Monday, August 24, 2009

We Get By With A Little Help From Our Friends

"I was sustained by one piece of inestimable good fortune. I had for a friend a man of immense and patient wisdom and a gentle but unyielding fortitude.

I think that if I was not destroyed at this time by the sense of hopelessness which these gigantic labors has awakened in me, it was largely because of the courage and patience of this man.

I did not give in because he would not let me give in."

Thomas Wolfe

Good thing I don't have due dates on these blog posts because seriously, I never know what my next topic is going to be until it hits me (usually when there is some serious physical distance between myself and my computer or the shower makes it difficult to type a note on my iphone). And the idea is almost always the result of a random conversation that, in the moment, seemed, well, like any regular conversation but somehow the next day it morphs into a platform for thought. Not to dissuade you, fair reader, from hiring me as a writer (as you'll be giving me topics to mull over and muse on if you happen to be in a position to do so) but I don't want to waste anyone's time by reviewing District 9 or writing about my food journal. Wait I do that. Sorry. But I really only try to twitter out that posts that are either embarrassing or fun (usually involving pictures of stealthy bad ass babes.)

So back to my point. It is usually through that nifty interpersonal activity called talking that I get the light bulb moment that inspires me to write. This time it was when a friend bemoaned a number of bad business decisions that she had made at her last job. "If only I had had someone to tell me that I should have signed that actor. I didn't know! I was just sitting there trapped in my closet of an office doing things as best I could on my own." There are a lot of other things that she regretted that I won't repeat, and her office was definitely bigger and infinitely better decorated than a closet, but the root of the conversation kept pointing back towards one definitive thing, her lack of a mentor. She was at a fantastic company, at least it seemed like one if you waited in the post modern chic lobby sipping your Americano, but her office might as well have been in Siberia for all the inter-office support she received as a junior manager. The corporate culture supported competition and secrecy; co-workers clashed about projects and clients as if collaboration was a dirty word. And there was no effective farm system to train the young associates; they either made it off of a desk or they didn't. And once they were promoted, they either learned how to swim or they sank. (Cue 'Swimming with Sharks' clip) Oh, old Hollywood. How I don't miss you.

No one doubts the value of a mentor so why do so few of us have one these days? Musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, creatives in general throughout history have looked to an elder for guidance and inspiration. Even well known artists of this decade admit to being mentored: Oliver Stone was mentored by Marty Scorsese at NYU, poet Maya Angelou mentored Oprah Winfrey. But in looking at my peers and contemporaries (both in corporate and artistic fields), either in traditional Hollywood or New Media, I don't see it (and if you do, skip to the bottom and just leave a comment ;-p)

The word mentor was first used in the Odyssey when Odysseus left his son under the charge of Mentor whilst he partook on his epic journey (and then the proper noun turned into a verb, but that is for another post, not to be written by me) so it's been around for a while. Given, us modern day whiz kids have access to information and inspiration any moment we chose by clicking on our Safari browser (Odysseus' son nor the majority of famous mentor/protege pairs had the interwebs to learn from) but I see such value in having someone take a personal interest in your career. Believe it or not (and I know some of you out there don't think people do anything that is not in their own self interest), these mentors did it because they wanted to and someone probably did for them. "Every student deserves to be treated as a potential genius." Anton Ehrenzweig said it well.

Perhaps that is why Seth Godin or Tony Robbins are so popular because they offer up a wide brushstroke of guidance, through their seminars and books, that is lacking in the work force. It's not tailored to you specifically though. The life and executive coaching sectors are certainly expanding but that is still a business transaction; the coach is helping you because you pay them to. Why is it that people aren't simply helping each other out anymore? And during this time of economic crisis and change, the need for this, the need for a mentor, is even stronger. But there in lies the problem. What would our potential mentors be mentoring us on...if everything is changing.

So I pull focus back to my own industry and the specific landscape that I inhabit: that of content creation and the attempt to monetize it on the web.. There is a fantastic article in Wired about 'Socialism' and the intellectual collectivism that is elevating the internet to a cyberland where we, as a society, benefit from sites like Wikipedia, operating systems like Linux and 'free' restaurant recommendations (from all the people that took the time to write a review) on Yelp. I would like to think that our web community is an offshoot of that idea; that the creative members of our space are a supportive community that often work to simply to elevate the original web content landscape, or within the context of my mentorship topic, help someone out...just for the sake of helping.

But here's the thing. How can someone be my mentor in the digital space, how can they 'help me out', when we are both struggling to monetize our own content, create an active and interactive audience around our own shows and be abreast on all new technological developments that affect the space that we distribute via so we can make a successful living at this? Is there one digital company that has 'cracked the code' yet? Nope. Regardless of the VC that does or does not back us, we are all at the precipice of big change and all of us are guestimating the outcome. So, if we are technically competitors then how can we foster a mentor/ protege environment? By changing the vertical nature of that relationship and re-examining competition.

