Why my friend had to pursue ‘other opportunities’

Although my writer friend felt he was fired from his film and television studio job, he really wasn’t, says Rob Long

I knew a writer who had a production deal at a major studio for almost 15 years, back when the phrase “studio deal” meant piles of money, plush offices with fresh-cut flowers, a generous expense account and a personal assistant.

I know this because back then I, too, had a deal at a studio, with all of those little goodies as well. But then terrible things like the internet, video streaming, YouTube and thousands of television channels intervened, and most of those deals went away in a blizzard of austerity and cost-cutting.

My writer friend was no exception. A few months before his contract at the studio was up, he found out that it wasn’t going to be renewed.

Which sounds like a euphemism for being fired, but it really isn’t. Studios, even in today’s more cut-throat entertainment marketplace, have been constantly changing business strategies.

I’m tempted to use the term that’s popular with graduates of business schools and call them “business models” but the basic “business model” of a film and television studio hasn’t changed in a century. It’s this, basically: you get people to do something in front of a camera that you can sell for more than what you pay them. It isn’t complicated, which is probably why the entertainment business is so attractive to people of limited brain power.

So the business model is always the same, but the specific strategy can shift. When cowboy movies were popular, Hollywood studios made cowboy movies by the gross tonne. When family sitcoms were popular, you couldn’t move without bumping into a family sitcom writer. And when the studios decide on a strategy, they hire a lot of writers to create those new projects. And, of course, they fire a lot of writers who were busy creating the old projects. It’s a nasty business, depending on which side of the see-saw you’re riding.

My writer friend was on the wrong side of that kind of strategy shift, and so in the nicest, most euphemistically possible way he was told by the president of the studio – which was followed up by a more direct and chilling memo from a studio attorney – that when his current deal was up, he’d be free to “pursue other opportunities”. Oh, and he needed to get out of his offices by close of business on the last day. Earlier would be appreciated.

So he sat in his office for a month or two, fuming about the heartlessness and shortsightedness of the studio and not, which would have been more logical, about the changing landscape for television entertainment – during which time other writers with new deals and new projects would knock gingerly on the door to check out his office set-up, measure the rooms for new furniture and hold up paint samples. A few weeks before his actual last day he declared emotional surrender. It was all too much. He told his assistant to start packing up everything. “So, this is it?” his assistant asked.

“Yes,” the writer replied.

“The deal is over?”

“Yes,” the writer said. But, of course, in all of his sulking he had forgotten to explain to his assistant what, exactly, was going on.

“Um,” his assistant timidly asked, “Am I over?”

Meaning: Am I fired, too?

“Yes,” the writer replied. “We’re both out.”

See, in all of his fury and rage at a studio strategy shift and a lawyer who was just doing his job, the writer forgot to sit his assistant down and say: “Once this deal is over, I lose the office, the parking space, the free Diet Cokes and the assistant.” And all along, the assistant clearly thought: “You know, I think he’s going to take me with him wherever he goes. He’ll probably pay me out of his own pocket for a while.”

But what the assistant didn’t do was ask directly, because people tend not to ask questions if there’s even a small voice inside them telling them that they may not like the answer.

So the writer felt fired by the studio, and the assistant felt fired by the writer, but the truth is, neither one was really fired. It’s just that the sunny part of the business they had occupied for so long had passed into shade. But both of them felt abused, though both, in a way, were at fault.

The assistant should have ginned up the courage to ask directly if he was going to have a job or not, but the writer really should have been more forthcoming.

And it’s also the prudent thing to do, because the assistant who told me this story a few days ago is now a powerful development executive at a big cable television channel, and his old boss, the writer, apparently, is coming in to pitch next week. They haven’t seen each other since the last day at the studio, a few years ago.

Talk about a strategy change.

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rcbl

Published: May 30, 2014 04:00 AM


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