When the nice guy act is really a retirement plan
A n ecstatic young screenwriter called me the other day. His first script had been sent to studios by his new agent, and were well received. He was scheduled for meetings all over town and was excited.
That's how you can tell when someone is new to the entertainment business: there's a meeting, and they're excited about it.
At a certain point, no matter what business you're in, the idea of having a meeting is the most exhausting and dispiriting thing you can think of.
Meetings are all the same: some polite chit-chat followed by an awkward pause, and then someone always talks too much and for too long while other people try to steal discreet glances at their watches. And, mostly, nothing important is either discussed or decided.
Meetings, mostly, seem to fill that human need to engage in pointless social activity. We're all lonely, I guess - either in our writers' dens or office cubicles - and meeting is our way of adding some brief personal contact in an otherwise solitary life.
I didn't say all of this to the young writer. I didn't want to break his heart by telling him that, probably, none of these meetings he was so excited about would amount to much.
He's a nice guy and a good writer and I make it a policy to be nice and encouraging and supportive to all young writers, on the theory that at some point when they've hit it really big they may feel that they owe me a favour, and when my career is fading and returning to its original dust, they'll feel guilty and throw the old man a bone.
Being nice and supportive, for some people, is a character thing. They're nice and supportive anyway, so, why not direct that at up-and-coming writers?
To me, though, it's less about being a nice guy and more about having a retirement plan.
Here's how I think this will go. The successful former protégé will be luxuriating in his office and he'll suddenly remember my encouraging face, and he'll think, "Gosh, he was nice to me when I was starting out, and I feel bad about the way things turned out for him. So let's just give him an office somewhere and pay him enough to keep him in that cheap wine he drinks for lunch and to stop the motel manager on Hollywood Boulevard from putting his stuff out onto the street."
That's kind of how I see my Hollywood screenwriting career ending for me, by the way.
It's not exactly one of those optimistic visions that Oprah Winfrey talks about, where you manifest good things for yourself by staying positive.
I'm supposed to keep chanting, "I am a superstar, I am a superstar" over and over again, but I just can't do it without erupting into giggles. And I'm supposed to envision myself on the steps of a lake house in Como, Italy wearing a cashmere turtleneck sweater and a gigantic watch, but for some reason my mind has a more vivid image of me in the harsh overhead Los Angeles light, talking on the last remaining coin phone in Hollywood and pretending to the person on the other line that it's my mobile.
But that's me. My friend, the young writer, was excited about his two day marathon of meetings, and who was I to tell him that meetings of this type always seem more important to the writer than whoever the other person in the meeting is? Because for a lot of people in the entertainment industry, "having meetings" is their entire job description.
So two days later, my young friend - now a good deal older, at least spiritually - called me up to complain. The meetings, he told me, had been pointless. People just wanted to shake his hand and make polite small talk. Mostly, he told me, what they wanted to do was have a face to put to the name on the script.
"Nobody wanted to buy the script," he told me. "A couple of the people actually started the meeting by saying they didn't like the script all that much, but liked the writing. What does that even mean?"
"It means," I said, "that they might not have responded to this particular piece, but they think you're a good writer and that you're about to write something amazing and they want to know you and track you."
"Like a hunter tracks an animal?" he asked. "Exactly," I said.
And then I said some more encouraging words, at which point the young writer thanked me for being supportive and for being a friend and then he said something about how nice it was that I wasn't tracking him like a hunter tracks an animal, at which point I had to cut the conversation short.
"Everyone wants to read your next script," I said. "And hey, none of us is getting any younger."
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rbcl
Published: October 27, 2012 04:00 AM