I have always believed that that the sum of this industry is much greater than the individual parts. Gennefer Snowfield wrote a great article for on this topic called 'The Only Competition for Webseries is UnAwareness' where she posited that 'the underlying issue isn't competition (between series) but discoverability' thus content creators, especially those creating series within a similar genre, should band together and cross promote each other's shows, not consider each other competitors. Out of that article and subsequent twitter conversation spawned The Scifi Collective. Still waiting to hear what exactly that is, but between it and the soon to launch SciFinal site (where original scifi web content will have an awesome home) we're on the right path in joining our powers.

We also all got our starts in different sectors: entertainment, technology, law, etc but have landed in this upstart sector together because we see the opportunity to be a pioneer. Even if we can't foster a traditional mentoring relationship, like say Bob Evans had with his mentor Darryl Zanuck as Mr. Zanuck was the head of 20th Century Fox and Mr. Evans was a producer who aspired to such (ended up becoming the head of Paramount), we can each look to each other's strengths. The fact that we all didn't start in the UTA mailroom is a GOOD thing.

I have experienced nothing but support and kudos since stepping onto this quickly changing landscape. It's the first time that I didn't have to limit my identify to one field: I'm just an actor, I'm just a web producer or I'm just a writer. In the web community, I'm all of the above because I have to be. Being a multi-faceted creative is a fiscal necessity because of the budgets that we must deal with in this space, but in being such, we are setting ourselves up to reap the rewards when those budgets become bigger, when Madison Avenue has faith in the space or the web subscription model takes off (?). So what do we need to do to make certain this happens? BE BETTER. I need to be a better writer, a more knowledgeable producer, a more savvy salesman (I think my acting is pretty cool but you never know). I can learn from media blogs, conferences and articles as much as I can, but I can ultimately learn more from you. Would you be my mentor? I would be happy to be yours as well.

Be back soon.

All Things T


David Nett said...

Another fantastic article, Taryn. Figuring out how to abandon our fear and collaborate is how indie shit gets done. Absent mentors, all we can do is help each other pick up the things we missed ourselves the first time.

The Sci-Fi Collective, BTW, is gonna be awesome. At something ;-)

Creator, GOLD
can you take the hits?

Taryn O'Neill said...

Thanks David! Abandoning our fears is a big thing, ie. admitting our weaknesses in a constructive way and learning from our first go at it. Wow- I think of all the things I had no clue about when we first launched 'After Judgment' Ha! We can't know everything and better to turn to a trusted colleague than go at it blindly.

Darryl said...

Why yes, I'd be delighted to be your mentor! And honoured if you'd be mine. :)

That's one of the things I love about the rise of collaborative tools (most notably, I suppose, being Twitter) is the rapid exchange of information in SO many capacities. Call it micro-blogging , but I think (depending on how you use it I suppose) it could just as easily be called micro-mentoring. I have learned so much and made so many interesting and useful connections via Twitter, and other tools.

So long as I can continue being an occasional help to internet people and they keep offering advice and assistance to me, I can't see that slowing down. ^_^

Chris Preksta said...

This is something we've unfortunately lost with the old studio apprenticeship system. That's another reason why District 9 was such a breath of fresh air. Jackson not only mentoring, but equipping Blomkamp to tell a great story.

Marc Hustvedt said...

Well said Taryn.

I've always tried to stick one basic rule when it comes to finding good mentors - "Don't be afraid to hang out with old people."

It seems silly, but for a lot of young people, if you took an audit of the ages ranges of who they hang out with socially, you get a pretty narrow window.

Older people understand the value of this mentoring relationship, even its not formal arrangement. They often aren't clouded by the what-can-you-do-for-me lens.

And seconding Chris' comment, the Peter Jackson example is right on. I think a lot of young aspiring storytellers, especially on the web, would do themselves a favor to reach out to some veteran TV and film creators who really know how to tell stories.

Taryn O'Neill said...

Chris, I think District 9 subconsciously prompted this article as well. Marc, you make a great point about the ageism that exists in business. The media has placed such a value on youth that it doesn't seem kosher to simply 'hang out' with older, experienced people in our business, especially socially. It is all about 'what can you do for me' and vice verse 'what do you want from me'. I think as Darryl wisely pointed out, Twitter has started to bridge that gap in that it puts you in the same digital space where age and geography aren't important, ideas are; the barriers to communication are greatly reduced (no assistants to field calls!). I just had lunch with Brent Friedman today...someone who's work and outlook on new media I highly respect. I probably would never have developed the professional relationship that we have if it were not for Twitter.

Hayden said...

I love how you've crystallized a lot of thoughts we all have and - for whatever reason - haven't gotten around to expressing.

