Thoughts from Hollywood

July 29, 2007 — 3 Comments

Hollywood runs on a very peculiar model. When people call it an “incestuous town” there is a very unfortunate kernel of truth. The most egregious example is that there is little distinction between clerical and executive staff. One day you’re an assistant and the next you’re handling someone’s movie. But an assistant doesn’t go to meetings or consult on strategy, they answer phone calls and make dinner reservations. They put together packets all day and get stressed if papers aren’t perfectly aligned. They are on the receiving end of the abuses of some very high-strung, opinionated and pampered people. And they fill whatever remaining time they have with yelling on the phone and being snotty to interns. So you have to ask yourself, is the kind of person you’d actually want as your representation, producer or executive–intelligent, confident, cerebral, curious–situated with the skills that constitute a good secretary? I made it one day. One day! So take someone even more qualified than me, they have their MBA, they’re eager to dive into Hollywood, passionate about art, the works, and then coming in and having to answer the phone for 18 months. Who does natural selection favor to survive? What you have is a system that incentivizes the absolute worst type of behavioral traits and then puts them through a horrific hazing process. When they finally get promoted, their first instinct is to put the person below them through the same hell that they endured, to find people just like themselves.

And then we wonder why Hollywood is so out of touch with what “people” actually like. We wonder how these massive misjudgments can happen, how they can tolerate stupidity and repeated failure–well it’s because we have secretaries being promoted to the highest levels of industry. Show me another business that works like that–maybe law, but Philalawyer disputes whether this “works” or not. Right now, to be a school principal you have to be a teacher first. Well Hollywood would have you be the janitor, under the guise of “making sure you understand how EVERYTHING works.” Again, would you want a principal who could stand being a custodian? Of course, the justification is that being an assistant is a way to learn the ropes but these are the wrong ropes to be learning. They break you of your valuable assets–critical thinking, enthusiasm, compassion–and mold you into the same model as everyone else.

Who ultimately gets shit on the most by this structure? The artists, the thinkers and the people who refuse to buckle to the system. Someone who simply grinds out their existence, finds success by mutilating themselves on a daily basis is not going to be particularly fond of anyone with natural gifts. They are the same people who have hated artists and the popular kids since high school. They are not Lloyd from Entourage. Creativity simply cannot survive in this environment. It’s why you see so much emulation and derivative work. As economics and game theory revolutionize every major school of thought, Hollywood has lagged behind. This is always a good example: What is the purpose of your average bureaucracy–say the DMV? It is not to regulate motor vehicles, it is to continue to exist. Through that lens, the actions of your local DMV clerk make sense. Why should they bring good customer service to the table? They don’t get anything for it. Your average assistant in Hollywood–well their only goal is to NOT fuck up. If the simply let things take its course, they’re set. If they rock the boat, put forth an innovative idea and it fails, they lose. So why should they be creative? Why should they question the system? The status quo protects and insulates their kind.

I have been absurdly lucky here. I managed to find two important people who have allowed me a pass, given me access to go around the traditional process. On my first day, there was a bit of a misunderstanding and I got put in the wrong place–I barely made it out alive. I was the assistant to an assistant–and I can’t even begin to describe how much I hated it. I filled out a spreadsheet and got yelled out for not being innately familiar with their fax machine. I got attitude from a guy I could run circles around, but he had the phone headset so that was that. Ascribing my new situation to luck is still misleading however because it ignores one crucial personal detail: I wouldn’t have done it otherwise. So when they tried to pawn their work off on me, I could say no. When they gave me attitude, I didn’t have to take it. If the “crawl on your bloodied knees until you can walk” path was the only one available for me here, I would have just done my own thing. It’s not about padding my resume until I can land a do-nothing job at 200k a year and then coasting. It has never been that. It never will be. It can be the same way for you. The only reason these traditions continue is because people are whorish enough to submit to it. So fuck the system, forget doing the busy work, or I’ll just go my own way. Hard work though–as many hours as it take, real passion and dedication, I’d do that until I collapsed. The system as it is, doesn’t seem to value that, it’s more like high school, measuring on arbitrary standards and quantity. It makes no exceptions for people who think well from home or become entirely useless if they don’t have any autonomy.

It’s very easy to fall in the trap of thinking that “this is the path I HAVE to take to get where I want,” when that’s not really true at all. And in the process endure the sort of things that the phrase “life is too short” was invented to address. Ginsberg wrote that he saw “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.” This system is madness, everyone knows it’s madness, but no one wants to do anything about it. You see the same thing with your friends, with other interns. Beating their heads against walls because their parents told them it’d lead to a big check, because the guy two steps ahead of them in line had to do it too. It’s heartbreaking. I swear one of the guys I work with is just seconds away from tears everyday…but he never does anything about it. So the caveat of course is this: You only get to cut in line if you’re worthy of it. Bring something new to the table and the crowd will part before you, it’s always been that way. Ultimately, there is no set series of checkpoints in the race of life. You choose your own course. Or you can cede that right to other people…

Ryan Holiday

I'm a strategist for bestselling authors and billion dollar brands like American Apparel, Tucker Max and Robert Greene. My work has been used as case studies by Twitter, YouTube and Google and has been written about in AdAge, the New York Times, Gawker and Fast Company.

3 responses to Thoughts from Hollywood

  1. jesse douglas July 29, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Great post, it’s interesting to hear about how you’re handling things at your new job.

  2. It’s easy to criticize Hollywood and claim that it doesn’t function like any other industry. That is simply because there is none like it anywhere else in the world. The system is not antiquated and broken, it’s constantly evolving. Maybe a the few remaining “Hollywood studios” such as Disney and Paramount function on an old model simply because they are forced to through layers of departments and HR structuring dating back from the 40′s.

    Most of the new blood is coming in through the fringe talent pool of upstarts and super creatives that setup their own shops because they can do better than the current system. And they deliver the goods in a fresh and creative way. These firms are started by recent college grads with little to no professional business experience outside of macro economics class and business principles 101. They are former clubbers turned club promoters with a $200,000 budget. They report to high level execs and take meetings with studio suits. But they don’t know how to prepare business plans or prep for a pitch meeting so they staff it out. To who? Their ubber smart, over worked, under payed interns who will do anything to suck at the power tit. This is like getting the pledges to clean the fraternity house after the parties. Is it wrong to ask the assistants to handle the bitch work? Maybe, maybe not. But if they are willing to support their team for a chance to it at the table someday it’s up to the individual.

    You can also look at it from a support standpoint. The more menial work you can eliminate from your bosses desk, the more productive he will be and the more revenue can be generated. Time is money especially rings true in Hollywood. The house that can deliver the fastest usually gets the deal in a deadline driven industry.

    Does it suck being the bottom turtle? Absolutely. But in a city that is built on ego and not principle, searching for the moral highground is not the best option. Besides, Most of the hollywood dreamers are not motivated by the cash grab. You are absolutely right. Getting your studio desk job making 200k might be boring. What people really want is validation. They just want the chance to sit at the cool kids table for lunch and have some fun in the process.

    Sorry for the long post, I’m very opinionated about my former town.

  3. You’re thinking about this in the totally wrong way. This part of the system isn’t evolving and it certainly isn’t functioning. It is a fundamentally wrong way to run an industry. And many, if not most of Hollywood’s problems can be traced back to this mistake.

    People who make good executives don’t make good assistants. Thus, people who make good assistants make bad executives.

    Answer phones isn’t the bitch work of Hollywood–it’s not even the work of Hollywood. It’s entirely separate and they are fucking themselves by confusing them.

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