“I got so friggin’ tired of trying to climb the hill,” claimed the preschool dad. “But it’s such a who-you-know business. Without the connections, guys like me can never get ahead.”
I nodded my head, despite my disagreement. Upon us being introduced, and his discovery that I was a working writer, he’d begun that old, oft-used lament-slash-excuse to explain his own failed showbiz career. Not that I’d asked. But having heard it so many times before, as well as considering the social nature of the situation, I didn’t find it appropriate to disagree. All I could do was rubberstamp his conspiracy theory with an agreeable shrug and not-so-deftly switch subjects.
Nepotism. If all you had ever read were the gossip rags, it might appear that Hollywood is rife with showbiz spawn, all of whom seem to occupy some recently emptied seat in an employment game of musical chairs. Now, celebrity-wise, there’s some truth to it. In this TMZ culture, children of the famous appear to get an automatic leg up in the fame game. But that’s reality show material. Translating one’s famous name into the actual scripted world – dramatic film and television – is a way bigger leap with the danger of a high fall followed by a very public splat.
With that out of the way, let me ask if an entertainment career – at least in the artful endeavors of writing/directing/acting – is a who-you-know game.
Answer: A resounding no. Followed by a qualified yes.
Last part first. Film and television are businesses like any other. Relationships are important. Just like the guy in concrete sales is wise to toss back a few whiskeys or play a round of golf with some of his biggest distributors, players in showbiz often prefer to do business with those they feel most comfortable with. Relationships are important, need to be worked and maintained, and can be extraordinary beneficial when a leg up is required. The same basic rule applies to government, politics, the news game, manufacturing, finance, and on and on and on…
But here’s the real truth. Nearly everyone in showbiz began with zero Hollywood connections.
Let me repeat that. Before making a career in the movie and TV game, almost every one of us in the trenches began without a solitary insider to offer a helping hand or show us the secret backdoor leading to a secured seat at the table.
All we had was the will and drive and enough talent to keep up the fight until someone who mattered took notice. Only when we’d crossed that threshold, and proved our worth with the work, did relationship-based opportunities present themselves. On a personal note, over my career I’ve been assisted by my business relationships. Yet I’ve been criticized for not working on them, playing the schmooze game, still thinking that my product alone should speak to my worth.
This is not to say that one born into the business doesn’t have some advantage. If Christopher Nolan’s niece gets a wild hair to be a writer, takes the time to compose a screenplay that she could hand to her hit-making uncle, he’s most likely going to obliged to give it a full read. But if it’s not up to his standards – or those within his circle – do you think he’d stake his high-flying rep on a mere family tie? The answer would be a very likely no.
Sure. There are mega-producers and studio honchos who’ve funneled the occasional development dollar to a favored child. The expectations of success in these few and far between deals aren’t nearly as onerous as the boss who owns a car dealership leap-frogging his kid into an executive position over those more deserving. Hell. That stuff is such an everyday affair in business it long ago became a cliché. I can vouch that, compared to most other industries, there’s not much of that in Hollywood.
In fact, the business is chock-full of stories about failed favoritism. Since it’s a game that only rewards success, few are going risk a public disaster in favor of family or friends. They’d rather – and usually do – find some politic way to wriggle out of such sticky situations. Wouldn’t you?
There’s a bit in the original Bad Boys where Chet the Doorman explains to Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) why he could be helpful guarding the witness. Chet tells a quick tale about why his career in law enforcement didn’t pencil out.
“I tried, but you know,” says Chet the Doorman. “Politics.”
When the scene played in front of an audience, it was a guaranteed belly laugh, thanks entirely to actor Saverio Guerra. His New York audition tape contained that dialogue riff as an improvisation meant to impress us all of us down in Miami. It did. We cast him on the spot. I thought the improv bit was so perfect that I simply added it to the shooting script.
Yet upon reflection, what made it funny – besides Saverio’s pitch-perfect performance – was that sublime morsel of truth. The excuse we’ve heard time and time again by those seeking to forgive their own failed endeavors instead of owning up to what it really was. They tried. They didn’t succeed. They moved on.
Or better yet, they tried again.
THE SMOKING GUN: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches is now available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and the Writers Store.
Please come meet me at THE SMOKING GUN book signing this Saturday from 2:00PM – 6:00PM, at The Writers Store in Burbank: 3510 W. Magnolia Blvd.
What do you think of Proximity? How much does it help to be near to where the game is being played? And, when would a writer/director/actor make that move?
Proximity is incredibly important. Out of sight, out of mind became a cliche for a reason. And had I not been available for a meeting “right now” I would never have worked on Bad Boys. Thanks Herschel.
This is so true, I’m glad you wrote about it.
A good friend of mine back in our post film school days would rant often about nepotism in the industry, and for some reason he especially had a singular issue with Michael Douglas.
My take at the time, confirmed by your own experience, is that a person’s name and connections may give him/her an opportunity not available to others, but it won’t give them career. They have to build that for themselves like everyone else.