Okay, ladies (and maybe some of you men). Get ready to start your anger engines with this annoying tidbit of writer reality. I’m about to describe a situation for which I’m afraid I have no answer. Perhaps some of you do. Or maybe it’s just something that’s better accepted and navigated instead of us banging heads against the wall in search of a solution beyond social evolution.
Here’s the scene. I was seated outside a studio executive’s office, engaged in small talk with the desk assistant as I waited for a certain VP of Development to finish up his closed-door meeting before our appointed sit-down. I could hear conversation from his office. He was obviously meeting with a woman. The talk, which I couldn’t precisely make out, sounded engaging, flirtatious, and peppered with laughs.
Then pop! The doorknob twists and out walks—well, I shan’t say the actress’ name because this isn’t about her. At the time, she was an ingénue. Twenty-two, attractive to her microscopic follicles and magnetic smile, and supremely confident to boot, leveling her practiced pupils on me as we were formally introduced.
With the click as the door returned shut, my meeting began.
“Tough job,” I said.
“Sex on a stick,” exhaled the VP, loosening his tie and unbuttoning his collar button. “Damn all these actresses I gotta meet.”
“Oh yeah,” I joked. “Like you have to.”
“Their agents call me,” he defended. “’Will you meet her? She’d be perfect for this movie’ or whatever.”
I noticed the VP looked slightly flushed.
“You mind hanging out a bit before we jump in?” he asked. “I mean, these hot actresses know just how to get your motor going.”
“Thus the request for meetings.”
“Am I complaining?”
“Did I say you were?”
“Hell. I got her cell number.”
“Well, there you go,” I said, not meaning to validate his manliness, but more so attempting to coax him into switching gears from replaying his hour-long tête-à-tête with Miss Flavor of the Month to getting on with our business.
I really can’t count how many times I’ve seen some smokin’ new actress on her way in or out of some studio VP’s office. To me, it was always just part of the scenery. And not at all out of order. I’ve known some of these on-the-cusp actresses and they’ve often remarked or lamented about the number of “general” meetings they’ve been required to attend with mid-level studio executives and needle-moving producers. And though I’ve never heard a whiff of sexual quid pro quo, the undercurrent of libido-enticing tension is always palpable.
It was the way of the world, I used to reason. And to some extent, I still do.
I may well have forgotten that meeting with the VP until a recent conversation when sharing a flight with a young and upcoming writer of the lady persuasion. As our conversation wandered everywhere from the best school districts to live in to niche movie marketing, we began discussing the perception male executives have of women writers.
I found myself profiling male executive VPs in Hollywood. Usually single, educated, early-thirties, well-tended, yet retaining a measure of high-school geekitude, canny, fear-obsessed (due to the Damocles-sword like demands of his superiors) and more than ten years younger and remarkably overpaid than your average mid-level executive in American corporate culture. Combine that with the macro of urban society enabling prolonged adolescence in men more than women and it’s a toxic cocktail heavy on existential thrills and light on responsibility.
Now, drop that character into a showbiz soup populated by so many over-sexualized, über attractive women and it’s not just heady stuff to overcome, it’s breakfast, lunch, and dinner served with a side of Viagra.
“I can’t imagine being a female writer in Hollywood,” I said. “It’s hard enough to be taken seriously as a writer period. To be a woman and have to walk into meetings with the average male exec is mind numbing to comprehend.”
“Imagine,” I waxed (probably somewhat relentlessly,) “being a female writer with something awesome to pitch and having to follow some dolled-up sexpot actress who’s just left the VP all hot and bothered.”
Not just that. With so much hot flesh available to male producers and execs, it’s hard to picture them fairly measuring a woman with intellect and strong ideas against the last piece of nuclear you-know-what that some pimp-of-an-agent or manager served up for a little tease and conversation.
Like I said before, I have no solutions now nor did I when my erstwhile flight companion asked me for a navigation tip. So I spit-balled:
In lieu of in-person pitches rely more on spec material? It sounded lame during the flight and reads equally as weak now.
Shoehorn in more meetings with women or outwardly gay male VPs? Oh, please. I can’t even believe I thought as much, implied it, or even wrote that.
Accept the status quo as just another obstacle in that never-ending minefield known as showbiz? Perhaps that’s the best answer. At least in the short term and until our better angels prevail. As a solution, it is beyond unsatisfactory and as unfair as playing poker against a table full of professional cheats. Yet it’s still a far site better than not playing at all.
Once again, I find myself falling back on the same old wisdom I’d gleaned from my first week as a nascent screenwriting amoeba at Warner Brothers. Be awesome. Be better than everybody else. Be so good you’re unavoidable and make your talent and craft impossible to deny. On an unfair field, that’s the only way to compete.