Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Winners & Losers & why

All the gold in California
Is in a bank in Beverly Hills 
In somebody else's name
So if you're dreaming about California
It don't matter at all where you played before
California's a brand new game
                    -Gatlin Brothers

It seems that most movies about Hollywood tend to show the down side of the movie business. You've got A Star Is Born (1937, 1954 & 1976) about a famous actor who mentors a rising star only to see her eclipse his fame, or Sunset Boulevard (1950 ) about a screenwriter who becomes a "companion" to a faded silent movie star and pays the ultimate price. There even was a movie called "The Oscar" and a dozen more, including the Robert Altman film, The Player, about a producer who kills a screenwriter.

Ironically, the best book and movie on the business to my liking was Nathaniel West's classic Day of the Locust (1979), a brilliant study of those who come seeking fame who end up with nothing. While the book was written in 1939 the only difference between then and 2010 is that the cars are better and we have iPhones.

My "crowd" is mixed, a few wildly successful people, some successful, some less so and some at the bottom of the ladder. Then there's those who border on complete delusion as a means to validate that they too are successful. Needless to say those categories above don't always end up at the same table. It's almost as though success fears failure in others as it might be catching like a virus.

Something else that hasn't changed is the amount of people who still come to Hollywood to become stars. While in the 20's to the 70's, it was mostly actors and singers, now it includes screenwriters and directors. And they all are still consumed by the knowledge that they have what it takes.

Take the blonde girl, mid 20's who looked across the room at the party, it was still early and guests were just arriving. Then she spotted two older men standing near the bar talking. It took her a second to decide to move and she approached them, smiling.

"Hi, I'm Serena".

The two men were myself and my director friend Paul. It didn't take much to figure out why she selected us. The other guests were either around her age so early in the evening or were couples talking to each other. Serena was an actress, and that was not really her name.

The party was a party  given by a studio owner whom I had known since my Calgary days. His Hollywood Hills home, "just a short drive from Jack Nicholson's place", overlooked the entire valley and as I stood at a glass bar the size of my kitchen, a bartender poured drinks as we watched the fires in the San Bernadino mountains 20 miles away. For a moment, I felt guilty, knowing that not far away firefighters were desperately trying to save hillsides.

"Beautiful house, isn't it," she said.

Whatever Serena didn't have, she did have confidence, the kind that always amazes me as I never really had that when I began. I probably still don't have it that much. I see that confidence so often with the young actors and writers and directors but also know that confidence in itself isn't all that important.

Actors are the biggest casualties in this city of dreams. There are more of them for one, approximately 200,000 according to SAG, and they're not counting the actors who still haven't gained admission to the powerful union.  The WGA has about 8000 writers and at any given time, less than 2000 are working.  DGA has around 2500 - 3000 directors, most of whom are not working.

So you can see the odds against even getting a job let alone hanging onto it.

Think of it this way, every day I look for a new job. Same for the actors and directors and crew. Those on a series have a little job security... at least until the show is cancelled. And some shows get canceled after the 2nd episode is aired. Job security is a word we've never considered. 

And when we find a potential job, 90% of the time we get rejected. 

Why do some people win and the majority lose? Hard question to answer. There is the talent factor, no doubt a leading contender for the big time. But as the studio exec told me, craft and discipline are more important. And then there's the main two reasons why someone doesn't work.

Either they're not very good or they're hard to work with.

Who loses? Everybody else. 

But it's how you lose that counts. 

A lot of them give it a good shot and if, after a few years it doesn't work out, they drop out and find a regular job and forget about it. While a steady working actor can earn up to $50,000 a year, the majority make around $8000. A year.

Higher up in the foodchain, you have the character actors who, with a hit series and maybe a movie or two a year enjoy a somewhat full career and they can even buy a home. And of course, we can't forget the stars who make as much as $20 million a picture. Like Sandra Bullock.

Sandra recently dropped her fee to $10 million to show how much she loved the script to The Blind Side. Now that's showing real bravado.  And it will end up getting her an Oscar nomination and I predict, a win. Meryl Street is nominated twice and that will cancel her out. Besides she has enough Oscars.

But there are those others; the desperate ones who don't know when to give up. And they tend to be those who really aren't that good at what they do. Not that you have to be good; look at the cast of Friends, not particularly talented, except maybe for Courtney Cox, and look at them -- a hit series and they're millionaires.

But they won the lottery in the same sense that you or I would if we bought a ticket. Really. For some reason they had "chemistry" as they say, something worked, their chemistry, the world was just ready for that show, and it was well crafted by the writers and directors.

But that's lightning in a bottle, as executives like to say. It rarely happens twice.

But back to Serena. After 10 minutes of the usual party talk she looked at us in the eye and said, "so what do you do?" We told her. She moved closer. She also focused more on Paul than me; writers don't hire actors, directors do. I saw my host and excused myself as Paul listened to her story about the last movie she was in.

After all, writers don't hire actors. Writers don't hire anybody and nobody even sees them sometimes, our work is done before the crew and actors are hired. And I've learned not to bring business cards anywhere because I have the bad habit of handing them out. 

And those people do call you.

After 20 years I have met many Serenas at parties or functions or even in coffee houses and once crossing a street. As I crossed a young woman was crossing beside me and when a car screeched she commented on the crazy drivers. I agreed, told her to watch all around. It took her almost at the curb when she said; "so, are you in the business"?

The thing of it is that yes, it is flattering to have a good-looking woman talk to me and sometimes it's quite sincere and I have been known to help writers who are starting out. But after many years I have learned to stick to writers whom I may be able to help or at least read their work.

But my best story about meeting on a street was when I took a bad fall on my mountain bike at an intersection and several people came to help. My wrist was totally broken, in an "S" shape. Two people helped me, the girl taking her leather jacket off so I could lay my head on it. The other person was an older man, maybe 70's and he asked my name and what I did as a job to see if I was fully conscious. I told him I was a writer. He smiled and said so was he. And the girl said she was a special effects person for the movies.

I take a spill on my bike on Ventura Boulevard and the two people who come to help me are in the film industry. Small world.

And the old guy? He was Marty Krofft, who created a ton of kid series for CBS in the 1960s and 70's. Anyone over 40 would know his name.

He gave me his card and said, "call me when you're better".

I did call him months later. He never returned the call.

(Coming Friday : Part 2 of winners and losers)


  1. I loved this blog. Small world indeed...

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.