It's interesting that in a field that requires you to wear many hats - and wear them well if you're to be successful - one almost needs a variety of mentors from different fields.


the slackmistress said...

I think that a lot of Old Hollywood runs on, to quote Morrissey, the idea that "we hate it when our friends become successful."

I've always tried to watch what people do and think how did they get there? How do I get there? Do I want to go there? While they may not be my mentor, the way they operate are sort of my lessons for living.

But sometimes Hollywood is too busy talking to stop and listen. (And learn.)

I'm in sort of a weird position as I come from a more traditional Hollywood background (writing TV), but socially I've been steeped in web culture for over a decade, so the transition to writing web series wasn't as difficult. Thankfully I'm surrounded by people who I consider mentors, whether they realize they're mentoring me or not.

(Great post!)

Casey McKinnon said...

Your ideas on mentoring are EXACTLY what we were doing with New Media Office Hours (via New Media West) earlier this year, and what lots of our friends before us had done with Node 101, etc. We still want to do this, but unfortunately we've all been pretty busy launching/re-launching projects and just working hard in general.

If you want to host a New Media Office Hours (which simply involves suggesting a date/time and coffee shop), you should mention it to our Twitter, Facebook page or web site/Google group. It'd be nice to get this back up and running! :D

<3 Casey

Chris Preksta said...

I think the responsibility equally lays on the "older" (read experienced, not necessarily age) generation as well. They should be reaching out, incorporating, and equipping upcoming talents. It's a far greater legacy than the work itself. Imagine what film would look like today had people like Coppola and Sheinberg not taken on Lucas and Spielberg.

PLK said...

It's extremely difficult to find mentors in the entertainment business. The inherent insecurity and collective dissonance of creative folk may have something to do with this. I am not sure.

From my discussions with less established (usually) actor clients, I often see a passivity of waiting for someone else - lawyer, agent or manager - to make it all happen for them; that some ellusive alchemy (or more acting classes) is what's required to succeed.

That passive role in your own success breeds more insecurity and disappointment - especially when those agents, lawyers and managers inevitably disappoint and the acting classes don't turn into gigs.

What's required is attitude adjustment that you ARE ALREADY working. This - the process of auditioning, classes, sporadic gigs and nothing else - is what it is to be a successful actor.

The successful clients I work with understand this and try to look at auditions and small projects as an opportunity to work their craft (the audition itself IS the work) rather than a test of getting or not getting the gig.

It doesn't escape me that that it's a hard adjustment to make but by focusing on process instead of success/failure outcomes you will feel more in control of your career; more confident in auditions and have less yearning for someone like a mentor to give you your big break.

Good luck!

Peter Kaufman
Kaufman Entertainment Law Group

Taryn O'Neill said...

Good point Peter. When I used to 'career coach' actors at TVI, I would talk a lot about creating your own destiny and not waiting for someone else to give you your break. Another thing I preached was if you call yourself an actor, you have to be acting all the time, whether at auditions, workshops, in indie projects, on stage for free-not waiting for the phone to ring and taking a scene study class once a week. And Auditioning definitely is working, akin to an agency pitching to a new client for an account. My post was more geared towards the new media community as most people are not waiting for a break, but making their own. In this space though, with it evolving almost on a daily basis and no clear cut success stories for online monetization, I wanted to suggest that we would be better off joining forces and sharing our individual strengths- a horizontal mentoring between colleagues if you may. Thanks for reading and for your insights!

PLK said...

T- you said: "[With] no clear cut success stories for online monetization, I wanted to suggest that we would be better off joining forces and sharing our individual strengths- a horizontal mentoring between colleagues if you may."

I think horizontal mentoring on the level you suggest is a great way to find a way to make money from on-line content.

Horizontal mentoring ammounts to collaboration. As you know from your own work, collaboration allows a large group to increase the chances of a breakthrough and reduce the chances of repeating past mistakes.

I have my concerns; ones I see every day when I put a deal together or when I'm involved in a law suit. When I read your response, I immediatly thought of the Bogart movie "Treasure of the Sierra Madre" where three prospectors work together to find gold only to screw each other in the end (more or less).

As with any human endeavor, you need to account for character flaws in the individual as well as the group.

The GOOD NEWS is that your approach has been successfully used elsewhere to collaborate on cancer treatments, space exploration and the like. Wikipedia and other business models are inherently based on collaboration.

However, each of these models likely required that each participant adhere to a basic set of rules to ensure that everyone worked towards the same goal.

1. How do you share information?
2. Is everyone a student and teacher of everyone else or are there going to be inequities?
3. How do you share money from a joint effort?
4. How do you reduce the chances that one or more of you will try to screw the others?

Your answers - and those of your collaborator/mentors - will have a direct bearing on the success or failure of your work together.