To say that these are bonkers times for Hollywood would be underselling it. Streaming services can evaporate into thin air, sometimes mere weeks after launch. TV shows are being axed left and right, occasionally mid-production, making it a thorny prospect for viewers to fall in love with anything. Entire shows are disappearing from platforms previously thought to be their permanent home, thus complicating the prospect of having ever loved a show at all. The fate of the movies continues to be passionately debated, with each new theatrical release being a potential referendum on the future of cineplexes everywhere. Can Tom Cruise save cinema? Will Netflix kill the movie business? Will the market kill Netflix? Will Ryan Murphy kill again?
Never has the Biz felt more like a bloodsport. When Bob Iger abruptly returned to the Magic Kingdom and threw out the other Bob a few weeks ago, it was quite literally the wildest show in show business. There’s so much happening so much of the time, no shortage of drama and tension and uncertainty and electricity. Indeed, what’s happening around Hollywood these days sometimes even feels more exciting (or anxiety-inducing, if you work in the industry) to talk about than the actual stuff being produced.
Chaos begs for a sense of order, or at least the illusion of order, and there are few better ways to grapple with pandemonium than by simply talking through it. In that regard, one particular podcast has increasingly stood out this year: The Town. Since its launch in March, the Hollywood insider podcast, hosted by veteran entertainment reporter and editor Matt Belloni, has rapidly become a watercooler of choice for the streaming wars in a year when the streaming wars kicked into overdrive. The show’s voluminous, gossipy, shoot-from-the-hip style feels fitting for the moment, and I can only imagine it’s become a useful — or at the very least present — resource for those who are actually in show business. But crucially, it has also become utter catnip for those on the outside gawking in, some of whom, like myself, are sickos eminently curious to observe what a five-car pile-up looks like from the inside.
To be sure, there are plenty of other ways to keep close tabs on entertainment scuttlebutt. Take your pick: You’ve got the trades; the business section of respectable newspapers; less respectable but no less valuable gossipy anonymous Instagram accounts; various Twitter handles of variable repute; a few dedicated TV channels; and a growing cadre of upstart publications. (And of course, here at Vulture, my esteemed colleague Josef Adalian writes the great industry-biz newsletter Buffering.) As a podcast person, though, I tend to find strong appeal in the prospect of being able to auditorily bathe in narratives, and if there’s anything that chat podcasts can do exceptionally well, it’s letting audiences ambiently marinade themselves in the worlds of their choosing.
Such is the pleasure on offer with The Town, which effectively marries industry hullabaloo with a sports-radio sensibility. Which entertainment conglomerate is up? Which studio is down? Which non-Chapek executive had the worst year? Is The Way of Water a bomb, or are you just dreaming? Is that streaming service in a rebuild, or is it dead in the water? Wrap me in meta narratives; that’s precisely how I like my movies.
Part of the show’s stickiness can be attributed to the nature of its host, Matt Belloni, a former lawyer turned Hollywood gossipmonger who’s worked at The Hollywood Reporter for 14 years, serving as head editorial honcho for four of them before stepping down in 2020, reportedly due to fights over editorial independence. He eventually helped found Puck, the fledgling media operation for budding masters of the universe, last year, where he now writes the equally delicious and appropriately titled What I’m Hearing newsletter, to which The Town serves as a complement. (The Town is published by both Puck and The Ringer. It’s produced by Craig Horlbeck, who also serves as the Andy Richter to Belloni’s Conan O’Brien.)
Belloni isn’t a stranger to gabbing about talent deals in front of a microphone. For years, he’s been a recurring presence on Kim Masters’s long-running KCRW radio show The Business, frequently popping up on opening segments to banter with the veteran investigative journalist about the latest headlines. With The Town, though, Belloni’s been given open space to run with the ball, reaping greater dividends from his position as an insider. Assessments on what makes a good insider may vary, but I tend to find that the persona is best when rooted in a sense of ambiguity. Someone who’s connected, well-sourced, and speaks the language of a specific world fluently, but also, someone who fundamentally stands alone. Everybody and nobody’s friend; neither a studio mouthpiece nor a talent rep nor a consumer advocate, even if they do complain about the price-gouging and long lines at Disneyland. Most importantly, you also want someone who has strong, preferably informed, fundamentally grouchy opinions. A little meanness can go a long way. From the introduction of a recent podcast interview with UTA’s Jeremy Zimmer: “He’s got his fingers in everything, from film to TV to books, music, influencers, games, sports. Even the lowest of talent, podcasters. I’m kidding. Actually, I’m not.” (Ouch.) Being an insider — a conversational conduit, a watercooler — is a performance, after all, and on the mic, Belloni is pretty good at playing the part, especially when he’s engaging execs in a punchy interview.
You might not ultimately trust his take or worldview or taste, but that isn’t really the point with the insider’s platform. Rather, the point is reliable proximity to the conversation, and here is where The Town serves as one of the more successfully realized products in The Ringer’s lineage of podcasting. The audio-first media company, now owned by Spotify, has largely been predicated on applying the sports-radio construction to as many topics as possible. Most shows aren’t going to work, but sometimes it does, and in the case of The Town, it really comes together. More often than now, you’re bound to hear something interesting on any given episode.
The Town’s sports-radio-esque approach is also potent for another reason. Following Hollywood’s corporate machinations really does feel like a spectator sport, and our experience as media consumers are enhanced by simply knowing more about the circumstances around the stuff we’re trying to enjoy. Consider the parallel as a sports fan: Closely following the off-court antics of, say, the Knicks would almost certainly give you insight into why the on-court product is ultimately underwhelming; this can either help you wallow properly or maybe even prompt you to take your time commitment someplace else. And the same goes for the experience of being a modern media consumer. Who knows which streaming services are going to be around at the end of 2023. You sure you wanna fall in love with that TV show, or commit to that streaming platform, or shell out for that bundle? Maybe, with The Town, you’ll find enough scuttlebutt to figure that out.