It was a kid’s birthday party. Only showbiz style. The catered event was at a popular power couple’s house. But for a few non-pros in attendance (I recall a private school headmaster and local TV news reporter) it was wall-to-wall movie and TV people. Writers, producers, directors, agents, lawyers, actors. Practically every which way I turned, I saw somebody I knew. In fact, I recall it being worse than a movie premiere, where the room was divided by those who’d return my phone call and as many who wouldn’t.
“Doug!” called out an agent from CAA. Three times the guy had tried to sign me. I’d always been flattered, but never felt inclined to say yes, despite really liking him. We’d been to quite a few ball games together. “Been awhile. How’re things?”
“Pretty rough,” I sort of shrugged, surprised by my own dour reply. My mother had been very ill and was clearly on my mind. I remember sharing stories with the agent, peer to peer, about dealing with aging parents.
To my shock, the agent seemed to recoil. This was without me adding any context to my “pretty rough” answer. Then he looked right past me and found somebody else he’d rather schmooze.
“Sorry to hear,” he said, patting me on the arm and slipping past.
It was the oddest feeling. There was no follow-up question to my lament. Just a quick reaction and so long, Dougie. Okay, I thought. Social occasion. The agent and I weren’t that close. Maybe I should’ve said fine thanks and carried on with the small talk. Still, the feeling remained that something was off.
Later, at the same event, I found myself getting rudely brushed off by an executive. As well as by yet another agent who’d always been happy to give me a sniff. What the hell was going on? I wondered. Did I forget to put on enough deodorant? Had my breath turned repugnant without me knowing? Then it hit me.
You’re cold, Doug.
I’d had an inkling. It had been some time since I’d gotten a picture made. Then there was that one executive who’d slammed me for being late on a project after he’d encouraged me to move other assignments ahead of his. I knew he’d slung some trash talk about me. But I wasn’t aware that any of it had stuck.
Wow, I said to myself, hardly in a panic. In fact, I was slightly amused. I knew the business and those who played in it were shallow, but hadn’t my work ethic and product been enough to survive what could only be seen as a temporary slump? I mean, everybody goes through sallow periods. For example, let’s take baseball players. Why baseball? Because screenwriters are often compared to hitters. I mean Hall of Fame swingers are only expected to get a hit just one in three at bats. And when they don’t, it’s called a slump. A pro is supposed to work their way through it. The same rules used to apply to script jockeys.
“I’m cold,” I told my agent the next Monday. “I know I am.”
“No you’re not,” he replied. “It’s the business.”
“No. Seriously,” I said. “I’m cold.” I explained my moment of clarity, where it happened, and what I’d gleaned from it.
“I’m not seeing it,” said my agent. “You’re in demand. People want to meet you.”
“But you’re my agent,” I claimed. “You’re supposed to say that.”
“True,” he admitted. “But I’m straight with you.”
Frankly, I couldn’t tell if he was being straight. One of the first things that happens when an artist slumps is to blame the team. Agents. Managers. The last thing an agent wants to admit is if their client is cold. That’s like an invitation to getting fired.
But I’m not like that. When I slump, I don’t look to assign blame anywhere but at myself. After all, I’m the product. It’s my words that open or close doors. If I’m good, I’ll be in demand. If I’m not, well, then maybe I deserve a brush-off.
Then again, maybe I don’t. Let’s cut to the lunch I had later in the week with a producer pal who’d spent as much time in the executive suites as in the movie hustling trenches. I told him of my revelation, including the industry birthday party where I received all those weird rebuffs.
“I don’t get it,” I said to him. “Why so rude to me?”
“You said it yourself,” stabbed the producer. “You’re cold. Nobody wants to be around a loser. Everyone’s afraid the shit’ll rub off on them.”
“I’m not a loser,” I corrected. “I’m in a slump. Everybody slumps.”
“Okay. So you’re in a slump.”
“And here’s what I don’t get,” I shifted. “Let’s say I’m even colder than I think I am.”
“Fine. Antarctica cold,” he agreed.
“Yet I am one spec script, one pitch, one green light away from being hot again.”
“So you agree?”
“Of course I do. That’s where writers got it good. You can write your way back into the game.”
“So what’s your point?”
“You know it. I know it. Which means those assholes who brushed me off know it too.”
“Oh, I get it,” he surmised. “You wanna know why they treated you like shit when you’re a finger snap away from being hot again.”
“I do. It’s short-sighted,” I explained. “What? They think I won’t forget?”
“No,” he said. “That’s not it at all. They know who you are and that you’ve got it in you to get hot again. What they think is no matter how shitty they treat you, they’ll still be able to sweet talk you back into being in business with them.”
“They’re wrong,” I insisted.
“Maybe they are. But that’s how they think. You’ll get hot again. And they’ll be up in your stuff like nothing ever happened.”
“That’s just dumb.”
To that I agreed. Showbiz: Shortsighted, shallow, and certain as Sunday that it is the only game in town.