x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Send in the pros - from Hollywood - to solve US debt crisis

The Washington politicians are amateurs. If the US wants to settle its debt-limit crisis, it should just call in some studio deal-makers and agents from Hollywood

The only time you really, truly know that you've made a sale in Hollywood - that the studio bought the script, that the network bought the pitch - is when they call your agent to get your social security or tax ID number.

That means that someone who works in the business affairs department at the studio or network - the person whose job it is to print out the paycheques - is about to print one out with your name on it.

Everything that happens before that moment is just talk. They may tell you that they love your script, love your talent and can't wait to get started on the project, but until you get that call from the business affairs department asking for your crucial information, it's all just noise.

That's what they call the negotiation crew in the entertainment industry - business affairs. It sounds just vague enough to encompass anything they want it to, but what it really describes is the place where all of the lawyers sit negotiating contracts, generating deal memos, fighting with agents and, most important, hammering out agreements.

In the entertainment industry, you see, the goal is to isolate and outsource as much conflict as possible. Executives, after all, have to work with each other again and again, so it's inefficient and counter-productive to have them wrangling with each other and agents all over town. And also: executives like to think of themselves as creative - "I didn't get into this business to fight over the legal terms of a contract," an executive once said to me, neglecting to add that as a former art history major and ski instructor, he wasn't qualified to do that anyway.

So the ominously named "business affairs" department of any studio or network is where the real shouting gets done. That's where the really qualified people do the hard work of convincing agents and their clients that the final offer is the final offer, that we don't really need to hire your client and that there isn't any more money in the budget.

And this is where the agents scream on the phone that their client is going to walk, that the project is dead without this actor or this writer.

And yet, somehow, the deals always get done.

When you factor in the enormous egos involved in any Hollywood negotiation, and the likelihood that at least two of the parties concerned - pick any two: writer, star, director, producer, studio chief - could be described as clinically insane, it's hard not to admire the dogged and persistent way the lawyers in the business affairs departments all across Los Angeles get to the "handshake moment".

The raging dramas and the ultimatums and the abrupt hang-ups eventually peter out and in the final hour - usually around nine in the evening on a Friday night - everyone gets realistic and a satisfying deal is struck.

It's hard for us out here in Hollywood to look across the country at the downscale, noisy, messy and ultimately unnecessary battle going on back in Washington as Republicans in Congress haggle with President Barack Obama over spending cuts and the national debt, and not think that this could all be wrapped up in a few hours by a couple of really good business affairs guys from, say, Warner Brothers.

The first thing they'd do is separate the lunatics. Egos run just as high in DC as they do in Los Angeles, and it's clear from recent events that Hollywood has not cornered the market on crazy. Two savvy business affairs lawyers would be able to herd the various combatants to their corners - Mr Obama, the House Republicans, the Senate Democrats and the baffled moderates in both parties - and strike a deal.

After all, a big budget feature film doesn't get made because all of the principals like and respect each other. It gets made because each principal thinks it's in his interest to participate in the project. That's how we ended up with so many Transformers movies - not because they're good, but because they make economic sense.

The business affairs negotiators who Hollywood could lend, on a short-term basis, to the federal government in Washington would be able to tease out the key elements of an agreement and, what's more important, they'd be able to craft a deal that would allow each side to claim victory. It wouldn't be pretty, of course, but it would get done. Which is more than you can say for the amateurs in Washington.


Rob Long is writer and producer based in Hollywood