race, and ranked in the bottom 20 — across all primetime network programming, including scripted and sports — for its percentage of black viewers. The Bachelorette‘s audience this season is 80% white, 12% black, and 7% “other,” which is a literal Nielsen category! (The ratings service breaks out white, black, and “other” viewers as separate categories, though it quantifies Asian-American and Latino viewers, too — but there can be overlap in those groups if a viewer, for example, identifies as both black and Latino.)
That the audience of The Bachelor and The Bachelorette is white by a large majority is typical for network reality shows, even ones with diverse casts. The Voice‘s audience is 82% white and 10% black in live-plus-seven-day ratings; Dancing With the Stars‘ viewership is 83% white and 10% black. Among network television’s top unscripted network shows, only Jennifer Lopez’s NBC series World of Dance, which is new this summer, seems to have made inroads among audiences of color, with a viewership that’s 73% white, 15% black, and 12% “other” — Nielsen shows World of Dance‘s Latino audience (which it calls “Hispanic”) at 11%. (Again, there can be overlap in the black and Hispanic Nielsen categories.)
On network TV last season, there were only three shows, all of which were scripted, that had a majority black audience in live-plus-same-day ratings: Empire (67% black), Star (57% black), and Shots Fired (51% black). All of those shows were on Fox, which has had particular success with the soapy Lee Daniels creation Empire; Star is Daniels’ also, though it draws much more modest ratings than Empire, which is still among the top shows on television in the 18-to-49 demographic. (Shots Fired was a limited series by Gina Prince-Bythewood, and also drew low ratings.)
In order to maintain its audience compared to last summer, The Bachelorette would have had to buck the dramatic erosion in ratings afflicting network television at large. It was long past time for the franchise — which is in its 13th season of The Bachelorette and will air its 22nd season of The Bachelor next year — to cast a black lead, and Lindsay’s suitors began as a much more racially diverse group than the show has ever had.
Yet, as likable as Lindsay is, The Bachelorette, meant to be light summer entertainment, has been vexing to watch. She has had to face roadblocks a white woman would not have, seemingly orchestrated by the show itself. Most notably, Lee Garrett — a white singer-songwriter from Nashville, whose racist tweets surfaced early in the season— pitted himself against two black men in the house. In Garrett’s deliberate trolling — he cackled throughout — he particularly focused on Kenny King, a black wrestler from Las Vegas, calling him “aggressive” many times and accusing him of “playing the race card.” When Garrett and King were sent on a two-on-one date (which results in one contestant remaining on the show), Garrett was sent home. But it looked like a retrograde, cheap stunt — and a deliberate one, since Garrett said he had been recruited (and since the show asks applicants about social media in its preliminary application, while also conducting background checks on contestants that make it to the semifinals). A spokesperson for Warner Bros., the studio that produces the Bachelor franchise for ABC, would not comment about whether Garrett was cast on purpose.
The ratings indicate the audience is rejecting these cynical machinations: The second of the two-part episode of the King-Garrett date — which was divided by a cliffhanger to create maximum drama, and aired on a Tuesday — drew a season low of 4.5 million viewers.
For her part, Lindsay seems to be taking the possible setup in stride. A former Bachelor contestant, Leah Block, tweeted, “I’m sitting here watching @BacheloretteABC and my roommate sat down on the couch and said, ‘What is this @loveandhiphop?’ DEAD.”
The much-rumored return of The L Word, which ran from 2004 to 2009, is officially in development at Showtime, sources tell BuzzFeed News.
If the new version moves forward, it will feature a new ensemble cast, but the three key original cast members (fight me!) — Jennifer Beals, Kate Moennig, and Leisha Hailey — will serve as executive producers as well as appearing as Bette, Shane, and Alice, respectively, tying the old show to the new one. There is also potential for other past cast members from the original L Word to return.
The L Word creator Ilene Chaiken will serve as the potential sequel’s executive producer. But because she’s busy as the showrunner for Empire on Fox, a new writer would run a continuation of The L Word.
When asked in April about the rumors of an L Word reboot, Chaiken told BuzzFeed News, “I hear from fans all the time that I should reboot the show,” and that she would “love to do it.”
In May, Chaiken, Beals, Moennig, Hailey, and others reunited for Entertainment Weekly’s LGBT issue. At the time, Chaiken said of a reboot: “There’s certainly a chance. We talk about it all the time. When we went off the air in 2009, I think a lot of people thought, ‘Okay, the baton is passed now, and there will be lots of shows that portray lesbian life.’ There’s really nothing. It feels like maybe it should come back.”
When The L Word originally premiered in 2004, it was part of the seismic shift in LGBT representation in popular culture that arguably paved the way for the legalization of same-sex marriage. Rather than portraying lesbians as sinister beings, TheL Word‘s characters, inhabitants of West Hollywood, had glamorous jobs, families, and lots of sex. It was a fun soap opera, despite not always making sense — especially in its eight-episode final season, which revolved around a controversial who-killed-Jenny (Mia Kirshner) murder mystery that was never resolved.
But perhaps Chaiken was ahead of her time in more ways than her representation of LGBT life — she seems to have foreseen reboot madness as well.
In an interview in 2009 with the Los Angeles Times, Chaiken told me that she didn’t see The L Word as being over. “I don’t believe it, I don’t see it in that way — I don’t know what I’m talking about when I say this,” she said. “I hope we’ll do an L Word movie — there’s no plan to do an L Word movie. But I would love to do that. I just believe that in some way, the show will live on.”
Chaiken’s belief may have been right.
Kate Aurthur is the chief Los Angeles correspondent for BuzzFeed News. Aurthur covers the television and film industries.
Casey Affleck dies and is transformed into a ghost early in A Ghost Story. He doesn’t become a glowering ghoul or see-through specter, but a ghost by way of the Halloween costumes in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown — a guy in a sheet with two holes cut out for eyes. It’s a daringly cute image on which to hang a movie dealing with nothing less than the nature of existence. It’s eminently shareable, an easily understood visual joke.
It seems at first like a way to create some ironic distance from the big ideas A Ghost Story goes on to tackle, to hedge about the sincerity with which the film takes on death, love, and the feeling of being dwarfed by the immensity of the universe. How serious can a story about eternity be when it’s being channeled through an IRL emoji that haunts the shabby, comfy Austin house that Affleck’s character, listed only as “C,” used to share with his now-bereft wife, “M” (Rooney Mara)?
But A Ghost Story is absolutely serious — a wondrous, delicate shell of a movie that writer/director David Lowery made quietly and on the cheap after finishing Pete’s Dragon for Disney. Its drollness is part of the miraculous balancing act it pulls off in transmitting its huge themes through humble imagery, from the ramshackle rental in which it mostly takes place to the scene in which M tries to numb her grief by eating pie until she’s sick. It’s a wide-reaching film told in miniature, one that seems guided as much by Instagram aesthetics as it does philosophy. It’s told so small that its scale becomes key to its message.
How is the story of an aspiring musician who dies in a car crash and is mourned by his spouse supposed to support grand leaps into the future and into the past, not to mention a beer-fueled monologue about how the planet, the galaxy, and everything beyond it will ultimately be destroyed, all traces of humanity along with it? Then again, why would it not? A Ghost Story‘s verging-on-cutesiness is its way of engaging with the overpowering ordinariness that marks most of our actual encounters with towering concepts like mortality and the terrifying forward trudge of time.
When M is called into the morgue to identify the body of her husband, she gazes in stunned silence at his face for a long minute before awkwardly but perfectly covering him back up with the sheet that will become his uniform in the afterlife. She and C lived a perfectly average post-hipster life in a ramshackle house over which they had a perfectly average fight — she was ready to move (he wasn’t), lingering in a space she felt they had outgrown. And then he was gone, leaving her to grapple with the pain and the idea of losing someone forever and eventually moving on, leaving a lonesome ghost behind.
If A Ghost Story resembles any existing movies, it’s Ghost as filtered through the sensibility of Don Hertzfeldt, the Oscar-nominated animator who populates his ambitious, devastatingly deadpan work with stick figures. But there really is something about its combination of winking overreach and genuine intimacy that brings to mind Instagram, and not just because of how it opts for a nearly square frame with rounded corners, like an old-timey filter placed over a modern-day photo. A Ghost Story is built around static shots that recall stills, especially in the beginning, when they keep fading to black and coming up to reveal the ghost standing motionless in some new corner of the house, observing the world he’s no longer a part of.
The Instagram comparison isn’t intended to diminish A Ghost Story, which is a wistful, wry, practically quintessential fable. Rather, it speaks to the gap the film engages with between the essential stuff of our lives and how inadequate our attempts at documenting it look from the outside, where it has a tendency to look small, or worse, interchangeable — just part of the flow of carefully curated photos of milestones and pretty sunsets. Can love be signified with a shot of two people in bed? That image is a standard of social media, one that A Ghost Story presents a particularly sublime variation of early on when C and M kiss half-asleep after having been woken up in the night. It’s a scene the film returns to later, at which point it becomes heartbreaking, while remaining essentially the same image.
A home looking cozy from the street with its lights on during early evening, the fall of snow outside a window — the ghost itself, trudging home across a field, even ends up inadvertently re-creating a common bridal shot, the sheet stretching out like a train behind him as he walks across green grass. A passed-down piano, a song recorded on a computer that outlasts the person who wrote it, a snapshot pinned on a fridge with a magnet — how do you express the meaning these things can accrue when, to other people, they’re just the detritus of someone else’s existence?
Maybe it’s impossible, or maybe we just have to accept that our lives, with all their pain and joy, might always look silly and standard when held up against the vastness of existence — the drinks shared outdoors on the stairs while the stars turn above. It’s in that gap that A Ghost Story exists, when it, with terrifying ease, lets time slip by until there’s a whole new set of people in the house, and then another, glimpsed in photogenic Christmases and house parties until everything gets knocked down and built again.
And the ghost, increasingly threadbare, shifts from a ridiculous image to one that’s sad and profound — this mute figure who observes how short and small his life was compared with the grand reach of human existence, and who accepts its worth anyway. That’s the kind of message you might roll your eyes at in an Instagram caption, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
Why it’s fucked up: I don’t even know WTF these things are. One of ’em looks like a snake, another like a bunny, and the last one is just hairy (and is holding eyes in his hands). They run around New York City trying to be scary, but judging by their appearance, you can tell that doesn’t go over too well.
The mayor of Asbury Park, John Moor, confirmed that the filming took place.
“Oh well, they’ve been reading the paper and they know Asbury Park is the place to be,” Moor joked to the Asbury Park Press. “No, we did not know they were coming as they applied under ‘Roadtrip Reunion.’… They paid their fees and everything worked out fine.”
And a spokesperson for a club in Jersey, Langosta Lounge, claims that producers asked to film at his establishment, but he said no.
“They called 10 days before they wanted to film and we said no freaking way, it’ll be bad publicity,” he said.
Similarly, it looks like producers submitted an application to film in Seaside Heights — where the original series took place — but a Borough Administrator for the city told the Asbury Park Press that the request was denied.
Also, Snooki just maybe, possibly hinted to E! that a reunion is in the works.
When asked if she would ever consider a reboot, she said: “Yes! But not for a long time because I have kids. Like for a week.”
So, is she basically saying a reunion is coming a week from now? IDK what else this could mean, Snooks?
Famed Dateline correspondent Keith Morrison has a dramatic delivery that hearkens back to old-time radio mystery shows. Whether he is cocking his head like a curious bird during interviews to express skepticism of a suspect’s dubious story or leaning with his arms crossed against, well, anything, the show has made him a cult icon.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time. … Suppose I’ve built up over the years strange quirks that for some reason are familiar to people,” Morrison told BuzzFeed News this May about his metamorphosis from hard newsman to noir-style narrator. “Eventually, I think anybody who’s in this line of work for a period of time…we are probably better off making fun of ourselves than we are taking ourselves too seriously.”
When it premiered in March 1992 with co-anchors Stone Phillips and Jane Pauley, the show was originally a newsmagazine; it’s since evolved to focus predominantly on real-life murder mysteries. Long before the massive popularity of other true crime shows like Making a Murderer, The Keepers, and Serial, Dateline — celebrating its 25th anniversary this year — was already must-see TV for armchair detectives.
BuzzFeed News caught up with Morrison and some of the show’s other mainstays to uncover what makes up the perfect Dateline formula, how to interview people about the worst day of their life, the surprising cooperation of law enforcement, and the tricks Dateline uses behind the scenes to maintain suspense throughout an episode.
Bill Hader’s famous caricature of Morrison on Saturday Night Live presents the silver-haired correspondent as a gleefulghoul, a modern-day true crime equivalent of horror host Vincent Price. Morrison said he’s “not complaining” about the imitation, though he stammered and trailed off when the subject turned to himself. Dateline executive producer David Corvo said maybe Morrison’s “a little embarrassed” by the attention.
“He is actually one of the nicest people you’ll meet,” Dateline executive producer Liz Cole told BuzzFeed News. And although his Dateline scripts are almost poetically macabre, he is downright old-fashioned in casual conversation, saying things like “Gee,” “Oh, boy,” and “I’m just dandy!”
“He cares deeply about these stories and he really connects to people in the field,” Cole said. “There are people he interviews that he keeps in touch with years and years later. That is the one thing about the SNL [bit] that doesn’t quite align with Keith as a person.”
“Long short of it is, it’s not an act, and I don’t want it to be an act,” Morrison said about his interview style. “When someone says something outrageous, it’s better to see the natural reaction, I think.”
And Morrison’s persona hasn’t turned off potential participants. On the contrary, his fame has “probably made it easier to book” people for the show, said Corvo. “They know instantly who he is and how he handles stories, and that makes people eager to speak to him. It’s not something we planned on, but it’s something certainly that’s not a hindrance — it’s an asset.”
It’s an enviable position, and fellow correspondent Josh Mankiewicz joked at a Dateline panel at the inaugural CrimeCon in Indianapolis in June that Morrison always got the best assignments: “The whiter your hair is, the better your case is!”
But Morrison doesn’t just roll in and start asking questions. Oh, no. Dateline producers do exhaustive research, fact-checking, and preparation long before Morrison takes a seat opposite his interview subject.
Field producer Carol Gable laughed when she recalled her first time working with Morrison.
She had diligently compiled a dossier about the case and suggested questions for him to ask in the interviews, but he showed up empty-handed: no notes, no notebook, not even a pencil. Just a “teeny-tiny little overnight bag, and we’re going to be gone for five days. And I thought, Man, I can’t believe I did all that work, and you know, he’s got nothing,” Gable told BuzzFeed News. What she didn’t know then — but knows now, after working with Morrison for 22 years — is that he actually has a photographic memory. “Then, of course, he sits down at the interview and he has committed every little thing to memory. Everything. That’s the way it’s been ever since.”
That’s what makes Morrison a rare kind of correspondent, she said. “I give him tons of research and background and questions and he shows up in the interview and he knows all of it. He is one of the best-prepared correspondents I’ve ever worked with. No work you do for him is wasted.”
Morrison modestly credits “the remarkable compendium of enormously capable people” on his team for his successful interviews. “I’m able to walk into a situation and having met this person for the very first time, but I’ve been briefed — well-briefed — by the people I work with, so I can sit down and have an intimate conversation with a stranger,” Morrison said about the interviews, which can range from 30–40 minutes (though “rarely is an interview that brief,” he said) to three or four hours. “And by the end of the conversation, that person doesn’t feel like a stranger anymore.”
Not a lot fazes Keith Morrison, but he has been known to cry during an interview. “Actually, it sneaks up on you,” he said. “I have to confess it’s… Yes, it happens. But especially…young people telling these sad stories. In spite of myself, I realize: Uh-oh, your eyes are filling up with tears. Can anybody tell? It happens. Because these are very compelling stories and they’re so intense, and they matter so much to the people who are talking to us. You can’t help but get wrapped up in them.”
We know Morrison is a leaner — he told The Wrap it “became a thing” because he wants to “look relaxed and not look too excitable on camera.” But is he a hugger?
“It depends,” he said, hedging. “I have hugged…without a doubt. Only sometimes.” He finally concluded: “I have no rules on hugging.”
At the center of each of Dateline’s mysteries are the stories told by the family and friends of the murder victim. “These are important stories to tell,” Cole said, “not only because we shed light on how the criminal justice system works, but because we give voice to the victims’ families.” Countering The New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz’s criticism that true crime shows like Dateline “turn people’s private tragedies into public entertainment,” Cole said, “We approach them with great sensitivity. We have producers who have been doing it a long time and they have a lot of respect for the families and the people in the stories we cover, and we try to approach them in a way that gives them time to kind of really feel comfortable and ready to sit down and do a lengthy interview.”
But the participation of victims’ loved ones on Dateline is rarely limited to just one-on-one interviews. Often, there’s footage of them flipping through a photo album, visiting a gravesite, strolling through a park, or staring wistfully at the horizon from the seashore.
“Some people don’t want to do anything — they just want to sit in the chair, talk to you about the thing, and then go home,” Gable explained. “Other people are more interested in showing you what the story is about — they’re taking you to the scene, or driving you to an important place. And we don’t just choose these spots haphazardly. We try to find places the correspondent and key characters can go that really are pivotal to the story.”
It’s rare that someone will refuse to be interviewed for a story, but it does happen. “I think that’s where you have to make some value judgments,” Gable said. “There are some stories that they’re an incredibly key character. You need them. You just have to have them. There are not many stories that are like that. But I think philosophically if you can’t get the key character, then you probably decide you can’t do a story.”
Big, headline-grabbing stories are the exception, Corvo said. As an example, the field producer pointed to a recent two-hour Dateline episode about the serial killer Andrew Cunanan — which was, no doubt, capitalizing on the buzz surrounding FX’s upcoming installment of the American Crime Story miniseries, based on the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, Cunanan’s last victim, in 1997. For such episodes, field producers like Gable have to work around a key character’s refusal to participate.
“Of course that’s like five murders in one case. It’s a 20-year-old story, and there were important people along the way that we would have loved to have spoken with and they’re just over it — they don’t want to do it anymore. So you find other people that have the same experiences and the same responsibilities and get those people instead,” Gable said. “Stories have so many people involved that it might take you two other bookings to be able to fill that slot with a credible and appropriate person, and it can still can be done.”
To finish cobbling that episode together, producers used contemporaneous footage from Dateline and NBC News and Gable enlisted Versace’s friend Hal Rubenstein, “the first person to really show Gianni Versace South Beach” by driving him around Miami’s most famous neighborhood. “Really, he was the reason Versace fell in love with South Beach, so we put Keith and Hal in the car — in a convertible, so we could see them — and had them go down that strip and point out all the key places that Versace fell in love with. I think it really takes you back into the moment of the action,” Gable said. She emphasized that Dateline doesn’t “re-create” scenes, but illustrates them: “We don’t have actors or people that pretend to be doing something — but having someone take you somewhere and show you a key moment in the story I think is just great storytelling.”
EP Corvo told BuzzFeed News the show has dodged some criticism because of its more “traditional” and “straightforward” reporting under the NBC News banner. Moreover, while Serial and Making a Murderer have been accused of one-sided storytelling because the families of murder victims Hae Min Lee and Teresa Halbach declined to participate, most of Dateline’s stories are told “through the eyes of the friends and families of the victim,” Corvo said. “They cooperate because they have a story they want to tell, and we help them tell it. The causes and consequences of crime, more than the criminal act itself, is at the heart of Dateline.” Instead of making the accused killer the focus, Corvo said, “the search for justice for those left behind is often the driving force of our storytelling.”
Still, “it’s up to us to execute and tell that story in a way that reveals that in both an organic and natural way but also in a way that pays off,” Cole said.
Dateline fans expect a payoff, which means withholding some information from viewers early on in the episode to maximize the impact of a surprise twist or gotcha moment — “something you didn’t see coming at the beginning of the story that people really react to strongly online or social media,” Cole said. “People tend to look for that in a Dateline story — that there’s going to be something new coming that they didn’t see early on.”
Though Dateline doesn’t alter or omit facts, it does rely on a certain amount of staging.
The many jailhouse interviews for Dateline take place while the suspect is awaiting trial or after they are convicted, but the show doesn’t broadcast the location to viewers. Dateline’s amateur detectives have learned to study these sit-downs for “tells”: Is the defendant wearing a standard-issue tee or sweatshirt? Do they have a buzz cut or frizzy hair from cheap commissary shampoo? Is that a brick wall behind them? As Mankiewicz noted drily about prison uniforms, “If the person is wearing orange, that tends to mean something.”
Morrison admitted that producers will try to camouflage their surroundings to avoid spoilers: “We nudge it just a little bit sometimes. … You don’t want to know the ending before the ending happens, so we do try to minimize those prison-looking shots.” When a person has been acquitted, sometimes they shoot the interview in a nondescript locale.
“If we show someone walking their dog,” for example, Mankiewicz said, “you can deduce he’s not in custody.”
Whether a murder suspect has been found not guilty or is still proclaiming their innocence from prison, most are happy to play along with producers’ efforts to make their wardrobe seem ambiguous and maintain suspense about the verdict. Mankiewicz said one enthusiastic exoneree even showed up for his final interview in a plain white T-shirt resembling those worn by inmates, to help throw the audience off: “He said, ‘I’ve seen your show — I know what’s coming!’”
“We’re not trying to mislead people,” Morrison said with a laugh, but “for the duration we’d just like them to hold back their knowledge until the appropriate time in the story. But it’s not something you go out of your way to do very often, for sure.”
Mankiewicz regaled a rapt CrimeCon audience with one extreme exception. On one shoot, confronted with a strict prison policy and a very obvious institutional brick wall, his crew improvised a creative camouflage: On the morning of the shoot, he took a painting off the wall of his hotel room and took it to the prison, causing a few raised eyebrows as they passed their equipment through the security screening. “It was probably a crime against art, but they let it go through. I took off my blazer and gave it to him.” But Mankiewicz drew the line at his signature pocket square: “I’m not going to allow an inmate to wear my pocket square.”
In another case, Mankiewicz said, his producer loaned her own scarf and earrings to an inmate at a women’s prison.
“That part of what we do is fun, leading you down the road and around the corners, mimicking what the investigators do,” Mankiewicz said.
Turning over the pages of a case file. Reviewing the evidence. Driving to the crime scene. That’s all in a day’s work when detectives originally investigate their cases, but for Dateline, they play to the cameras. Gable pointed out that there is a huge difference between these scene shots and the cheesy reenactments that are de rigueur for pulpier true crime shows like Snapped. “If you’re asking them to go break down the door of an apartment one more time, then absolutely, that is a reenactment. We would not do that. But if they’re pulling out an existing file … they’re just showing you a body of work, or showing you evidence … that the public can see anytime if they wanted to go ask.”
Similarly, ride-alongs “need to have a reason,” Gable said. “And some police departments are great — they love to do that with you.” But not all police departments have the budget to spare their officers for a shoot, “so you have to think of other ways to get that material,” Gable said.
“Generally they trust us with the story,” Corvo said about law enforcement participation on Dateline. “They’re very cooperative.” Getting the second half of the law and order equation — the prosecuting attorneys — can be a little trickier: “Some of them have policies about not really going on television about their stories. But we’ve been on the air for 25 years, so they know our work,” he added. “We even keep up with prosecutors and police and defense lawyers who we’ve covered in the past.”
Also, because producers regularly attend hearings and professional conferences for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and law enforcement, “they know a lot of our folks by name, and by reputation, and so we come in as a known entity. And they either want to play ball or they don’t.”
Cole also thinks Dateline earns the access because “they know that we work really hard to get it right, which helps them with our trust, and when we come back they’re willing to work with us.”
Morrison and his colleagues have a genuine respect for people in law enforcement. “They have a really difficult job,” Morrison said. “They get awakened at very inopportune times, their family events get blown up on a regular basis, it always seems that they’re called out in the middle of the night on the very day that they’re supposed to, or the night before, that they’re supposed to be at some important event, in their child’s life. … They say that they work for the dead, they work for the victims of crime. And they take these things so personally, so to heart, that it’s very encouraging to see that kind of behavior.”
Morrison acknowledges that some law enforcement interrogation tactics and overzealous prosecutors have resulted in the incarceration of innocent people. “Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a situation where somebody may have gotten a little too enthusiastic in an interview and produce a false confession or something like that,” he said. But those are rare, he insisted, and Dateline’s coverage of wrongful convictions could suggest they happen more frequently than they actually do. False convictions are unusual, Morrison said, and “therefore you tend to focus on more of them than you might otherwise.”
“And that’s the only troublesome part, because frequently prosecutors and detectives and others will work so hard to defend a conviction, even when the evidence is pretty clear it wasn’t a good conviction,” Morrison said. But he believes that’s changing, with justice reform task forces charged with reexamining previous convictions. “We’ve covered a few of those cases, and those can be quite remarkable too.”
When an older case makes headlines, the Dateline teams quickly dust off and supplement their own original coverage — as they did with Versace’s murder, Robert Durst’s arrest the weekend of The Jinx‘s finale, and the scrutiny on the Steven Avery case as a result of the 10-part Making a Murderer documentary on Netflix.
“We had already done three hours on that over the years,” Corvo said about Avery’s case, “before they ever did it.”
A Dateline episode might conclude with the arrest of a suspect, but it doesn’t necessarily end there: Follow-up episodes might cover trials, verdicts, appeals, or even an inmate’s release from prison. “We rely on producers and reporters to track the cases that they cover, that they know might develop,” Corvo said. “We like those stories because they’re actually not difficult. In a way, we already have a lot of material on them, we’re familiar with it, so we generally know that story is one that’s appealing to the audience. So we’re happy to develop the next two chapters or something like that.”
“It’s certainly an intriguing experience,” Morrison said. He recalled an unsettling prison interview with a death row inmate who was suspected of a number of other killings that remained unsolved. Dateline worked with families of the victims to finally learn the truth about what happened to their loved ones. “Here was a man who had committed a number of murders, and sitting in front of me, and discussing almost the way we’re having a discussion now, dispassionately and specifically, these truly horrific things that he did, and confessing to the murders which the family had suspected him of participating in,” Morrison said. As he shared details about the particular victims, the killer would fill in the missing pieces: “It was just the strangest thing, as if you’re having a conversation over the backyard fence with your neighbor about something mundane. And he’s talking about killing.”
“Strange things like that are what happen to you in this job,” Morrison said.
“Gee,” Morrison said. “I have no idea.”
He’s definitely not worried he’ll be murdered by his wife, even after covering so many cases involving domestic homicide.
“No, I don’t think she will do that,” he said. “No. Probably not.” But, he added with a dry chuckle, “we are able to joke with each other, a lot, about the various methods which she’d been able to do me in over the years.”
And he offered this sage advice: “If your spouse is mad at you, it’s probably best not to walk along the bluffs or near a sharp drop. Or if you’re drinking sweet tea, be sure you know the provenance of it.”
Since April, Hollywood has spent a breathtaking amount of time and money on a slate of dilapidated franchises and highly dubious attempts to create new ones. The result has been one of the industry’s worst second quarters ever, with the lowest ticket sales since 1986. 1986! Thirty-one years ago! In fact, were it not for a plucky crew of intergalactic ne’er-do-wells and a certain Amazonian princess, the first two months of the summer would be starved for any blockbuster hits at all.
This general see-saw between smart risk-taking and fear-driven risk aversion has left domestic ticket sales down 1.7% from last year, with overall domestic box office revenue up a meager 0.5%.
Studio filmmaking moves so slowly that it will be at least late 2018 before we know whether Hollywood has heeded the lucrative lessons of 2017’s early months. So in the hope that somebody’s paying attention, below are the highlights from the year through the end of June, and the calamities Hollywood should hope to avoid in the future.
WINNERS: Patty Jenkins and Gal Gadot
Imagine for a second a world in which Wonder Woman had flopped. Imagine that its story had been as needlessly grim as its DC forebears were and that its title superhero had been portrayed in some exceedingly unpleasant way. Now imagine how much harder it would be for female filmmakers to convince studios to hire them to make expensive studio tentpole movies. Imagine how many female-forward action movies would be sidelined instead of greenlit. Imagine all the terrible hot takes about blah blah blah the death of third-wave feminism blah blah blah Trump-era superheroes. And imagine all the millions of Wonder Woman fans heartbroken after seeing a movie that failed them.
Now rejoice, because we don’t live in that world!
Instead, we get to live in a world in which director Patty Jenkins delivered a Wonder Woman movie filled with heart, humor, and romance, in which Gal Gadot embodied her role with soul-stirring goodness and strength, and in which audiences wholeheartedlyembraced the film en route to $700 million worldwide and counting. Wonder Woman has single-handedly repaired the reputation of Warner Bros.’ shaky DC cinematic universe, and exploded the lie that audiences aren’t interested in action movies starring and/or directed by women. It is easily the movie of the summer, and if studio executives still enjoy making lots of money, the ripple effects of Wonder Woman‘s success should hopefully be felt for years to come.
In 2016, Disney redefined box office success with three movies in the first half of the year that earned over $1 billion worldwide. So when pointing out that this year, Disney has opened just one $1 billion movie (Beauty and the Beast), please understand that the studio is now competing with its own astronomic expectations. Two of Disney’s high-profile sequels — the fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, and Cars 3 — have also underperformed in comparison to their predecessors.
But thanks largely to Beauty and the Beast and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Disney has still earned over $3.6 billion worldwide, leading the rest of the top studios by a comfortable margin. And even though this looks to be a rather fallow year for the studio — it won’t open another film until November — there is a very good chance it will still end up on top of the box office for the third year in a row.
What’s next? Marvel Studios’ Thor: Ragnarok on Nov. 3, Pixar’s Coco on Nov. 22, and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi on Dec. 15. Speaking of…
When Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens this December, Lucasfilm will almost certainly three-peat for the highest-grossing movie of the year domestically, after The Force Awakens in 2015 and Rogue One in 2016. That is as close to the definition of winning as you can get in Hollywood, but that level of unparalleled success also brings an equally unparalleled level of unforgiving pressure — and scrutiny.
Exhibit A: Lucasfilm CEO Kathleen Kennedy’s decision to fire directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller from the untitled Han Solo prequel movie when they only had weeks left to shoot in principle photography. The dispute reportedly came down to intractable issues over creative control, and the immediate blowback cast as much of a cloud over Kennedy’s judgment as it did over Lord and Miller’s abilities as filmmakers, not to mention the ultimate quality of the film (which is now under the direction of Hollywood veteran Ron Howard). This story is not going away anytime soon, particularly as the Directors Guild sorts out the messy question of directorial credit and the film’s in-demand actors deal with inevitable questions over what went wrong.
Exhibit B: Colin Trevorrow. The Jurassic World director’s latest film, The Book of Henry, is a small-scaled family drama that opened on June 16 in just 579 theaters — and to some of the most scathing reviews of the year. That would be embarrassing enough for any filmmaker, but several of thosecritics also went out of their way to call into question whether or not Trevorrow is qualified to direct 2019’s Star Wars: Episode IX, as was announced in 2015. Were it any other franchise, this kind of open hostility would feel wildly out of line, but Episode IX is a movie that stands to make upwards of $2 billion. And after two years of dominating the box office and pop culture, Lucasfilm is now learning about the, er, dark side of astronomic success.
What’s next?The Last Jedi on Dec. 15, followed (purportedly) by the untitled Han Solo movie on May 25, 2018.
WINNER: Universal Pictures
Two of 2017’s most painful flops — The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and The Mummy with Tom Cruise — came from Universal’s slate this year. But the good greatly outweighed the bad. The Fate of the Furious did cool a bit at the domestic box office in comparison to Furious 7, but it still earned over $1 billion internationally, with the biggest global opening weekend of all time. Similarly, Fifty Shades Darker wasn’t nearly the phenomenon of its predecessor, but it still took in a steamy $378.8 million worldwide. And Get Out and Split each scared up over $250 million globally on budgets that weren’t even a tenth of that amount.
What’s next? Universal’s second half of the year showcases the rare studio slate that’s heavier on non-franchise fare, like the comedy Girls Trip with Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah on July 21, the fact-based dramedy American Made with Cruise on Sept. 29, the Groundhog Day-but-a-horror-movie Happy Death Day on Oct. 13, the serial killer thriller The Snowman with Michael Fassbender on Oct. 20, and the military veteran drama Thank You for Your Service with Miles Teller on Oct. 27. And then on Dec. 22, the Barden Bellas reunite for Pitch Perfect 3.
