I saw a documentary film recently about life in a maximum-security prison, and it reminded me, uncomfortably, of Hollywood.
The most successful denizens of a prison aren't the serial killers, gangland thugs or sociopathic tough guys. Those types, according to the film, are at the mercy of the brainier inmates, the ones who know how to manipulate and motivate. Knowing how to garrote a cell-mate, it seems, is less important than knowing what makes people tick.
In other words, the difference between a good prisoner and a successful producer is, basically, four letters in the middle of one word.
I have a friend who is a very rich and prolific television producer. His name is on about a dozen television series, and he - like his shadows in maximum-security incarceration facilities - really knows how to get things done. Especially when it comes to working with writers.
Having that many projects in the works means dealing with lots of screenwriters, and that means he has to give a lot of script notes, which isn't an appealing thought.
The arithmetic is grim: if my friend produces a dozen projects a year, and each script has three or four major phases - from the initial one-sheet idea to the outline, the first draft, and the second draft - and each one of those phases needs to go to two entities, the studio and the network, it means he's giving notes to a writer about eight times per project, and with a dozen or so projects, that's almost 100 note sessions a year. That's 100 conversations with whining, entitled and thoroughly childish writers.
And I'm allowed to say that, because I am one.
Some projects and some writers are easier to deal with, of course. Sometimes you know when a script is going to be successful and sometimes you just feel in your bones that it's not, but my friend never changes the way he gives his thoughts. It's always the same.
He'll get on the telephone and say, in a breezy and reassuring tone of voice: "I think we're in great shape. I just read the script, and it's really funny and really fresh and just terrific all the way through. We all really love this project around here. Just love it. Oh, I suppose we've got a thought or two about how to improve it. Just a few little tiny things, nothing major, just some things that popped out at me. No big deal. Small stuff."
And then he dives into his notes, which often are a big deal, and aren't tiny, and are major. Sometimes, despite all of those nice words at the top of his speech, he really doesn't think the script is funny or fresh or terrific all the way through.
But because he starts so disarmingly, so upbeat, the notes never seem all that bad. The writer on the other end of the phone - who, full disclosure, has often been me - never feels doomed or misunderstood or about to have his vision of the show stomped upon. Instead, the writer feels like, "Hey, yeah. It is funny and fresh and terrific. And of course I can adjust the first act to head into a new direction and create a new main character and throw out the second act. It's actually not that much, when you think of it." Even if it is.
The entertainment industry, like a scary prison, is all about staying alive. A producer's job is to keep a project going. Often, major rewriting on a script is the only way to do that - but there's no real need to tell the writer that. There's no purpose - for business or humanitarian reasons - to let the writer know how precarious a project is, or unlikely it is that anyone is going to want to go further with it.
Because, of course, who knows? Another draft comes in, some adjustments are made, and zap! A project goes into hyper-drive. The right script gets into the right hands and a movie star's interest is piqued and a dead project springs to life. The key is to keep as many projects percolating as possible. Which means keeping the writers writing.
Maybe the only way the series is going to be green-lit is if the writer rewrites and rethinks the whole thing. And the only way to get a writer to do that is: never, ever tell him that's what he's about to do.
That's the way to get someone to do a lot of work and make sure he feels good about it. That's the way to get the writer busy on a second draft, or to get the bruiser in Cell Block D to shiv the snitch in Cell Block A. My producer friend is successful in Hollywood, but were he to find himself in San Quentin - which is not entirely unlikely; his tax returns are remarkably fanciful - he might do even better.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood
On Twitter: @rcbl