x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

As Americans count their blessings, I count my paycheques

It might not sound right to many of the millions of Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving, but some of us are just thankful for the next paycheque.

Americans gathered around the Thanksgiving dinner table yesterday to engage in two deeply American rituals: sharing their feelings and eating too much.

In between forkfuls of complex carbohydrates, many Americans at Thanksgiving - and my family is no exception - take turns telling their loved ones what, precisely, they're thankful for this year. The answers, as you can probably guess, are pretty mainstream: family, parents, children, shelter and food, love and companionship - you get the idea.

These aren't exactly lies, of course. It's a lovely ritual, and when you're gathered around a large dinner table with far-flung family members, it's always nice to have some structure to the conversation. And this year I mumbled the same platitudes along with everyone else. But what I didn't do was say what I'm really thankful for this year. I didn't tell anyone at the table my true answer to the question, "What are you thankful for?"

That's because the real answer is: money. And that doesn't sound right.

But it is. As a writer in Hollywood, there's really only one sure way to make sure everything is moving along smoothly, that the bank and the American Express card are going to get paid, and that your career is going in the right direction.

When I first came to Hollywood to be a writer, what I discovered was that every other writer I met seemed to be working on something, seemed to have some angle, some connection to someone important. Everyone I met seemed to be one or two steps away from greatness.

A movie star's personal assistant was passing a script along to an agent, or a powerful attorney needed a dog walker, and was willing to represent the writer in exchange for that daily service. And none of these things are bad, necessarily. Big Hollywood careers are often launched by sillier and more tenuous relationships.

But there is also another kind of relationship writers get sucked into. When they're young and desperate - or old and desperate - they often find themselves talking to one of the zillions of "production companies" that are all over the place. Go to any office building in Los Angeles and walk along the hallways - there are always mysterious office doors, dusty and untouched, with names on them like "Sedona Productions" or "All Seasons Media" or "Valley View Pictures" and it's never really clear what's going on inside there.

"There are three basic categories to these places," a wise old writer once explained years ago. "If they're on a studio lot, that's good. If they're in a real building, on Wilshire in Beverly Hills, that's OK. If they're anywhere else, be careful."

But it's hard, when you're starting out, to be careful. And so a lot of writers get caught up in a lot of low-rent relationships - a $1 option on a script by a producer with some access to Russian money, who wants a rewrite for free, say, or a producer who keeps wanting to meet in a Starbucks.

"How do you know you're really in business?" the wise old writer asked. "When someone calls for your Social Security or Tax ID number. Because that means that some accountant is about to cut a paycheque, and that accountant needs to prepare a W-9 tax form. Anything less than that - anything less - isn't worth getting excited about. Unless they want your tax information, you're still out of luck."

"Why is it always about money with you writers?" a studio executive once asked me, after I finished talking for several minutes about money.

Because money means they're serious. Look, if you're a writer, you just spent months (maybe years) writing something. You've already demonstrated that you're serious. But when someone starts giving you money, that means that they're serious too, which means now there are two serious people on the team. Which is a lot less lonely.

Money, to a writer, means companionship. It means company. When they give you money for something you've written (or, if you're lucky, something you've just promised to write) the world is a lot less cold, and the solitary job of writing is suddenly not so solitary. It's more … social. Which is why when they call and ask, "What's your tax ID number?" it's hard not to get emotional. And thankful.

I didn't say that at the Thanksgiving table, of course. But I thought it. And I was silently, privately thankful for another year of phone calls from studio accountants. I know they won't last forever.

 

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood