x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

One way to avoid worthless advice: keep moving

"Keep fixing it until we get it right" is a mantra for Hollywood and for life.

A friend is in the management-consultant business, which as far as I can tell is a job in which you're paid well to deliver impractical advice to a troubled enterprise, and by the time that advice fails you're far away, getting paid well to deliver impractical advice to some other troubled enterprise.

"Keep moving" seems to be the motto for most giant consultancies. That's probably why they advertise so much in airports.

This may be the only instance in which Hollywood offers an efficient business model. In the entertainment industry, especially in television, you don't get to run away from your mistakes. You have to stay around and try to fix them.

A writer friend of mine told me the story of a series pilot he wrote and produced a few years ago, one of those complicated arrangements that are pretty commonplace now.

The old way of doing a TV show was simple: you had one writer, one script and one network.

Now, though, the typical production has one writer and one script, but also five network executives, six studio executives, three executives from the production company that has a deal at the studio, and one actor's manager. They all have thoughts and notes and concerns about every draft of the script.

Worse, as in my friend's case, they all have your mobile phone number. His phone rang a lot.

But that's the definition of the gig these days: you spend a month or so writing the actual script, but from the moment you type "fade out" and deliver the draft to the rest of the team, you're just answering the phone a lot and getting notes.

Everyone involved with the process insists on having meaningful input on how the script should be changed - a little like what management consultants do with companies in crisis - but no one other than the writer has the skill or judgement to actually improve the script.

A lot of writers complain about this - even I, generally an easy-going and sunny sort, have been heard to mutter less-than-polite things about it.

But it's not about to change - unless, like most things, it gets worse - so you have to make your peace, if you want to have your own TV show, with working with a lot of other people who also want to have your own TV show.

Halfway through my friend's production week, they put on a dress rehearsal for all those executives. It went remarkably well.

The executives had some ideas, of course - it's impossible to imagine anything less - but their key concerns were easy to address and were in fact quite helpful. This is a rare occurrence, but like finding a $100 bill you'd forgotten in a trouser pocket, it happens sometimes.

But my friend is a professional. He was at the dress rehearsal too, and while he agreed with others' concerns, he had some thoughts of his own.

Watching the rehearsal, he realised that he didn't really like the last scene. It didn't work for him. So in addition to addressing the various thoughts and concerns of his partners, he also rewrote that final scene.

The next morning, after the rewritten script had been copied, bound and delivered to the entire constellation of executives, his phone rang. It was an executive from the studio. He wasn't happy.

"You changed the last scene?" he exclaimed. "Why did you do that? The network had no notes on that scene!"

"It didn't work," my friend said.

"Yes it did," the executive said. "Of course it did. And do you know how we know that? Because the network didn't have any notes!"

This irritated my friend a lot. "Um," he began, "that doesn't mean it worked. It just means no one else noticed that it didn't."

"Which is OK," my friend went on, trying to soothe the situation, "because that's my job, to identify what doesn't work and fix that."

The executive was having none of it. "Well, promise me that if the new scene doesn't work, you'll go back to the old scene."

"Um, no," my friend said, "the old scene didn't work. So if the new scene doesn't work, we'll come up with a brand new scene."

"So, what? You're just going to keep changing the scene until it works?"

"Yep," my friend said. "Keep fixing until we get it right."

Which is a sentence you might have to explain to the management consultants in your life.


Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood

On Twitter: @rbcl