x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Afraid of conflict? Here's a formula that works for me

When television networks cancel flagging series, they tend to do it in groups, all at once. By some mysterious and shadowy collective scheduling, one day Variety will list a dozen or so television shows that have got the axe.

The television business is a group activity, like hunting season or square dancing. When things happen - when shows are cancelled, or television series are ordered - they're happening to everyone, all over town, at the same time. When television networks cancel flagging series, they tend to do it in groups, all at once. By some mysterious and shadowy collective scheduling, one day Variety will list a dozen or so television shows that have got the axe.

Good news travels in the same way, in fat bursts, all at once. And that means that the bad part about finding out that a network is going to put your show on the air is that everybody else finds out too. Which means that every agent in town knows you've got 12 episodes of a series to write and produce, and are therefore going to be hiring writers. The minute the announcement is made - and sometimes way before - the office phone rings in what sounds like one continuous chirp - all day, starting early, and going late. Agents with clients to pitch; agents telling you that this writing team is "so hot right now"; that what you heard about a certain female supervising producer is "wicked lies - she's great, really, does not, repeat not have anger problems"; agents trying to set up a face-to-face meeting, what they call "getting you into a room" with their client.

Mostly, though, it's agents telling you they're going to send just one script - "Really! Just one or two or maybe six at the most, just my top clients, just the ones I think fit, tonally, with your project, which I love by the way" - and then sending a carton of 26 scripts to your office, which have barely arrived before they start calling again. "Have you read them yet? Which ones do you absolutely love?"

The only way to handle the towering pile of scripts - every single one of which we in the production team read, or mostly read, all of the way through, or mostly all of the way through - is to get organised. So we draw up a grid, divide the piles, keep track of the ones we've read, the one's we're not excited about, the ones we want the other team members to read, the ones we think are terrific, and the ones that are so dreadful it's worth taking a look, just for laughs ?all of it laid out in a neat little grid.

Look, I'll be honest: most of the time, we call the agent back and tell him that while we think his client is a fine writer, we really "didn't respond to the material". Like that? "Don't respond to the material?" It's as if neither one of us is at fault. It's a chemical or neurological reaction - it's totally involuntary. We just didn't "respond". And you can say it a bunch of ways, too. "I didn't respond" means I recognise that it's my fault. Somebody else, with more taste and sophistication, surely will. Or you can put the emphasis on the last word: "I didn't respond," meaning, I liked it, but I didn't love it.

Most agents will understand and quickly move on to selling you another client. Some will say: "It's not on the page! You need to get into a room with him." Some will say: "I didn't respond to it either! But tonally, I think it's right." Once, an agent said to me: "My client isn't so great at the writing part. But he's good, administratively." Which I've never figured out. The worst response I ever got to "I didn't respond to it," was: "You know, he's here in my office. I'm going to put you on speakerphone. Tell him yourself what you didn't respond to."

Which was an act of excellent, aggressive agentry. Because before he could hit the speaker button on his phone, I had stammered and stumbled and agreed to "get in a room" with the client, who, it turned out, was a nice guy and pretty funny who, because I'm a coward and deeply conflict-averse, we ended up hiring. I'd do better, though, if I could figure out how to be direct. How to be definitive. How to say "no", and "pass", rather than weasel-wording it with a "I didn't respond to the material."

There's an old story about a director who was shooting a movie with an actress who wasn't so great. When they got to a crucial scene in the script, after the first take, he called "Cut!" and walked up to the actress, thought for a minute, all eyes on him, and then gave the best piece of direction I've ever heard. "Anything," he said slowly, "but that." Talk about not responding to the material. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood