There's a famous photograph of Jeffrey Katzenberg, back when he was running Disney, on the set of a movie talking on a cell phone. Famous because, at the time, it was the symbol of a hard-charging, ubiquitous studio boss - always there, always on the phone, always on top of things. And it was also famous because cell phones, at the time, were sort of rare. The one in the picture that Jeffrey was using ... wait, I don't know why I'm calling him "Jeffrey"; I've met the man maybe twice in my life. But there's something about this business: some people are referred to by their last names (Spielberg, Ovitz, De Niro) and some people by their first (Jeffrey, Rupert, Oprah) -
Anyway, it was a huge phone, one of those brick-looking things, and the minute I saw it, I thought: "Man, how cool is that? I want one of those phones." So a year or so later, when I could afford it, I plunked down the money and started carrying around my own - slightly smaller by this time - brick phone. It never occurred to me, of course, that eventually that phone would look silly and outdated - as far as I was concerned, it was the phone to have. It didn't fit in my pocket - it barely fit in the glove box of the car, and as I recall, it was heavy enough to set off the seat-belt alert when I left it on the passenger seat. All in all, it was a bulky, borderline-useless item. But I loved it. And I used it constantly, gratuitously. And, frankly, I'm sure I looked like a big fat jerk most of the time.
Still, carrying it around sent a message. People want to reach me. I need to be reachable. I am an important person. It was the wrong time for a phone like that, and not just because of the technology involved. It was wrong because of where I was at the time on the Hollywood status ladder: people didn't want to reach me. I didn't need to be reachable. When I really did start getting important phone calls, the phones started getting smaller. Then really small, then tiny, and then they sort of grew a bit and settled into an iPhone-Blackberry kind of bulk. Hand-sized. Fit in your pocket. Can potentially display a movie, if the plane ride is long enough. That's what I carry around these days, when I have an agent who calls me and a lawyer who bills me and a network and a studio who insist on being able to reach me, whenever, wherever.
But if you took a picture of me holding my phone, it's almost a certainty that a few years from now I'll look as silly as Jeffrey Katzenberg does holding his enormous brick of a telephone. By then, phones will be tinier or sleeker or something else entirely. And that pretty much crystallises the challenge of working in Hollywood. The television pilot I'm producing in four weeks, if all goes well, won't be seen by an audience until late autumn. A feature film just going into production won't make it to the screen for another year, at least.
What are people going to be talking about in six months? What will people want to see next year? Will our phones look too big? A writer friend of mine told me that he pitched a family comedy about two families who decide to share a house and split expenses. You know, a recession-era, under-one-roof kind of thing. The network he pitched it to smiled, laughed, then said: "By the time the show is on the air, won't this recession be all over and forgotten about?"
My friend thought fast. "If it is, we'll just make it a bigger house. A mansion. Two rich families. Distant relations. Inherit it from millionaire uncle." "But by then," the network worried, " won't we still be experiencing a bit of this recession-era new thinking, a kind of anti-materialism?" "Not a problem," he said. He was so close to a sale he could taste it. "It's about two families who share a big old house in the country -" "No rural stories," they said.
"I meant in the city. They share a big old house in the city. So it's about connecting with urban life, and -" "We like it ." "And trying to live a realer life than they did in the suburbs." "Interesting," they said. He finished up his pitch. "It's a show about two families - related, like cousins - who live in a big house in the city and are having an urban adventure. It's an economic-recovery engaged-citizen kind of comedy."
Of course they bought it. They're pretty sure that's what people are going to want to watch in October of 2010, when phones will look just a little bit different. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood