Friday, June 5, 2009

The Trade-Off

I came up with a pretty nifty catch-phrase this morning: Hollywood is Hell's Greenroom...with really good snacks.  I don't know, do you like it?  Do you get it?  If you don't know what a greenroom is, google it please.  It's rarely green, but it always has snacks. 

The observation stemmed from reading Josh Friedman's blogpost about his nerve wracking and random spurts of yelling/nausea inducing experience of waiting to see if his TV show, 'Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles' was cancelled (which it was).  I follow Josh on twitter (and saw him on a panel at Comic Con) so am cognizant of his special brand of self-depreciating humor, but the post really got to me.  Here's a talented writer (and creator of a terrific scifi show) being reduced to shreds by the process of his show getting cancelled.  It almost wasn't because his show GOT cancelled, but the de-humanizing way in which it was.  The Hollywood Way.  

Then there was part of an email exchange this morning that I had from a friend who is a multi-hyphenate creative (like me) who has a deal for his series at a major studio (unlike me).  He was responding to my question of how things were going and, in a very positive tone, said it was ridiculously challenging.  That now that he was beholden to the studio (and their money), all he and his partner were doing were re-writes, pass after pass.  This frustrates me as I read his scripts, saw the spec-pilot, all amazing!  The first 5 episodes should be shot already, not being re-written for the twelfth time. But what choice does he and his partner have?  I know them, they don't want to be couped up in an office, they want to be shooting...but they are now at the mercy of the force that is corporate Hollywood, and it's grip is deadlier than Spock's.

This is what we dream of though, no? For our work to be recognized by the power's that be, those able to pay us large sums of money to relay our creative vision to the masses?  We dream of bungalow offices and reserved parking spaces on the lot, of a tentative production start date in fall 2009.  What we don't dream of is the reality.  That reality is too dark and complex to relay in my post (especially as I'm trying to keep it short this time) so if you want the reality of Hollywood, watch 'Swimming with Sharks', read The Mailroom, Easy Riders Raging Bulls, The Kid Stays in the Picture, Bernie Brillstein's book, even (actually definitely) Valley of the Dolls...but I always think of Marilyn Monroe (or was it another actress as I can't find the source) who said it best: the dream of being famous was so much better than the reality.  And that's not even taking into account when your star is falling.  

Are you the master of your dreams only until the studio buys them?  

I was lucky enough to be able to give John August, yes John friggin' August, notes on his recently published short story called 'The Variant'.  Eleven of us basically won a twitter reply contest to read and comment on the short.  After a few of us had already commented in detail within the hour, John posted that our notes were better and more quickly delivered than 90% of development execs.  You may be saying, 'oh, how cool, congrats!', but it didn't surprise me.  Why? Because I know development execs.  Contrary to some people's beliefs they generally aren't bad or untalented people (usually quite the opposite), but the passion they had for movies and storytelling has long since dried up because of the pressures of corporate Hollywood.  The easiest thing for them to say is 'No' (but after making sure no one else can say 'yes').  Why? Because they have bosses to answer to, who in turn have studio heads to answer to, who answer to Chairmans who answer to the Boards of Corporations...all who have (very) angry shareholders.  It's all about the almighty dollar, deciding what makes that dollar flow in tomorrow and not spending it today.  Nothing personal Josh, but if you're not making Fox's advertising partners excited about buying ad time on the network because your numbers are low, regardless of how rabid and passionate your existing fan base actually is (because there's no way to quantify the quality of viewership just the quantity, how wonderful), Fox is going to can you.  It's all about money.  That's why William Morris and Endeavor can send letters out to competing agencies to cease and desist from trying to hire their agents even though most of them are getting laid off anyway, it's all about money (actually not really a good example but I think it's disgusting that they did that and representative of how ignoble Hollywood can be).  

So if it's all about money and the Hollywood machine is cracked and broken (though even in it's best state it had faulty parts), leaking out all the creative and passionate fuel it once had, letting quality projects and creatives get their spirit squashed once the studio and or the network control their destiny, what about John's new short?  What happened with 'The Variant?'  It rose to the top tiers of paid downloads for Kindle on Amazon.  Not only did John derive creative help from the collective on twitter but promoted it through his followers.  Did they get paid- nope- just felt part of the process.  And that's what's beautiful about this growing creative community that is strengthening online- the collective spirit.  I have never felt more honest, sincere desire to help a fellow creator than in this space.  In Hollywood, never, ever did I ever feel that it was anything other than a competition, and if someone did help you, you knew you owed them. Read this article in Wired- seriously.  It articulated a lot of what I have been feeling.  

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not positing that an online magic potion exists that will get 'Sarah Connor' resurrected and reverse Josh's experience of being terminated (yes I had to say it), or one that halts the unnecessary re-writes that my friend is toiling through.  At this point, the studios still control the keys to producing and distributing large scale entertainment products.  I just am trying to show that good content can be cultivated, supported and ultimately be made to thrive through a collaborative and supportive community that happens to exist online.  "The Variant" should be the first marker for the road that we all need to go down.  Because the big Hollywood machine is ultimately going to come tumbling down, either when Fox falls because its new blockbuster has been illegally downloaded for the umpteenth time or the government has had to rescue General Electric from bankruptcy so NBC shuts down.  Let's all please think of a way to merge the current resources of Hollywood with the spirit of the online creative community.   Because when the masses are seeing a show that I created, I want the reality to be as good as the dream, even if I have to share a parking spot.

Be back soon...All Things T


Zadi said...

Good post T. Describes what a lot of what is happening in Hollywood. Inspires me to write a follow-up. :)

David August said...

Interesting post. Perhaps there are ways to measure quality and not just quantity. Such a path could release us all, the independant and studio producers alike, from the cult of numbers and the fetishizing of numbers that follows. Thank you for writing this.

Taryn O'Neill said...

Usually I spend days cultivating my posts but reading Josh's post, etc made me want to write immediately about the state of Hollywood, where a system can decimate it's talent so quickly and with so little regard. Look forward to writing and reading more about this topic :)

cinemanovel said...

Well said!

Gennefer Snowfield said...


This is an EXCELLENT post! I found myself nodding my head at every sentiment, and may or may not have shouted out a few "hell yeahs!"

Your points resonate deeply with me for a few reasons because, not only did I flee from the politics and bureaucracy of corporate America, but I also recently turned down a book deal with [insert big publishing house name here]. As someone who cannot stifle my opinions or robotically regurgitate rhetoric, I could not allow some hot shot editor to twist and turn my characters into something that would be "more appealing to a mainstream audience," which loosely translates into, "we can make more money if you sell out for mass consumption."

Contrary to popular belief, mainstream isn't always better. And as a huge proponent of the passion and creativity emblematic of niche communities, I decided to keep my vision in tact and cultivate my craft outside the mahogany walls and vacant stares of stodgy shareholders deciding by dollar signs inside a corporate boardroom.

So I landed splat in the new media marketplace, developing digital media and branded entertainment, producing short films again with renewed excitement and traversing a space where decisions are made by users instead of emotionless execs. And where "popular" is based on quality content, not the number of zeros on a check.

The landscape is changing and the hallowed halls of Hollywood are deteriorating as they lose relevancy in a market that demands more than diluted dramas and cookie cutter comedies, allowing independent writers and filmmakers to deliver on value. And while they hold the keys to distribution now, it won't matter if no one is watching.

Viewers have more options than ever before, thanks to the web, and you can bet that scares the bejeezus (yes, I'm going with bejeezus) out of the studio heads.

The tides are turning. Stay strong and keep moving forward. It will pay much bigger dividends in the end.