Hollywood for Breakfast

Hollywood is like a big English muffin: often packed with empty calories, but almost universally palatable. Like an English muffin, though, Hollywood is full of nooks and crannies, and while that adds an interesting texture to your breakfast, if you don’t make it a policy to investigate every single nook and peer into every cranny of the business, you might be the one getting crunched.

The business of entertainment — a business of information and communication — demands a tremendous attention to detail and a constancy of dialogue, thoughtfulness and follow-through. No stone must go unturned. Nothing can be taking for granted. The only miscommunication is the call you didn’t make. The meeting that counted is the one you didn’t take.

Every day I find this lesson reinforced. To get things done well it’s imperative that you make ALL the calls, speak to ALL the people THROUGHOUT the process EVERY DAY. To leave one nook overlooked or one cranny unexplored could mean the difference between landing the project, booking the assignment, closing the deal, signing the client, squeezing the extra buck out of the buyer, selling the script, collecting the check or simply being an also-ran where the project moving forward simply has nothing to do with you — because the OTHER guy did the legwork.

It sounds intuitive, but you’d be surprised how many individuals leave it to others to fill in the blanks. Or default to an electronic missive to resolve an issue that can only be “grokked” through a conversation on the phone or even a face-to-face meeting. I’ve seen deals die because of a reliance on a few perfunctory emails.

A guideline I subscribe to for email communication: “Just the facts, Ma’am.” Use email to send material, to prod, to garner a yes/no response. As long as the message you are sending and the response does not require nuance, email will suffice. Alas, email is an endless cascade constantly pouring over us. How many times have you glanced at an email, intended to respond, but had your attention diverted to the next hundred new emails clamoring for your attention? Or failed to reply because it’s a more involved response than you can tap on your iPhone at a red light? Know that it’s as overwhelming for the recipient as the sender. I was on the phone with an agent and within a 30 second period, he was flooded with 75 CC’s. How could anyone possibly process that? Email is a torrent. An incessant flood. And email is terrible for tone — it’s often misinterpreted by the reader — so whenever tone is important or there’s a need to get to the “why,” eschew email for a phone call.

The phone. The lifeblood of Hollywood communication. When asked if a career in movies was tough, one veteran agent replied, “Tough? Try getting your call returned. Start there.” The phone sheet is definitive. You owe them or they owe you. You call is connected, returned or ignored, but even when you do connect, “voice” often isn’t enough to draw the listener’s focus. Typically, after a little small talk, you may have someone’s complete attention for 60 seconds. How often have we been on the phone with someone who begins replying to emails the second it’s your turn to speak? You could say, “I just electrocuted your cat,” and the reply would be: “Yeah, uh-huh, great,” as they tap-tap-tap away on their keyboard. I’ve been guilty of this, too, on occasion, but when I catch myself doing it, I’m reminded of Albert Brooks’ multitasking character in Broadcast News who sings, “I can SING while I READ, I am singing and reading BOTH.” But he didn’t get the girl. Or the dream job. And he was prone to flop sweats.

So there is this funny limitation about human beings: we cannot READ and LISTEN at the same time. Impossible. It can’t be done. We can only focus on one of those things at a time. Not that it stops us from trying. It’s why any writer who has ever pitched over the phone knows that it’s a complete waste of time. Those detestable speaker phones sound like you’re pitching into a cavernous void. You never know who’s in the room, if the listener is flipping through US Weekly or clipping their nails. (The one personal exception to this rule was when I sold a phone pitch to a studio president for a lot of money, but it was in an era before the digital dominated and when studios still paid a lot of money for pitches from new writers without big attachments.)

It’s why I like Skype. You get to see the other person. You can make eye contact, sort of. It’s as close to a meeting as you can get without being there. But Skype is still one layer removed. You’re still interacting through a screen. Which is why, in our infinitely-connected world rife with split-second attention spans, nothing clarifies the myriad complexities of our business like a good old-fashioned meeting. By crossing that digital divide, circumventing the cell phone and venturing into each other’s personal space, we can attempt to avoid some of the pitfalls that invariably mark our path.

If this sounds Old School, it’s because the art and commerce of Hollywood itself is a bit of a throwback: despite the speed at which information travels, the filmmaking process is still one based on the successful interlinking of creative personalities. The creative process is a glacial and protracted one. The reading of material takes time. The development and packaging and production process cannot be rushed. Since a successful collaboration is built upon the framework of getting INTO business together, it’s why the business end is so important — and why the devil is in the details, details, details. He’s hiding in the nooks and crannies. Just like subtext. The subtext that speaks volumes, but which is conveyed tacitly through body language, eye contact, non-verbal communication. It’s why we have to “get in a room:” we have to grok the vibe.

That’s why we take so many meetings. And why we do everything over a meal. It’s why Hollywood is legendary for lunching. It’s even popular for breakfast.

Just like an English Muffin.



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