Showbiz Kids director Alex Winter on child stars and tackling abuse in Hollywood
Alex Winter is most famously known for his work in the Bill and Ted films, and just ahead of the third installment's long-awaited release in August, he's got a new documentary premiering on HBO called Showbiz Kids.
Winter, who has been behind other documentary projects including 2012's Downloaded and 2018's The Panama Papers, gives viewers a peek into the dark side of childhood fame with testimonials from former child actors Wil Wheaton, Todd Bridges, Evan Rachel Wood, Cameron Boyce, Henry Thomas, Milla Jovovich, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Mara Wilson. Winter served as the film's writer and director, debuting Tuesday at 9 p.m. on HBO and available to stream on HBO Max.
In an exclusive clip from the documentary, Wood shares her experience with abuse growing up in the industry.
Video courtesy of HBO
Talking to EW, Winter explains that although abuse in its many forms has not yet been irradicated from Hollywood, there have been positive changes that offer child stars more protections today than ever before. These include the Coogan Act Law, also known as the California Child Actor's Bill, enacted in 1939 created to protect the earnings of child actors, and the #MeToo movement.
"There's been a lot of progress, thankfully," Winter tells EW. "I mean the child labor laws have changed dramatically since the times of Baby Peggy, who was our silent movie child star in the film. They've frankly changed significantly since I was a child actor in the '70s and into the early '80s. The Coogan Law is very solid and kids are emancipating themselves and there's really good solid rules and union regulations about how long you can work a child on set and the type of supervision that that child has onset."
He adds, "The next big step forward that we've had recently is the #metoo movement, which isn't directly aimed at children or child performers, but this kind of discourse that entered our culture very, very recently in a significant way has completely changed the game. There's always going to be predatory behavior, that's human nature. There's always going to be risk associated with putting your child in an adult environment, whether it's in the entertainment industry or something else. But the ability to communicate and also the awareness that the average person has about the pervasive nature of this kind of abuse is not the world that we lived in several years ago."
The documentary also highlights young actors today who are shown with their parents, their biggest supporters who diligently take them to auditions and shoots with dreams of becoming famous. Winter explains their inclusion in the story was imperative.
"Honestly, I wanted to express the three-dimensionality of the family experience because it's kind of a cliche idea of the sort of stage mother driving their child into the business and obviously, that can happen," he explains. "But primarily what you have is a child that very much wants to be on stage or wants to be performing and how the family reacts to that and then manages that is critical. But it isn't all this kind of one-way street from the parent down to the kid. There can be very negative repercussions that the child's success or that journey in general causes back on the parents and on the family and the way it disrupts that family."
But Winter notes not every child star experience is necessarily negative, and there's an example of that in the documentary as well.
"There can be super positive things that happen where the parents adjust their lives in a way that will work for the child that doesn't completely disrupt that family and that's a really lovely thing to see happen," he says." I think that's what you see in the case of Cameron Boyce and the way his family functions and I have other friends who are now fully adult actors who started as children who came from incredibly solid families that just knew how to readjust. So it's kind of a mixed bag and I really wanted to show that this experience is complex, there can be incredible highs and incredible lows and everything in between."
Boyce is prominently featured in the documentary, which was shot before his death at age 20 last July due to complications from epilepsy.
Showbiz Kids premieres on HBO tonight at 9 p.m.