There's an old cliché about people in the entertainment business shouting at each other, "You'll never work in this town again, or something along those lines". It's a ludicrous threat. No person is powerful enough to run someone else out of the entertainment industry. In the first place, it's too big, with lots of nooks and crannies to crawl into and hide. And in the second place, the person who inspired that kind of dramatic loathing, "Get out! You'll never work in this town again!", must be an extremely gifted and valuable employee.
The truth is, for the most part, the entertainment business kind of runs itself. It's like one of those old, 19th century smoke-spewing machines, dripping tar and showering sparks, churning out some kind of product in non-uniform, quality-uncontrolled spurts.
In other words, you never know when your last day in the business is going to be. It certainly isn't going to be when some powerful (for now) guy says so. But when, exactly, it does come is a curious question.
Sometimes, the business just sort of slowly sheds you, like a parasite or an intestinal bacteria. You're there, you're safe, you're feeding off the host, and then, suddenly, you notice something. You're not inside anymore. You're … somewhere else. You can't get your calls returned. You can't get a meeting.
The business is done with you. And it never even bothered to tell you.Years ago, I was sitting at a picnic table in the Brentwood Country Mart - an upscale, faux-rustic lunch and shopping plaza - and I was minding my own business when an older man tapped me on the shoulder.
"I wrote 62 Mr Ed's," he said. "And I can't get a meeting."
Mr Ed, for those of you who aren't familiar with American sit-coms from the 1960's, was a show about a nervous guy and a talking horse. And no, I am not making this up.
"Wow," I said. "I loved Mr Ed."
And he nodded and shuffled off to get his lunch. I saw him there a bunch of times after that, like a comedy-writing ghost haunting the Reddi-Chik, and I remember thinking, when did he notice that he couldn't get a meeting? Because Mr Ed has been off the air for a long time now, and I wondered if, maybe, sometime around 1978 it occurred to him that the business had shed him. Or if there were lots of signs - 20 years worth - that he chose not to notice.
Because the key here is to leave the party before they collect your keys, to get out and retreat before you're tapping a stranger on the shoulder and reciting your credits, before some executive asks to read something you've written, and then adds, with a slight and barely perceptible emphasis, "recently", meaning, "What have you done since those giant brick-sized cellular phones?"
The only power you have in this business is the power of the alternative. You can say no to a script assignment, a set of rewrite notes, a job - anything, really, so long as you can afford it - but you don't have many choices in between. This isn't really an a la carte business: you're either a player or you're not.
So the smart move is to sack yourself before anyone else has the chance to. But, because this is show business, you've got to do it in style.
A writer friend of mine and I used to daydream about our last day in the business. Our plan was to quietly liquidate all LA-based real estate holdings, line up a day's worth of meetings and pitches, and a lunch at a popular spot - say, the Grill on the Alley in Beverly Hills - and then proceed to turn each meeting, pitch, and meal into a weird, over-the-top piece of guerilla theatre.
We'd pitch nonsense - actual nonsensical words - at one network, and when they questioned us, we'd just sigh: "Forget it," we'd say, "you guys just don't want great art."
At another place, we'd do the opposite: we'd shamelessly and fulsomely grovel and plead and praise the executive: "You, sir, are a master of your craft, of your art, and it is my pleasure, no, my honour, to sit here on your suede couch and drink your Evian." And then we'd pitch something insane, like a comedy about a family of obese nudists.
At another place, we'd wait for a moment, then say: "I need to borrow six hundred dollars. I realise this is unorthodox. But I need it."
As the sun set on our last bizarre meeting of the day, we'd drive off in a blaze of glory, with a trail of baffled executives behind us, never to return.
Of course, we'd probably have to come back. Something tells me that if you're crazy and reckless enough, someone will want to work with you. By the end of the day, there would probably be an industry-wide bidding war on the obese nudist family idea. Maybe in Hollywood the only way to jump-start your career is to try to fire yourself.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood.