x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

In the entertainment world, even failure is better than nothing

Because most projects don't truly succeed, veterans of show business develop coping mechanisms for handling, well, not failure, exactly, but incomplete success.

There's an old saying we trot out in the entertainment industry when we want to cheer ourselves up after some bad news. If our television show is failing, or our movie opens to dismal reviews, we remind ourselves of the bright side.

"They can kill you," we say to ourselves, "but they're not allowed to eat you." Which is a small blessing, I guess.

Most products in show business don't make it to the very top of the entertainment industry pyramid. And even those few that do are uncomfortably pierced and stabbed in the backside by the pointy top as they scramble to hold on. In show business, even being successful brings casualties.

Because most projects don't truly succeed, veterans of show business develop coping mechanisms for handling, well, not failure, exactly, but incomplete success.

Look, it's an amazing accomplishment just to work in show business and manage to pay your mortgage. Getting something done - even something that turns off audiences, loses lots of money and dies a fast death - is still a pretty solid deed. Something to be proud of.

I know a writer - OK, OK, it's me - who has a string of failed television shows to his name, and he's still generally thought of as a "successful" television producer.

Because the only way to have a failed television show is, first, to have a television show. Failures like that are, as we say out here in Hollywood, "high class problems".

But still, you have to develop psychological preparedness. You have to train your brain not to expect success.

"This one," I tell myself, whenever I sit down to write a script or produce a television pilot, "this one is not going to work."

I've learnt the hard way to say that to myself, because when you say it out loud - like, for instance, when I told a team of writers: "This is a pretty good show. I wonder why the audience will eventually reject it?" - well, it just brings the whole room down. The team gets depressed.

But it's all part of the game. You have to remind yourself that success in the entertainment business is the result of a series of highly improbably events, starting with the narrow escape from focus group meddling, marketing team interference, script notes from terrified executives, and self-destructive star behaviour.

And assuming a project somehow avoids all of those traps, it still faces the cruelest challenge of all - the fickle and distracted audience. So it's wise to prepare yourself for the inevitable bad news.

"You're such a pessimist," a colleague once said to me, in an irritated tone of voice.

"I'm just preparing myself for the bad events that I know are on the way," I said. "How does that make me a pessimist?"

"That's actually the definition of the word," my colleague replied. Which irritated me, frankly, because I'm tired of people telling me that I need to "stay positive" and "defeat defeatism", as if any of those mental tricks can surmount a 1,000 channel universe and the time-killing attractions of the internet.

So a healthy and realistic pessimism is really the only rational way to approach working in show business. It's not what psychologists call "catastrophic thinking" - that's when you're bedevilled by horrible worst-case imaginings.

I don't do that. I just know that my career - and everyone's career in this business - is made up of a series of disasters and failures, some of which end up being highly lucrative.

The problem is, when good things happen - when a show premieres to good ratings, when a movie gets the green light, when your television show gets a second season - people around you just hate it when you maintain your steady-as-she-goes pessimism and point out the pitfalls that have now opened up.

When a television series does well in the ratings and gets a second season - as mine did, just the other day - oh, sure, you can put on a happy face and pop the champagne, but that's just ignoring the fact that you now have a bunch of episodes to write, higher expectations to meet, an ensemble cast that have probably convinced themselves they are on a hit show, and a host of other disasters to prepare for.

"Yes," a colleague said to me when we talked about this. "But you could smile, at least. You could take a moment to celebrate."

"Celebrating, as everyone knows, just encourages bad stuff to come faster," I said.

"You know that's crazy, right?" my friend said. "You understand that the universe is a lot more rational?"

"I don't know about the universe," I answered. "I only know about show business. And show business punishes any kind of celebration."

Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. On Twitter: @rbcl