Did you sleep in a skip last night? Turn it to your advantage

In Hollywood, and everywhere in life, image is important – but it's certainly not the only factor in a commercial relationship.

Once, not too long ago, I went to a fancy store on Rodeo Drive - the fanciest street in Beverly Hills - on a Saturday afternoon to buy a suit.

Before I went to the store, though, I took the dog to a park, which was a bit muddy. Then I replaced a bunch of ceiling-high light bulbs in my house, which meant I had to find the ladder, which was around the side of the house collecting dust.

So the mud from the park joined the dirt from the ladder, and both of them left streaks across my T-shirt - which didn't look so hot to start with - so when I finally walked into the fancy men's store covered in dirt and dog hair and the general squalor of a busy Saturday afternoon, I had a hard time getting anyone to help me out.

I looked like a homeless guy. A tramp. A hobo. And everybody knows that hobos don't need suits. At least, that must have been the thinking of the shop's staff, who carefully avoided making eye contact with me, or acknowledging me in any way, for almost 45 minutes.

But I was expecting to meet my brother at the store, and when he arrived and I was fuming about the lack of chop-chop service I was getting at this pricey boutique, he piloted me to the dressing room and asked me to look carefully into the three-way mirror and tell him what I saw looking back at me.

"Oh," I said. "I look like a homeless guy. I look like a hobo. No wonder I'm getting the high hat."

"The 'high hat'?" my brother asked.

"It's slang. From old movies. Hey," I said, "if you look like a hobo, you may as well talk like one."

This illustrates a simple Hollywood problem: the people in the store assumed that a hobo doesn't need a suit, just a place to sit down for a moment, and as long as he doesn't get unruly, they ignore him.

The hobo - in this particular instance, me - really did need a suit for a wedding, and so felt at the mercy of the establishment.

It's a question of leverage. The hobo didn't have it, until his brother arrived and reminded him that there's another store down the street that's just as expensive and deals with a lot of rock and roll singers and movie stars, so maybe they have a better attitude about people wandering into their shop looking like they slept in the skip.

So the brother and the hobo left the store and went down the street.

When I walked into the other shop on Rodeo Drive, I was immediately offered a cappuccino, despite my obvious squalor. My brother and I were instantly received with unctuous politeness. In other words, we changed the leverage.

That's the chief daily activity of everyone who works in the entertainment business, and every other business, too: changing the leverage. You walk into a studio or a network with a project to pitch, and you're just a salesman on a call. Unless there's another buyer. Then suddenly you've got options and it's the studio or network that has to compete. Once a studio buys it, though, your project becomes just one more project in a slate of projects, and the leverage is handed back.

That's the concrete example. The more emotional, subtle example comes when people pick out cars. An expensive car is supposed to send this message: I don't need you, I'm doing very well without you, you have no financial leverage over me. See this car? How desperate could I be and still drive this car?

The truth is, sometimes, pretty desperate. A writer I know hasn't worked in a long while, and his career-energising decision was to cash in a portion of his retirement savings and buy himself a new car.

Which was an odd choice, really, because - and I speak as someone who drives a 2004 Chevy Trailblazer, which I recognise makes me look like a hobo - no one he does business with every really sees the car. I could be driving a Rolls-Royce, I could be driving a 1993 Buick Skylark, I could be driving a clown car, no one would know. Which, when I mentioned this to the writer, prompted him to nod sagely, as if he'd already considered this, and then he showed us all his new zillion-dollar watch.

"If they miss the car," he said carefully, "they'll see this."

Leverage is a hard thing to figure out. Maybe this guy is right. Maybe people see a fancy watch and think: "This writer doesn't need me, so that makes his pitch attractive."

Me, I prefer to drive around like a hobo. Because hobos don't really have anything to lose. Hobos can just walk away, down the street, to a better shop.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

Published: August 5, 2011 04:00 AM


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