The Brentwood Country Mart is a rustic, red-barn-style open-air shopping center in a tony part of West Los Angeles. It sits on the border of Brentwood and Santa Monica, on the corner of San Vicente Boulevard and 26th Street, and it’s the kind of place where you cannot buy a scented candle for less than $175.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, it wasn’t quite so luxe. Back then, it was popular with people on opposite ends of life’s journey: toddlers and their moms (or more often, their nannies) on the front end and very, very old people on the back end.

In addition to those two groups, there were also broke film students like me, who would sit in the shade and read Variety with a $2 cup of coffee.

I was doing just that, years ago, when a very old man tapped me on the shoulder and pointed angrily at my copy of Variety.

“You in the business?” He asked.

“Yes,” I said, “I’m a writer.” Which wasn’t exactly true but was aspirationally accurate.

He looked at me bitterly.

“Let me tell you something. The business stinks,” he spat out. “I wrote 62 Mr. Eds,” he said. “Sixty-two! And I can’t get a meeting.”

There was no Internet in those days, so it was a few hours before I could get back to the room I rented in a guesthouse off Carmelina Avenue and look up Mr. Ed—the 1960s-era sitcom about a wisecracking talking horsein The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present which I used to prop up my computer monitor.

Of the dozen or so writers listed for Mr. Ed, none had more than a handful of episode credits each. No one, in other words, wrote 62 of them. So my angry friend was either lying about his credits—a time-honored show-business tradition, and a lot easier to get away with before IMDb—or the bitterness he felt at being too old and cast aside had curdled his memory. In his mind, perhaps, he may not have written exactly 62 episodes of Mr. Ed, but he wrote a lot of them. The one thing that was undeniably true was that he couldn’t get a meeting. You didn’t need to consult The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network TV Shows, 1946–Present to know that. You knew because he was wearing bedroom slippers outside at 2 p.m.

The proper human response to the sad old Mr. Ed writer is compassion plus a dollop of the reaper comes for all of us humility. But even back then, before I could claim to be an industry insider, I could do the basic and brutal math of show business.

In the mid-1960s, when Mr. Ed was broadcast on the CBS network, there were three national television broadcasters delivering roughly the same number of hours of programming as they did in 1990, when I was loafing around the Brentwood Country Mart pretending to understand what was in Variety. A few years before, Rupert Murdoch had launched the Fox Broadcasting Network, which added more hours to the supply but didn’t hit its stride until the mid-1990s. The television business wasn’t an ever-expanding marketplace of abundance, but rather a tightly limited number of available time slots on the same broadcasting networks that had been in business since 1948 or so. Here’s what I knew: If I wanted to get a show on the air, someone else’s show had to get canned. If I wanted to work as a television comedy writer, the old guy in the slippers needed to leave the business, and I meant that in the most euphemistic way possible.

Until very recently, the entire economic model of show business was built on this hard zero-sum truth: There is not room here for everyone, and some of you are going to have to pack up and go home. People in the television business didn’t look at the overnight ratings to see what was working. They scoured them to see what was failing. A failed show meant an open slot.

The limitations that kept the television business small and nasty and profitable—only so many hours in a day, only so many networks in business—began to loosen as basic cable stations emerged and produced original programming of their own. But it wasn’t until the introduction of streaming services that the business broke loose. With unlimited bandwidth to deliver hours and hours of content, unlimited storewidth to amass an endless library, and unlimited money coming in from Wall Street, the streaming services could make as many TV shows as they wanted. They hired writers and produced TV shows with money-drunk abandon, and the greatest thing about those go-go years was, you didn’t need to wait for someone else’s show to get cancelled. Nobody had to die and get out of the way. They just kept adding shows. How many shows? Put it this way: In 2019, the Writers Guild of America had about 11,000 members. Today, five years later, it has around 20,000.

Five years from now, unfortunately, it will probably have a lot less. Show business is going through a painful contraction. In 2023, American television production declined by 15 percent. In the first quarter of 2024, it’s down another 7 percent. Studio space, for the first time in 10 years, is operating at 70 percent capacity. It doesn’t matter how many shows you make, it turns out, if there are still the same number of hours in the day to watch them. So some of those 20,000 members of the WGA are not going to last long enough in the business to get old and in the way. Some of them are going to have to find another line of work now, while they’re still young.

“I’m outta here,” a former writer colleague of mine posted on a group text we share. “Heading to Missouri. Done with this crap.” He has spent the past two years writing and rewriting a project for a big streaming service, weathering the budget cutbacks and two major strikes, only to be told last month that his project is dead. Without the prospect of a show in production, and facing another year or two of unemployment, he and his wife had a complicated and fraught conversation about money (the most complicated and fraught topic there is), and they decided it was better to sell their house and move than stick around and struggle and, eventually, have him shuffle around the Brentwood Country Mart shouting at young people.

I’ve heard the same calculation from writers, directors, even people in talent management: cutbacks, tight belts, more people fighting over fewer opportunities, all signals to get out of the business while there’s still some money in the bank to start over, in some other place, in some other business.

“The interesting thing about battlefield medicine,” a U.S. Army medic who served in Iraq and Afghanistan told me recently, “is that the screaming is always the loudest well after the limb has been removed.”

That makes sense, of course. People tend to make the most noise when it’s too late—when the amputation is complete, when the parent is dead and buried, when the cultural change has taken root, when the next generation has taken over, when you wrote an unspecified number of Mr. Eds but haven’t had a meeting in years.

The screaming is always the loudest, in other words, when all hope is lost and whatever you’re screaming about is already permanent.

Which brings us to the entertainment industry in the summer of 2024, where the screaming is just getting started.

Photo: Coulter-Strauss Public Relations for D’Arcy Advertising

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