Logging on to our Zoom call from an all-glass conference room, journalist Richard Rushfield waves hello and adjusts his translucent sunglasses.
He has certainly earned the right to look like journalism’s Tony Stark – Rushfield has been covering the entertainment industry for over twenty years and he’s written for several of the country’s most prominent publications, including Gawker, Buzzfeed, and the Los Angeles Times. That’s what inspired our Al Hirschfeld-esque caricature in our header – like the legendary cartoonist, Rushfield has had a close eye on Hollywood for decades.
After years of being frustrated with the quality of journalism surrounding the movie business, Rushfield took it upon himself to start a publication himself. Thus, The Ankler was born.
Since its launch in 2017, The Ankler has covered trends like the rise of streaming, the fight for greater diversity in Hollywood, and the challenges of the pandemic-era box office. Now, The Ankler is expanding with the hope to take its keen eye and honest voice to a wider audience and continue to affect the way we talk about the entertainment industry in the news.
JC TAYLOR: Congratulations on The Ankler’s ongoing expansion. How’s it going?
RICHARD RUSHFIELD: It’s going well! We’re in “start-up” mode here, and we’re trying to deliver something meaningful to people in the entertainment world and make sense of this industry and this strange time we’re in.
JT: From my perspective, The Ankler has certainly achieved that goal already. You have changed how people talk about the entertainment industry. How did everything first start?
RR: I had gotten the sense for several years that coverage of the industry had gotten very bland and uninteresting, and – quite honestly – un-insightful. At the time, the whole newsletter thing had just started, there were a couple in the tech world, but nothing like it in the entertainment world.
I worked for several digital publications where there was enormous pressure to get millions of page views to be able to sell ads and even then, the companies were barely scraping by. You had to make everything you did extremely watered down, so that anyone who happened upon your article could understand it.
Everything we were publishing just became this itemized piece of content floating out in space, and you just had to hope it would find an audience. There was no real way to build a relationship with your readers.
So, for me, The Ankler was an opportunity to build an audience that actually cared about the subject, and hopefully deepen their understanding of it. I just started writing a little newsletter and figured I would see what happened.
JC: Reading your newsletter, I get the sense you’re having fun while writing it. Would you say that’s accurate?
RR: I definitely am. In prior jobs at bigger media companies, there was all this other stuff you had to think about when you were writing – you were constantly worried about how it would appeal to advertisers, and you had to worry about SEO and generating link clicks or that you were matching the tone of the publication. It was really freeing when we started doing The Ankler – I just focused on the writing without worrying about being reprimanded for it.
JC: I know you have some history working on political campaigns, and there’s certainly some politics at play in the entertainment industry, too. How did you get involved in politics? And, do you see any overlap between the two worlds?
RR: I always enjoyed politics since I was very young – I used to memorize the Members of the House and Senate and what committees they were on. When I was in high school, the “Mondale for President” campaign opened its state headquarters a few blocks from my school. My friends and I would walk over every day and ask them if we could volunteer. Eventually, we wore them down.
When Walter Mondale came to town, they would let us hold the elevator doors open for him, and I got to ride up with him every so often. At the time, that was very exciting.
Through college, I kept volunteering for stuff like that. When I graduated, I became a grassroots organizer with the Clinton campaign in 1992. That allowed me to spend a few years travelling around the country – working in local communities and living out of a duffel bag. That’s fun to do when you’re 22, but by the time you become 26 or 27, it becomes less fun.
What I discovered in that time is that I wasn’t a “natural cheerleader.” I have this cranky disposition that likes to see the worst in everything – that doesn’t always prove useful when you’re trying to be a team player and root for a candidate! I’m much better being on the sidelines and throwing stones [laughs].
My time working in politics allowed me to really get to know all the communities that are very different than the people working in Hollywood, so I think that has given me a unique perspective. In terms of their similarities, I think both of those worlds are all about relationships and how you sell yourself, so I’ve been able to parse through that and see what’s real. That is definitely a very “political” skill.
JC: The past two years have certainly brought many changes to the entertainment industry. What are some of the trends that you’ve noticed and what do you see on the horizon for that business?
RR: The rise of streaming has been a huge disruptor to the old ways of doing things in Hollywood, and that’s still going on.
With so many people at home watching television, the number of shows being made has almost tripled over the last few years. It will be interesting to see if that slows down in the future or if this is the new norm for television. It’s almost too much for audiences to keep up with.
JC: With the success of some of the recent blockbusters like The Batman and Spider-Man: No Way Home, it feels like we’re coming out of the pandemic box office slump a bit. Do you think that’s the case?
RR: Like you said, it’s been proven that audiences will come out to theaters to experience these big superhero movies that seem really exciting and are made for the big screen, but it’s not clear yet if you can still have success with other kinds of movies. That’s the big question for the movies right now.
But it is important to remember that things evolve – entertainment evolves. We can’t just cling to the thing that we prefer.
JC: I wonder if in the internet era, we’re losing our attention spans a little bit. And yet, it feels like movies are getting longer.
RR: I think that’s a good observation. There’s definitely a discrepancy between the attitudes of moviegoers and how people act in the rest of their lives.
Half of my life was spent before the internet appeared, and half of it has been afterwards. So, I can still remember when I would sit down and watch one or two movies, in their entirety, with nothing else to do while I watched them. I didn’t have a phone to play with or a laptop to write on, so I used to be able to sit and pay full attention to multiple movies every day and it wasn’t a problem.
Now, I put on a movie, and it takes me like a week to get through one! I’ll watch ten minutes, then I’ll do something on my phone, I’ll send an email, then I come back and watch three minutes more, and it starts all over again.
You know, movie theaters are one of the only places in the world where people are still told to put down their phones. You go to a concert, a sporting event, even church, and people are on their phones. So, movie theaters are one of the only places where you can’t do that, and I can’t help wondering if that’s sustainable, as sad as it is to say.
It drives me insane when people are on their phones at a movie theater. Because, that place is supposed to be sacred! But I fear that I am on the losing side of that argument.
Maybe at funerals, people feel bad about being on their phones? It’s difficult to say.
JC: What are some of the big stories you’re following at The Ankler right now?
RR: Well, we’re following the return to cinemas pretty closely. There are going to be more experiments in the coming months where some smaller movies are going to be releasing in cinemas, and we’ll find out what people are willing to come back for. That’s something The Ankler will be reporting on every step of the way.
I’m also interested in what is next for entertainment in general. I am curious to see what audiences move on to next – whether it’s TikTok, or holograms, or whatever crazy thing someone comes up with.
JC: As someone who follows and reports on this industry, and also just as a fan, what sort of changes would you like to see to the movie business?
RR: A friend told me recently, “whoever wins this coming chapter in the industry will be whoever has the greatest appetite for risk.” This is entertainment, so we need someone to take some wild and crazy chances with the kind of movies they’re making. If Hollywood is going to sustain itself, that’s how it’s going to happen.
Theaters are going to have a lot more experiments in the next few months, and we’ll see if people are willing to come back to theaters for them. I hope they are.
The Ankler will be there for it, at least! In the expansion, the plan is that we’re going to build smarter, more fun, meaningful experiences for people – more detailed and insightful information than they would be getting elsewhere.
I should write that down [laughs]. I’ve been trying to describe it for so long, and I like that one!
You can read and subscribe to The Ankler here.