Eric Haywood has spent over a decade writing for network and premium cable television series including ABC’s Private Practice, Showtime’s Soul Food, NBC’s Hawaii, and the Fox drama Empire. Follow Eric on Twitter at @EricHaywood.
One of the many clichés we often hear about Hollywood is that it’s “just like high school with money.” Unfortunately, the reason why that’s repeated so often is because, in far too many cases, it happens to be true.
The phrase needs little explanation, but for those who haven’t already heard it a million times, “high school with money” basically refers to the idea that too many people working in Hollywood tend to be as insecure and cliquish as your average group of 16-year-old kids – very, very wealthy kids.
Why? Well, because they work in Hollywood.
To be fair, whether the industry actually made them this way or simply exacerbated a pre-existing condition is anybody’s guess. But you know when you’re dealing with one of these people because, for them, creating the best TV shows and movies possible is often a secondary concern. Think you’re going to break into show business and be surrounded by nothing but brilliant creative minds, obsessively focused on telling incredible stories and offering them to the public in exchange for fame, fortune, and the thanks of a grateful nation? Think again.
You’d be surprised how often adult men and women revert back into their petty high school-aged selves when working in this industry. Instead of finding a sense of artistic validation in the work itself or basking in the aforementioned fame and fortune, many of your future employers and coworkers will invest disproportionate amounts of time and energy into strengthening bonds with people they like and keeping those they don’t like at arm’s length, or forming opinions of others based not on the merits of their work, but on the people with whom they choose to befriend. Just like high school.
And there you are, the up-and-coming television writer. You’ve read tons of how-to screenwriting books, written a whole stack of pilots, and consumed ungodly amounts of television to keep yourself conversant on all the hottest shows of the moment. In short, you’ve done everything they say you’re supposed to do as a writer. And you should.
The problem is, none of that prepares you for the things that can impact your career as a writer even though they have nothing to do with the actual writing process. For instance, in addition to coming up with great ideas, pitching them well, and cranking out page-turning drafts that keep your showrunner happy, you’ll need to balance those skills with an acute awareness that alliances tend to form amongst like-minded writers on the same staff. It’s human nature: put a dozen people in a room for long enough and gradually, individual relationships are born and cliques begin to take shape. This is even more common between writers who’ve worked together in the past or have a longtime friendship that precedes the show they’re working on now.
So what does all this mean for you? All you really want, at this stage of your career, is to learn as much as you can about the craft of writing for television and maintain a bit of career stability, right? Well, the existence of these workplace alliances is a necessary part of your education because they can hurt you just as easily as they can help you.
This probably holds true for any kind of work environment. But when one key ingredient – a dash of celebrity – is added to the mix, it tends to act as a booster shot to people’s egos (many of which are already pretty fragile to begin with) in a way that you’re unlikely to find in other places. Due to the unpredictable nature of show business, anyone on a writing staff can catapult from relative obscurity to talk of the town at any given moment…or vice versa. This tends to inflame peoples’ insecurities and make them cling to their friends and banish their (perceived) enemies, merit be damned.
This might sound incredibly obvious and simplistic, but ideally, what you want is to steer clear of these alliances altogether. Instead, conduct yourself in such a way that you’re on good terms with everyone on your show’s staff. I’m not suggesting that you become an ass-kisser and try to make each person love you, but you’re far better off in the long run if you don’t easily fall into “this camp” or “that camp” if you happen to land on a staff that doesn’t get along. Do your best to remain above the fray. Your future could depend on it.
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