In the first part of this two-part series of articles on the seedier side of Hollywood, we tackled some of the stickier situations where the other side might not be playing fair. In this part, we’ll look at situations where even the best of intentions can go awry.
Confusing Enthusiasm for Competency
This industry is largely a lonely one for most of us most of the time. So it is perfectly natural to get caught up in the excitement when you find someone who gets enthusiastic for your work and wants to immediately help you get “to the next level.” After all, you need a real believer in your work to stoke the motivation to keep pushing through the next level of doors towards realization. But in the midst of that adrenaline rush, you seriously need to step back and assess whether this new person is the right person to open those doors. Do they have the right power and connections to forego all your other options while they work their networks? Here are the signs to look for before you put all your eggs in one basket.
Overpromises and Under-delivery
The movie Top Gun (1986) has a line that would be quite appropriate for this section, “Your ego is writing checks your body can’t cash.” Sometimes people boast. I know it’s hard to believe, but, it’s true. In an overabundance of enthusiasm sometimes people like to say they can do things that may not be within their skillset or power to deliver. I’d like to think that most of the time their heart is in the right place. They truly believe that what they promise is possible, they just haven’t achieved it yet. But with a property like yours, it’ll surely work (fingers crossed).
The motivation might be sincere or they may want to appear better placed than they truly are. The horrible adage, “Fake it ‘til you make it,” is derived from this approach. The problem is, if they’re requiring you to believe in them before they have proven themselves it can reflect poorly on you if things go sour, spoiling your precious first bite at a good first impression.
For example, if you get interest from an enthusiastic “producer” who says they’d be happy to take your script to all the studios and get you a deal, maybe even a bidding war, take a moment. It might be that the studios have never worked with this producer and wouldn’t know them from any other Joe walking in off the street. How is that going to better the odds of opening the doors for you? Is this producer going to try to attach themselves to the project as part of the package? If they’re unknown they’d be adding an additional anchor weighing down taking on the script in addition to the already recognized risk of an unknown writer (you) taking the chance even less desirable.
And this assumes the producer actually does everything right even if they can get a foot in the door of the studio. If they rub them the wrong way then not only does the deal not get done, your reputation takes a hit by being associated with this doofus. And all the while the producer is spinning their wheels getting nowhere, your script gets older and any potential suitors who may have better access cannot help as long as the exclusivity stays with the hopeful over-promiser.
To protect yourself from these eager beavers do your research. Find out how actually connected they really are, what they’ve been able to actually accomplish not just what they think they can do. Get a detailed plan of attack from them as to who, what, and why they plan on attempting and realistically assess their actual chance of success. Listen through the bluster and also hear what they’re not saying, where they’re fudging things. Not to say that you can’t give them a shot, but, make sure you know how long that shot actually is. And don’t tie up your rights and opportunities for an inordinate amount of time to give them that shot.
Ego Driven Decisions
Someone once warned to look out for big egos in Hollywood. Someone else replied, probably under their breadth, “Are there any other kind there?” Needless to say, there are a lot of egos in our industry. Since most of the business in town is driven by the reputation of the players, having a big ego and protecting it is a safety go-to used by a lot of people to make sure they can keep their place in line, or keep inching forward ahead of others.
Besides the usual types of maneuvering you’d find in any industry such as measuring your office to make sure it’s just slightly bigger than your rival’s, the entertainment industry puts its own spin on things tending to bolster peoples’ ego-driven decision making to inordinate extremes. Many salary negotiations will hinge not on the dollar figure itself but on just how much MORE the talent is getting than those around them. It is not uncommon at all for a producer’s job to entail a lot of massaging egos as well as managing the legitimate activity of production. And there are always the sadly true tales of supposed big wigs with egos (and little else) throwing their weight around to get their way or keep others from getting theirs.
Some ego-driven machinations are just blustering and puffery, only effective as far as their wind will blow. They are often found in those who use the phrases, “Do you know who I am?” and “You’ll never work in this town again!” when they’re unhappy. Most of the time these egos can’t actually do anything to affect the outcome they scream about, at least not in the long run. But they can always cause headaches in the short term.
Because these egoists do have some authority and/or status, dealing with them can be tricky. Avoiding their rankle is best, but, not always possible. Each case is different, but, you may be able to stand up to them, call them on their puffery and hope they back down. You could report them to their higher-ups, but, usually, in this industry, what should be done and what can be done about them are far from ideally matched. If the blow-up isn’t causing actual harm or endangering others, allowing them to blow off steam may be the only clear course open. But if the actions are harmful or dangerous, then something must be done. We no longer live in a world where turning a blind eye to bad behavior is allowed.
The balance may come down to acting to your detriment to prevent future harm to someone else. It’s never fun taking one for the team, but, it’s the most honorable thing to do in some situations that need to be changed.
The Ego Nickle
Another aspect of ego raising its head may be handled in a surprising fashion, by giving them what they want. If you can find out what’s truly driving the demands, you may find that appeasing that underlying desire might not be out of the question. In contract terms amongst lawyers, this is colloquially referred to as giving them an “ego nickle.” This is when you grant a concession to the other party’s demands that actually doesn’t cost you anything but is of great value to their side. Telling them what they want to hear appeases the angst they’re expressing and you can go on to other things. It has to be a true exchange, though. Telling them something they want to hear and not following through is not only unethical but will likely embolden even worse behavior and make it harder for them to believe you if you try to appease them again.
Business as Unusual
Then there are those unfortunate times when the bad business dealing may not be intended or even recognized, but, still end up being obstacles to forward motion. To varying degrees, these can be annoyances, grievances, or actionable legal obstructions.
The “Never say no,” mentality combined with the “Never mean yes,” follow through
There are those who sincerely try to help but fail to do so at every turn. These may have taken the “Never say no,” mentality to heart, believing that anything is possible so never being the one to stop the progress with a hard pass. Unfortunately, if these people are not in the proper position or experienced enough to actually overcome the obstacles ahead they may try to cover that fact with a host of reasons why the next stage, “Just isn’t ready,” or “something has come up, but, we’re still behind the project 100%!”
You need to recognize these situations by the missing results and delays. Read behind the gung-ho cheerleading and realize that your project is sitting stagnant in their hands. It may be hard to leave such an ardent supporter to seek other help, but, if they can’t help you now, you are best to acknowledge that and move on. The key here is to leave on amicable terms. If their belief in you is honest there may come a time in the future where they will be in a true position to help and you can once again call on their vigorous support.
Powerful but Unplugged
Then there are those who actually are empowered to help the cause, but, they are reticent to do so because it may expose them to risk or cut into their own power base. You find these sorts often in middle management-type positions. These can be the kind of people of who keep careful count of the favors that are owed to them and want to make sure that they don’t use all their hard-earned chits on a project that might not replenish the stock.
As an example, say you find yourself dealing with someone who has a bona fide contact with an industry bigwig who could take your project to the next level. You and your project can stand on its own if you get in the room with them, but you need an introduction from a trusted source to start the ball rolling. If the person you do know is reticent to set the meeting up for you, it might be because they’re gun-shy in calling in that chit right now. They may be a swell advocate and supporter of your project and fully believe it can succeed, but still, they can’t bring themselves to pick up the phone.
In these situations, you have to be understanding and move on. You can’t fault them for protecting their position in the industry. I know it’s hard to leave an apparent opportunity untried. I personally have run into this with my film projects on several occasions. But remember that you have an advocate still in your corner when things do come around who may be more willing or in a better position to be helpful in the future. So set out on a different path to find the way forward, for now.
Help Themselves Groups Disguised as Help You Groups
The last group of the business as unusual listing we’ll visit can be nefarious or truly well-meaning, but end up being time sucks and delays in getting yourself where you want to go, even though that’s exactly the opposite of what they often promise to deliver. They can be recognized by the monikers of Workshops, Seminars, Sessions and a list of other seemingly helpful gathering nomenclature that is shared with legitimately helpful resources. The bad ones may even start out attempting to be one of the good ones, striving to actually accomplish what they promise. But…
Whether they intend to or not, the pot of gold at the end of their rainbow never seems to materialize. The “potential” meetings with studio execs either don’t happen or are actually set up with “executives” who have no authority to push anything up the chain at their institution.
As an example of these, Pitch Fests often have these type of representatives hearing pitches. They actually do work at the companies whose names you may have heard of, but are not authorized to engage further on the company’s behalf. The company chose to bolster its reputation by participating in the event and chose these individuals to be their toothless figureheads. The organization running the events are more than happy to slap the big company names on their fest’s advertising to boost their attendance numbers and own reputations. So you end up having a bunch of hopeful writers waiting for their fifteen-minute pitch of fame across the room from a bunch of lower-level executives trying only to enjoy some time away from the rat race at the office, bored, powerless, and disinterested.
Now, I have to say that not everyone in these meet and greets are just there to kill time, but you’d be surprised at how many I’ve actually heard admit to exactly that. And there are a few who will take a shine to a pitch they really glean onto, then, outside of the scope of their mandate from the company, take it upon themselves to become another champion of the work. But that’s rare and above and beyond what most can hope from these pitch fests and similar type of workshop environments supposedly offering industry “exposure.”
And just to assure you that it’s not only poor writers that suffer these charades, there are plenty of acting “seminars” and directing “camps” that offer the same type of exposure with as much chance of successfully connecting with a worthwhile contact.
Strategies to Deal: (Or Defense Against the Greedy Bastards)
If all of these types of bad faith and badly done “opportunities” abound out there, what’s a writer to do? You could give up and never write again. Yeah, me neither. I’ve never known a real writer that gives up no matter what they’re up against. We are all in it for the long haul, however long and whatever weight we have to haul.
The truth is, going into every situation with your eyes wide open is about the best thing we can do. Here are some tips to try to survive these and other road bumps:
– Do your homework. Do what research you can into the opportunities in front of you, proceed cautiously, and have an escape plan if things start to go awry.
– Treat people as humans while remembering some humans are scheming worms, out only for themselves.
– Plan, prepare and over-prepare. Learn what you can and learn from every experience, yours and others. But remember that most people are willing to share their successes and downplay or ignore when they failed, so, keep grains of salt handy accordingly.
– If a deal seems too good to be true, you’re right. If it seems a long shot, that’s probably too optimistic. If the plan on how to get there is vague or not fully disclosable and anyone along the way says, “Just trust me,” run like hell.
– Always remember, you’re a writer. If you end up having a bad experience, channel that into your next work. Real life sounds really convincing in the fiction we create. And if the new stuff ends up getting us further up the ladder, then the bad experience eventually did pay off, just not as we anticipated.
Will a situation like one of the above happen to you? It depends. How you survive it if it happens depends on you.