LOSERS: Sequels and franchises no one wanted (again)
As if haunted by the ghosts of last summer’s wasteland of antique sequels and dubious franchise “debuts,” several sequels this year — like the sixth Alien movie, the fifth Transformers movie, and Cars 3 — have earned by far the worst domestic grosses in their respective franchise’s histories when adjusting for ticket price inflation. Meanwhile, expensive wannabes Power Rangers, Ghost in the Shell, and King Arthur: Legend of the Sword failed in spectacular fashion to do the only thing they were made to do: open the door for lucrative sequels. The Mummy‘s flop at the domestic box office was at least mitigated by its decent international returns. But Universal meant to use that film to launch its already questionable Dark Universe of interconnected monster movies starring actors (Cruise, Johnny Depp, Russell Crowe) who were a really big deal in the early 2000s. Given its embarrassing reviews and lackluster performance, the studio is perhaps wishing it had instead kept that title under wraps. (I’m sorry.)
Consider that studios spent roughly $1 billion — that’s $1,000,000,000 — on just these seven movies, according to their reported respective budgets. Think about all the movies that didn’t get made because that money was being spent on these projects instead, projects that weren’t particularly in demand in the first place, and didn’t particularly make their studios any money — and, in many cases, actually cost them dearly.
What’s next? Thankfully, the rest of the summer promises sequels — Spider-Man: Homecoming and War for the Planet of the Apes — that audiences seem genuinely keen on. There are, however, several questionable franchise premieres on the horizon: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets on July 21, The Emoji Movie on July 28, and The Dark Tower on Aug. 4.
WINNER: John Wick: Chapter 2
Speaking of sequels, no franchise follow-up has been more successful in 2017 than John Wick: Chapter 2: The stunt-focused action thriller is the only franchise movie this year that has nearly doubled the global take of its predecessor, earning $166.8 million against the $88 million global take of 2014’s John Wick. This is how franchises are supposed to work, satiating an undeniable audience demand, instead of trying to manufacture it.
What’s next? Director Chad Stahelski told The Independent in June that he’s “knee deep” in developing Chapter 3.
WINNER: Jordan Peele
In hindsight, Jordan Peele’s feature directing debut, produced by micro-budget super-producer Jason Blum, seems like such an self-evidently great idea: Use the tropes of thrillers and horror movies to make a smart film about race that wouldn’t feel like a lecture. And yet, watching Get Out for the first time, especially in a packed theater, felt like a revelation — or maybe just a long overdue reminder that studio movies can still speak directly to the real world as it is today both on a grand scale and in a delightfully entertaining way. Audiences flocked to it: Get Out made $175.5 million in the US and Canada, more than the far more expensive — and far less entertaining — Kong: Skull Island, Pirates 5, and Transformers 5.
As a result, Peele rocketed from a popular Comedy Central star to one of the most in-demand filmmakers in Hollywood. But he’s decided not to chase the career path of so many filmmakers with sudden success at their fingertips, declining offers to direct expensive studio tentpole movies and instead reinvesting in his genre of self-described “social thrillers.” If only more filmmakers would follow his example — and had his daring.
What’s next? Another social thriller for 2019.
WINNER: M. Night Shyamalan
Four years ago, M. Night Shyamalan’s career was a sad shadow of its former glory. Between the infamously bad acting in 2006’s The Happening, the controversial whitewashing in 2010’s The Last Airbender, and whatever was happening between Will and Jaden Smith in 2013’s After Earth, the filmmaker had slipped from “The Next Spielberg” into something of a Hollywood joke. But then he met Blum, and learned the power of a tiny budget — or, to put another way, the power of restraint.
Their first film together, 2015’s The Visit, took in $98.5 million on a reported $5 million budget. But January’s thriller Split truly resurrected Shyamalan’s career as a blockbuster filmmaker — in more ways than one, really. The movie took in $276.9 million worldwide, and reminded audiences of his genuine talents as a filmmaker and storyteller. To say more would be to spoil the very Shyamalanian twist at the end of the film, but suffice it to say for the first time in more than a decade, people are genuinely excited to see his next movie.
What’s next? A sequel to Split.
LOSERS: Live-action comedies
You would think that at a time when the news is a nonstop shitshow, audiences would be desperate for a chance to laugh. And yet there hasn’t been a single runaway hit studio comedy so far in 2017. Baywatch comes closest, grossing $152.2 million worldwide, but the action-heavy production cost a reported $69 million, undercutting any possible profits (especially factoring in the money Paramount burned in its full-court press marketing push).
From there, things get real dire, real fast: Snatched with Amy Schumer and Goldie Hawn earned just $58.5 million globally; Fist Fight with Ice Cube and Charlie Day earned $41 million; Rough Night with Scarlett Johansson, Jillian Bell, Zoë Kravitz, Ilana Glazer, and Kate McKinnon earned $30.5 million; and CHiPs with Dax Shepard and Michael Peña earned $25.5 million. That’s less than The Mummy earned in its global opening weekend combined. The Mummy!
The one bright spot: The heist comedy Going in Style — with Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Alan Arkin — earned $82 million worldwide on a budget of just under $25 million, with more than 70% of its audience reportedly over 50.
What’s next? Relief may be soon on the horizon: Advance buzz on Girls Trip is approaching Bridesmaids-level enthusiasm. The NASCAR comedy Logan Lucky, with Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and Daniel Craig, and the action comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard, with Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, both follow on Aug. 18.
WINNERS: How to Be a Latin Lover and Bāhubali 2: The Conclusion
Both of these films flew past expectations as yet two more reminders that there are large, terribly underserved audiences that will show up en masse to the right movies.
How to Be a Latin Lover opened with $12.3 million domestically in just 1,118 theaters, en route to over $58 million worldwide. Despite the presence of American stars like Rob Lowe and Kristen Bell, the film’s marketing emphasized Mexican actor Eugenio Derbez (Instructions Not Included) as a washed-up playboy who moves in with his sister (Salma Hayek). Close to 90% of its audience was Latinx, a triumph for the nascent film company Pantelion Films, a partnership between Lionsgate and Televisa.
Bāhubali 2: The Conclusion was even more of a box office revelation, taking in $10.4 million in just 425 theaters (for an impressive $24,500 per theater average). Ultimately earning $20.4 million domestically, the fantasy epic now stands as the top-grossing Indian movie ever in the US and Canada, making for quite an auspicious inaugural release for its US distributor, Great India Films.
What’s next? Pantelion and Great India Films have not yet announced their next domestic releases.
LOSER: Paramount Pictures
Paramount has barely operated as a full-fledged studio for a few years now — reportedly due to shenanigans at its parent company, Viacom — but even by its lowered standards, 2017 has been a really crap year. Paramount’s crown-jewel franchise, Transformers, is showing major audience fatigue just as the studio hopes to expand it with a spinoff movie about Bumblebee. Ghost in the Shell couldn’t shake the whitewashingcontroversy that tormented it from the moment Scarlett Johansson agreed to play the lead role. And the family movie Monster Trucks — literally about monsters that can live inside trucks — was such a debacle that it reportedly forced Viacom to take a $115 million write-down.
But hey! At least Paramount isn’t the next studio on this list!
What’s next? Let it not be said that Paramount is afraid of taking risks. On Oct. 13, Jennifer Lawrence and Michelle Pfeiffer will headline director Darren Aronofsky’s mysterious thriller Mother! On Oct. 27, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Elizabeth Debicki, and David Oyelowo will star in another entry in producer J.J. Abrams’ loosely connected Cloverfield trilogy (it was previously known as God Particle, and is currently without a title). On Nov. 3, Matt Damon and Julianne Moore will star in George Clooney’s next directorial effort, Suburbicon, a dark comedy written by Joel and Ethan Coen. On Nov. 10, Mel Gibson and John Lithgow will join Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell in the sure-why-not sequel Daddy’s Home 2. And on Dec. 22, Damon and Kristen Wiig will star in director Alexander Payne’s Downsizing, literally a movie about a guy who decides to shrink himself.
WINNER: Everything, Everything
Ever since The Fault in our Stars made over $300 million worldwide in 2014, Hollywood has been chasing after another inexpensive teenage drama that can make blockbuster money. For a while, it looked like this may be the year studios finally gave up that chase: February’s Earth-to-Mars romance The Space Between Us with Asa Butterfield and Britt Robertson barely took off at all, earning just $14.8 million worldwide, and in March the Groundhog Day-but-a-YA-drama Before I Fall did no better, earning roughly $14.4 million worldwide.
But then the winsome romance Everything, Everything, based on the YA novel by Nicola Yoon, debuted in May, and turned a tidy profit, taking in $45.9 million globally from a reported $10 million budget. That’s nowhere near how well TheFault in our Stars performed at the box office, certainly, but few dramas ever hope to make that much money these days — and it’s clearly a better return on investment than several movies this year that cost 10 times that amount. More to the point, Everything, Everything also happens to be the rare studio movie in which the director, Stella Meghie, and star, Amandla Stenberg, are women of color — more of this, please!
What’s next? Stenberg will next star in the World War II drama Where Hands Touch from writer-director Amma Asante (Belle, A United Kingdom). Meghie hasn’t yet announced her next project.
LOSER: Sony Pictures
Let us take a moment of silence for the sad fate of Sony Pictures. Nothing — nothing at all — has worked for the studio this year: not the all-animated reboot of the Smurfs franchise, not the sci-fi thriller Life, and not the distaff bachelorette-party-gone-wrong comedy Rough Night. Collectively, Sony’s movies in 2017 have made less domestically than Beauty and the Beast made in its first five days.
What’s next?Spider-Man: Homecoming, opening July 7, should finally brighten Sony’s box office fortunes, even if the studio had to bring in Disney-owned Marvel Studios to reboot the franchise for the second time in five years. From there, well, The Emoji Movie on July 28 and The Dark Tower on Aug. 4 probably couldn’t make Sony’s year any worse, right? Then there’s the faith-based drama All Saints with John Corbett on Aug. 25, the remake of the horror thriller Flatliners with Ellen Page on Sept. 29, the fact-based firefighting drama Granite Mountain Hotshots with Miles Teller and Jeff Bridges on Oct. 20, and the unnecessarily subtitled Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, with Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart on Dec. 20. Good luck, Sony!
WINNER: Hugh Jackman
Despite his obvious charm and classic beauty, Hugh Jackman has been basically a single-franchise movie star. His only major live-action hits (other than Les Miserables) have been when he’s taken up Wolverine’s claws. But those movies have been more than enough to feed his career: Including cameos in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse, Jackman has played the role nine times in 17 years.
Which makes his decision to leave his marquee character behind for good after Logan that much more striking, and the surprising grace and emotional power of the movie that much more affecting. Logan’s R rating allowed director James Mangold to make great use of Jackman’s physical commitment to the role — those claws can finally draw real blood. But it’s the actor’s alternately funny and touching scenes with Patrick Stewart (as the dementia-prone Charles Xavier) and Dafne Keen (as the fearsome kid mutant X-23) that underline how much of a classic leading man Jackman can be when given the chance. Logan, ironically, was the first time Jackman was allowed to play Wolverine as a fully realized person, not a fantastically shredded comic book hero. Here’s hoping he can now find a few non-mutant roles that also let him showcase those talents.
What’s next? Jackman will play circus pioneer P.T. Barnum in the original musical The Greatest Showman, on Dec. 25.
To be clear, we’re talking about Netflix movies here. In May, the biggest streaming service on the planet was humiliated at the Cannes Film Festival after officials effectively banned it from future lineups due to Netflix’s conviction not to exhibit its original films in theaters before they premiere on streaming. Festival jury president Pedro Almodóvar even stated he couldn’t imagine awarding any movies that wouldn’t be shown in theaters, and, indeed, both of Netflix’s well-received films at Cannes — Okja with Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal, and The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) with Ben Stiller and Adam Sandler — came home empty-handed.
The whole kerfuffle focused a harsh spotlight on Netflix’s inability to disrupt the movie business with anything close to the monumental impact it’s had on television.
At least, that’s how it seems. Because Netflix won’t disclose its audience data, we have no way of knowing how any of its feature films are performing. Without that crucial context, it’s even difficult to sort out just how impressed we should be by CEO Reed Hastings’ April announcement that Netflix subscribers have watched 500 million hours of Sandler’s movies since the release of The Ridiculous 6 in Dec. 2015. That number certainly sounds enormous, but as a point of comparison, we don’t know how many hours Netflix subscribers have spent watching its hits like Stranger Things or Orange Is the New Black. We don’t even know how Netflix is defining an “Adam Sandler movie” (does he have to star, or could he also produce?), or “watching” (does it have to be the entire film, or just a part of it?), or an “hour” (does it have to be a full one, or does it have to just round up?).
What’s next? The anorexia drama To the Bone with Lily Collins on July 14, the romantic comedy Naked with Marlon Wayans on Aug. 11, and the horror thriller Death Note on Aug. 25. (The Meyerowitz Stories does not yet have an official release date.)
DRAW: Emma Watson
On the one hand, Beauty and the Beast‘s $1.26 billion in global box office returns means Watson is now the highest-grossing female actor in the world, with $9.68 billion in total grosses since her career began with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in 2001. She is by far the most successful of her Potter compatriots, and she has the pick of just about any project she could possibly want.
On the other hand, Watson’s film after Beauty and the Beast, the social media thriller The Circle with Tom Hanks, bombed hard: It opened in March in fifth place (behind the aforementioned debuts of How to Be a Latin Lover and Bāhubali 2, in fact) with just $9 million. It ultimately earned just $20.5 million domestically (and barely got a release internationally), not to mention the worst reviews of Watson’s career. In just one month, Watson managed to demonstrate the awesome power and the bitter limitations of movie stardom in 2017.
What’s next? Watson has not yet announced her next project.
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As President Trump spoke in Poland on Thursday, a small group of women gathered in Warsaw to oppose him. Draped in ruby red cloaks and wearing white bonnets, the women stood silently together, eyes forward, as news photographers snapped their picture, and demonstrators around them chanted and held signs.
These are the Handmaids — and they’ve gone global.
Ever since Hulu began promoting its television adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s classic novel The Handmaid’s Tale earlier this year, legions of women have found inspiration in the show’s costumes, as they look for new ways to oppose the Trump administration and Republicans nationally. Raging against an agenda they see as anti-women, Handmaids have been spotted protesting in Texas, Ohio, New Hampshire, Missouri, New York, and, of course, Washington, DC.
The speed with which the Handmaid look has spread among activists has shocked the show’s costume designer, Ane Crabtree. “I’ve been designing for 28 years now but I have never in my life experienced anything like this. Not even close,” Crabtree told BuzzFeed News.
“It seemed to set off like wildfire around the country,” she said.
Set in a dystopian future, Atwood’s 1985 book imagined a world where the US government has been replaced with an ultraconservative theocracy in a new country named Gilead. Women are banned from working in the militarized state and divided into social classes — the lowest being Handmaids, who are kept as slaves and raped in order to produce children. Atwood said in February she believed that Trump’s election was partly responsible for the book’s recent spike in sales. (Through her agent, the author declined to comment for this story).
While Hulu representatives were not keen to discuss politics, the television adaptation has been the inspiration for the Handmaids protest movement. In early March, the company hired actors to wear the costumes and walk around Austin’s South by Southwest festival to promote the show. The stunt caught the eye of Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas. “Please tell me they’re going to walk around inside the [Texas] Capitol,” Busby wrote in a Facebook post. “It would be such a missed opportunity if they don’t.”
The idea quickly turned into action, as a small group of NARAL supporters began planning a protest of Texas Senate Bill 25 — which supporters say is designed to stop doctors being sued if a child is born with a disability, but which critics contend would lead to doctors lying to women about the health of their fetuses. NARAL reached out to Crabtree for advice, and although she couldn’t give them the exact design specifications, she did send some tips for how best to create the look.
The women quickly ordered Handmaids costumes online, but when the costumes arrived the cloaks were pink instead of red, NARAL supporter Erin Walter told BuzzFeed News. One of the women raced to an Austin costume rental store and managed to find several “Red Riding Hood” cloaks, Walter said.
Walter, a Unitarian Universalist minister, said donning the costume for the first time felt like a “sacred” moment. “It really was an emotional experience,” she said. “I was not prepared for how haunting and powerful it would feel to put on that red robe and bonnet.”
Photos from the March 20 demonstration at the Texas Capitol immediately went viral and inspired other actions, for which Walter gives credit to Busby’s initial idea. (Busby was on vacation and not available to comment for this story, a NARAL spokesperson said.)
“Heather Busby had a genius idea,” said Walter, “because we have there the intersection of literature — many women love that book — as well as a pop culture moment, thanks to the show. Then we also have a time in our country when women’s rights are under attack.”
For Crabtree, the Hulu costume designer, fashion and costume have always been a mode for self-expression and politics, dating back to the period she spent studying abroad in the UK in the 1980s. “The whole punk movement was very educational for me in terms of what people could do to protest politically,” she said.
Crabtree believes the simplicity and symbolism of her costumes have helped them spread in reaction to the conservative shift in US politics.
“I just think that it’s easy for folks because it’s the color red. It’s like an alarm call,” she said. “It’s something that is considered present day but speaks to a past time when women had no rights, so it’s got a duality in its visual strength in putting out a message where you don’t have to say a word.”
Crabtree said part of the costumes’ strength as a protest symbol is the juxtaposition it creates when Handmaids wander among the general public. “Because everyone is dressed in suits or business attire. It’s a beautiful, shocking visual — most especially in mass,” she said.
Stephanie Martin, an Austin-based teacher who joined later Handmaids protests, said the general public interacts with her differently when she wears the costume than they do when she’s in regular clothing. “When people around you see you, you can feel them reacting sometimes,” she said. “You can feel them reacting to it, whether they’re angry or sad. It’s a very charged atmosphere once a Handmaid enters the room.”
Handmaids have been protesting since before the Hulu show first aired. In April 2012, a group of Canadian women wearing red cloaks and winged, white hats — similar to the cornettes worn in the sitcom The Flying Nun — appeared outside the parliament building in Ottawa. Dubbing themselves the Radical Handmaids, the women found inspiration in the Atwood novel to oppose a motion by a Conservative Party MP to debate when human life begins. “The Handmaids Tale is not an instruction manual,” their protest signs read.
“We wanted to do something that was colorful, cultural, and creative, and wasn’t your typical blah-blah rally,” Aalya Ahmad, a Carleton University adjunct professor and Radical Handmaids founder, recalled to BuzzFeed News. “With a little group like ours that didn’t have many resources, we thought we could do something I like to call ‘cause-play’ — rebels with a cause.”
The motion to reopen the abortion debate in Canada was not ultimately successful in parliament, but the Radical Handmaids continued to organize and appear at subsequent events in Canada.
Then earlier this year, the group, which consists of about 10 women but has more than 2,000 followers on Facebook, began noticing the red and white costumes popping up south of the border.
Handmaids now trade fabric tips and sewing patterns with protesters across the country via Facebook, Martin said. “Man, we’ve got it down to an art now. We can whip them out pretty quick,” she said.
On Twitter, Atwood reacts with delight each time someone flags a new Handmaids protest. “My goodness!” she exclaimed on Thursday in response to the protesters in Poland.
Crabtree, meanwhile, is preparing to return to the Hulu show for its second season, mindful of the impact her work has already had on protest culture. “I’d like to just start with something in a purist way as an artist and as a collaborator, and design something wholly because of story,” she said. “But I’m not gonna lie: it’s now in the back of my mind.”
Jul. 07, 2017, at 00:02 AM
The Austin-based teacher who joined the Handmaids protests is Stephanie Martin. A previous version of this story used an incorrect surname.
David Mack is a reporter and weekend editor for BuzzFeed News in New York.