Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Party Never Ends

Tis the season! We're in the middle of a month long period where not much show business business gets done as everyone concentrates on the holidays. This follows hard on the heels of the two weeks nobody did much because of American Thanksgiving and the American Film Market which preceeded it.

They came a short time after little was accomplished because everybody was at Mipcom in October and the Toronto Film Festival in September. Luckily, the Festival falls after Labor Day when people are just getting back from summer vacations which arrived around the time they returned from Banff or the Upfronts.

And before that was Cannes, NATPE and Sundance as we work in reverse order back to last New Year and Christmas.

An outsider looking at our industry might wonder just when anything actually gets done. We tell them it's a "relationship" business. You have to "network", "do face time" or "schmooze" and we get a lot of that done during our almost continuous party season!

I love parties! I love hangin' with people in the biz, the more often than not free booze, the mystery finger foods and even the almost never cutting edge mix disks.

I'm a fabulous guest too!

For starters, I'm a cheap date having inherited enough of my mom's DNA to know I can't handle more than a couple of drinks -- or in her words "Two and I'm anybody's, three and I'm everybody's."

Secondly, because good old mom also taught me to be courteous to the host and deferential to their guests, I've ended up with the understated sophistication and charm that has become my trademark.

Finally, I have absolutely no problem talking to anybody about anything and also, for the most part, sounding like I actually know what I'm talking about -- and give a handsome shit about what they think as well!

Being such fun on dates means I'm one of the miniature mirror balls at any soiree and as such -- given the prevailing wisdom of our industry, have wonderful things said about me by virtually everyone and thus get hired for all kinds of jobs...

Unfortunately, I can't recall one single, solitary work situation that came my way through schmoozing, networking or getting somebody completely hammered and taking pictures of them nobody else should ever see.

Likewise, I've only hired one person who was a hoot to party with. This was an accountant who used to tabulate showbiz award ballots. He was a laugh a minute and made accounting actual fun! A year after I hired him, he was in rehab for his Coke habit and I was explaining a lot of things that didn't make much sense to me either to a Tax Auditor.

I've worked with a few people who were hired because they were stars on the social circuit. There was the director who wanted to film a police gunbattle in the style of Andrzej Wajda making a Spaghetti Western. His first dailies were so indecipherable, we rushed him off to do all important establishing shots while a 2nd Unit director, who couldn't party worth a damn and would go on to direct the pilots of three of the seminal series of the 90's, grabbed enough "inserts" to allow an audience to follow the bullets.

I run into the art meets spaghetti director all the time at parties. He always has a new image, a new martini recipe and a new film. The last one I saw didn't have an ending. Honest, it didn't. It stopped just before the big climactic scene the last 20 minutes had built toward. I remember thinking, "Wow, what a dumb place to put a commercial break!" and then instead of a few words from our sponsor the final credits started to roll.

I was also once instructed to assign a script to a writer who's a fixture at parties. I've never been a fan of his work, but he's a wine encyclopedia and one of my execs aspired to own vineyards, so he got a script.

To nobody's surprise, there were a lot of notes on his first draft, and when I called to warn him of that and set a time for the ordeal, he had no problem taking care of the matter right away. About an hour into the notes marathon, I heard a toilet flush on the other end of the line. I was a little flumoxed, asked if he needed a minute. He said, "No" and asked me to repeat the last dialogue note because he'd been...

That's a level of professionalism you just can't discern on the dance floor.

And I probably can't count the number of charming actors, gorgeous actresses and canape servers somebody's hired to play a role. My favorite was a pilot I wrote where the director managed to have his three most favorite Maitre D's burst into a restaurant and dispatch a mob boss. This casting coup almost turned tragic when one of them hit another in the ass with the wad from a blank and the third almost took off his own foot with the blast from a sawed off shotgun.

Still, the director assured me over dailies, this creative choice would guarantee him good tables for years to come once the trio saw themselves onscreen. That was when I pointed out something he didn't appear to have noticed on set -- the three mob hitmen were all wearing balaclavas.

Come to think of it, this guy was pretty good at the schmooze himself.

What I'm getting at here is this. A lot of people get jobs because of who they know and where they show. Many of those people keep getting jobs despite any visible talent or system of logic anyone can explain. But only a few of these party animals do work that's either interesting or lasting.

I realize that paying the rent is important, but if money's what matters to you, please go and sell crack. You'll pocket way more than you will ever earn in this business, meet far more interesting associates and your chances of ending up in jail will be far smaller than your odds of winning any industry statues or plaques.

If I'm looking for a Brain surgeon, I don't call a guy I met over bean dip. And if I'm in trouble, I'm not calling that lawyer who was at that thing at my agent's beach house and knew a lot of cute blondes.

Sorry to be the party pooper here, but most good people hire other good people because they're actually good at what they do.

It seems I'm forever shaking hands over the shrimp trolley with some guy who tells me he's heard a lot about me. My response is usually, "I hope it's as juicy as some of the stuff I've heard." The other line they use is how nice it is to put a face to the name. And inside I'm always thinking, "What's any of this got to do with what I do?" and it reminds me of when I was starting out in the business 30 years ago and women writers used initials instead of their given names so the guys reading their script wouldn't know it was written by a "girl".

We've almost killed that old boy network and it's time we stopped degrading our business by making its face that of some idiot's personal trainer or mistress and the talent behind them not the best we can find but the funny guys we hung out with at some overhyped BBQ...

That's why nobody's watching our shows, folks. Any girl from a trailer park knows the flashy guy at the party is not the one who will come through when it counts.

I didn't go to any parties this holiday season. A few years ago, I was quoted as saying I wasn't attending some award ceremony "Because they don't let you bring your shotgun." I was kidding then, but those words have a different resonance for me now.

The recent CRTC hearings have revealed, among those who broadcast our work, a level of dismissal of what we all do that is beyond my comprehension -- and a lack of outrage from our guilds, agents and fellow artists that is soul crushing.

You can't help but meet network execs at industry fetes and I can't comprehend a conversation I'd want to have with any of them that didn't involve a ball gag, metal clamps and a car battery. And I'm done watching actors down to their last tank of gas put on a brave face and I'm through listening to writers with beautiful scripts aging past their relevance spout gallows humor. So I decided to stay away from all of them until I make some sense of this.

What I did instead was gather up my invitations, cable my regrets (okay e-mailed but I was going for that understated sophistication thing) and calculated how much time I'd probably spend at each and what I'd shell out for parking, hostess gifts, cash bars and the like.

The money went into a Salvation Army bucket and bought coffee for several surprised cops. The time was spent taking a disabled neighbor shopping, delivering the books I've realized I'll never read to the old folks home I'll probably end up in, (Hey, I can read 'em then!) an afternoon serving in a Church soup kitchen and a night working for a local program that drives home drunks.

To be honest, I think I had more fun than I would have had at those parties. I gathered a ton of great ideas -- and I talked to a lot of people nobody ever talks to about Canadian television and why none of them bother to watch it.

If you went out to the parties, I hope you had a good time. I truly do. (Confidentially, I don't even own a shotgun) But I also hope that if a call hasn't come from that special someone you schmoozed, you've vowed not to party a little harder next time, but decided to work on your craft instead.

It's all about the work, people. It really is. And very soon the ones who do it well are going to be invaluable.


EditThis said...

Thanks for the insightful post. I give props to ANYONE who will skip industry parties. My ex used to always think the EP and UPM or whoever would actually NOTICE if he was there or not, and was totally paranoid about missing any get togethers. You make great points. Keep up the good posts.

Kelly J. Compeau said...

Isn't it possible to do both? To be both a good shmoozer and a hard worker with oodles of talent, Jim?

While I am still relatively new to the film & television industry, my somewhat unique position as both a talent manager/publicist and a screenwriter/producer means that I have to be charming and funny, the life of the party, and then come through when it's time to get down to business, when millions of dollars are at stake.

I enjoy shmoozing -- but I also work 100 to 110 hours a week trying to further my own career and that of my clients by doing whatever's necessary to get the job done, as near to perfectly as is humanly possible.

I do a lot of networking and I've dated a lot people in powerful, high-profile positions. If/when they ask me to work for them in some capacity on a short or long-term project, I do my absolute best to come through for them, whatever the task. Not just because it may help further my own career by being a highly motivated get-along girl, but because anything less than my absolute best, most earnest effort is simply not good enough.

I gather from your post, Jim, that that kind of attitude is quite rare in this industry(?)


Riddley Walker said...

It's all about the work, people. It really is. And very soon the ones who do it well are going to be invaluable.

I really hope it is, otherwise my abrasive, sociopathic personality is going to land me in some pretty hot water soon...

Seriously, I know you're right. Every time one of my 'hopeful' friends tells me about some event or awards ceremony they've been at I usually have a few seconds of "why wasn't I there? I bet there would have been some useful people to meet", shortly followed by the deep breath and "but they would have all been legless, trying to impress each other and boring me mindless".

Hey, I can get that sort of thing anywhere! ;-)

I guess when you're young/starting out you might entertain a little bit of that hope that it'll somehow magically happen overnight and that you'll be let in to some kind of exclusive club. I think that once you start to enjoy what it is you do for what it is (if that makes sense), rather than using it to fulfill a fantasy of wealth and fame, then it really gets exciting. And you don't have time for the chattering classes at the parties any more.

I could be wrong, of course... :-D

EcamirG said...

Amazing post. Well done.

Terrible Mother said...

I love this entry, especially as a new reader.

DMc said...

But there's the Catch 22, Jim -- nobody in the Canadian industry reads scripts. I don't get a sense of anybody out there actually searching for new talent.

So that hack or dilletante at the party, with his cufflinks perfectly matched to his razr phone and his hair five kinds of swell -- well, that guy gets the meeting at CBC. I've seen it happen.

I think the point of a good career in this biz is to get to the point where you can actually STOP going to the parties with impunity!

When I go to an industry Party, I always have a modest goal. Meet one new person. I'll spend 90 percent of my night talking to people I know and like already.

But if your name doesn't get out there, and no one's looking beyond the people they know, how do you 'get on that list?'

I think I've made contacts at parties that led to followup situations. I've cultivated acquaintances that turned into something down the road -- but the down the road was always based on them reading me.

But would they have read me if I hadn't cultivated that party convo first? That's what I don't know. And that's what haunts me.

I keep waiting for the people who I hear are crap, and everyone tells me are crap, to have the requisite career slowdown because, you know...they're crap.

but I haven't seen it yet. Which is why I'll have another vodka rocks, please.

wcdixon said...

Yeah...I'm sort of with DMc on this one. You know me, anti-schmoozer...much rather spend quality time with a few good folks in front of the hockey game rather than mingle...but I also know (certainly when starting out) that there is a value to putting your face and brain and social skills on the table in front of 'party goers' just so they can say 'they've met you' or 'they've heard of you' when you try to put some of your forward to get read/seen. I've read some great scripts and then met the writers and found myself wondering how much time I could actually spend in the room with them. One wouldn't stop talking about himself...another sat in some kind of yoga position in the chair across from me couldn't stop rocking. There's a balance to be found for sure, but to completely avoid the social situations can't be the only right answer - again, primarily when starting out.

Alex Epstein said...

Gotta third DMc and Dixon on this one. There is a certain network exec I cannot get on the phone, but whom I can get a meeting with if I bump into her at an industry party while I'm in town. I have a distinct impression that if I did not make the pilgrimage to Toronto, I wouldn't be able to get anyone to read my stuff. Certainly when I just send stuff, no one reads it.

Obviously you have to do the work. And credits matter. I've been surfing Bon Cop Bad Cop since it came out in the summer. But you have to work what you've got. I mean, when was the last time you asked me for a writing sample?

'Cause we've never met, that's why...

blueglow said...

I don't think I have ever hired anyone or been hired by anyone on the basis of going to a party. i do however go to them to get drunk. I concur with Jim that schmoozing is vastly overrated as a means to get a gig.

DMc said...

There's another side of this, too, of course...
Schmoozing to get a job is vastly overrrated, maybe so. But getting drunk for free?

Vastly underrated. Especially if they let you stray from the bar brands.

jimhenshaw said...

DMC and EP you're making my point.

Denis: "...nobody in the Canadian industry reads scripts. I don't get a sense of anybody out there actually searching for new talent."

Couldn't agree more. No wonder TV and films here don't get any better! So why would you want to meet such disinterested people -- and if they're not reading your work, what kind of "talent" do you think they are really seeking at a party?

EP:"There is a certain network exec I cannot get on the phone, but whom I can get a meeting with if I bump into her at an industry party..."

Let me get this straight, you write the highest grossing film in Canadian history and there's a network exec who won't return your calls but might meet if she runs into you at a party? Just how ludicrous is that on any professional level?

And Alex, I don't need to ask you for writing samples. I've seen your work, know how frickin' good you are and will hire you in a heartbeat if the opportunity arises.

And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we've ever met...


wcdixon said... Leafs? What do you think it's gonna take to get them back on track?

Yes, schmoozing is overated and shouldn't be necessary... HOWEVER, the reality is the industry is chock full of powerful people who, for better or for worse, are in the business because they get off on that aspect. Most aren't very good at what they do, but some are. And so to play the game on their level or on their terms, compromise has to happen. Thus, some partygoing.

jimhenshaw said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
jimhenshaw said...

To be honest, the Leafs seem to be following the showbiz schmooze philosophy -- hiring stars who have a rep they can't live up to when it counts. :)

...and to your second point. I hear you, but it's hard to accomplish mcuh for yourself when it's done completely on some other guy's terms.

And I think Janis Joplin's definition of "compromise" was -- "That's when nobody gets what they want".


DMc said...

there's that bit in Desperate Networks where Les Moonves, I think, asks Marc Cherry if, confidentially, DH had ever been at CBS, and Cherry tells him yes, and you just know, know, that someone is going to get fired for that.

Meanwhile, at CBC, there's a couple of people who left who were in powerful greenlighting positions there who left after TWENTY YEARS IN THE JOB.

What does it take to get fired in this business?

As long as there's no gatekeeper with any fear, how can you play on anything other than on their terms, Jim?

So what if you're talented and they lose you.

Slings and Arrows, when it won the Gemini, made gleeful noise about the fact that it was developed for years at CBC, and not only did they let it go, and not only did no one pay for that mistake, but nobody at CBC could even say WHY IT WAS TURNED DOWN.

Ugh. See? this is why Daddy drinks.

jimhenshaw said...

Drinking is good, DMC, but not when it's forced on you.

From the CRTC brief I wrote to the post of it here under "Who was that Masked Man?" to what I thought was going to be a light-hearted party post, my aim remains true -- to point out that the people currently running our networks have nothing to fear because they have nothing at risk and as any gambler, entrepreneur and artist knows, there is no gain without putting something that you value out there that it will hurt to lose.

One of the reasons I stopped acting was that I looked around and saw that virtually all the leading men 20 years older than me were alcoholics. They drank to kill the pain of what the business in this country had done to them(as do many of us at times).

But we need to do something more substantial to stop the hurt that's being done not just to the artists, but to our audience and this nation's culture. And I'm beginning to think it starts by not shuckin' and jivin' and clinking wine glasses with the people who don't know and/or don't care.


Caroline said...

Great post, Jim. Truthfully, I've been having trouble stomaching industry parties for the last year or so. The people I really want to keep in touch with I do, and I usually run into the wankers I don't want to at the parties. And I don't think any party has ever affected my employment status or employability thus far.

I do see what Dix and DMc and Alex are saying, but think there are other more effective ways to keep yourself top of mind. And I guess seeing how people behave socially is a good indicator of what they might be like to work with, but I consider myself a pretty good judge of character and person who knows people who know people so if I really need the skinny on someone, it usually only takes a call or two. And Denis, the hacks may get the meetings but I don't think they necessarily get the work.

I will raise a point that you lads haven't yet, probably because it hasn't affected you. Hate to say so, but there is still somewhat of a double standard in terms of professional conduct for men and women. People who will tolerate and even expect tipsy or drunken behavior from a man will not abide it in women. The gals who overindulge either in the drink or in other excesses (use your imagination) are gossiped about and it does affect your credibility.

My general policy is to go to what I have to, get in early, make sure the hosts know I was there and appreciative, and get in and out as quickly as politely possible. One glass of wine maximum, but usually I don't drink at work parties at all.

That's my two cents, for what it's worth.

conjunction-junction said...

As a green writer, I'm starting to see both sides of this as well.

And to Caroline- thank you for bringing up the double standard that still exists.

I've only been out of school a year and I've already encountered this "networking" experience between two producers.

Producer 1 (mentored me) "With the projects on your slate I think this young lady (motions toward me) could make a postive contribution-"

Producer 2 (looks at me) "Well we're always looking for another good reception girl"

Producer 1 "Actually she's a writer"

Producer 2 *silence- followed by changing of subject*

I could be reading too much into this but it felt pretty 'shitey' as we irish like to say. There are plenty of female standups but when I scan for female names in the writing credits of my favourite shows-- I haven't found too many...

Alex Epstein said...

Let me get this straight, you write the highest grossing film in Canadian history and there's a network exec who won't return your calls but might meet if she runs into you at a party? Just how ludicrous is that on any professional level?

Um, welcome to my world.

And Alex, I don't need to ask you for writing samples. I've seen your work, know how frickin' good you are and will hire you in a heartbeat if the opportunity arises.

Well thank you!

And correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think we've ever met...

Not that I can remember. Unless it was during that lost weekend in Amsterdam...

jimhenshaw said...

Ah, Amsterdam, that little room in the red light district. A ball of Gouda, a bag of weed, a case of Heineken, the Bouvier...

What was it you said -- "We'll always have the Rijks Museum"