x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The world's a stage: we're all stooges who sell something

Every really important decision in this business when you get right down to it, is capricious and subjective and unprofessional - and maybe not just in this business.

A friend of mine pitched a show last week to a network, and they didn't buy it. This isn't a sad story, because another network did want it (so dry those tears) but for the six days between the first network saying no and the second network saying yes, he had time to sit and stew and second-guess the show he was pitching. "We just felt like there was too much conflict between the parent character and the child character, and not enough interaction between the workplace setting and the home setting," is what the network said when they passed on the project. Which is just a string of meaningless words, really, but the entertainment business encourages that kind of blether.

When my friend's agent called the network to ask why, exactly, they weren't interested in the project, I'm certain he was persistent and irritating. I'm not certain because I know him (I don't), but because all agents are alike. When someone says "no" to them, they just can't let it go. Sometimes, though, there really isn't an answer any more specific than "It wasn't for us" or "We just didn't spark to it". But that's a hard thing for someone from a network to say, because they pride themselves on their analytical and concrete thinking. They believe - despite volumes of evidence to the contrary - that hit movies and television shows are "developed" and shaped, the products of careful supervision by a raft of market-sensitive executives.

So when an agent calls to demand an explanation, it's impossible for them to just tell the truth and say: "I don't know, we just didn't love it," because that sounds capricious and subjective and unprofessional. Huge fortunes have been made and lost (and made again) based entirely on decisions that were capricious and subjective and unprofessional. In fact, every really important decision in the entire industry, when you get right down to it, is capricious and subjective and unprofessional - and maybe not just this business but every other business around - but no executive wants to admit to himself or anyone else just how starring a role luck plays in their success or failure. So when an agent calls the executive up, he or she ends up saying something incoherent and silly, like: "We just felt like there was too much conflict between the parent character and the child character, and not enough interaction between the workplace setting and the home setting."

But my writer friend didn't know about all the lies we tell ourselves to make our jobs seem technical and clever, rather than capricious and subjective and unprofessional. So it was impossible for him to say: "OK, this one just wasn't for them," and instead he sat and muttered to himself and thought: "OK, more interaction between workplace and home, less conflict. I can do that." But of course he couldn't. So he spent five days driving himself crazy.

Some problems, though, aren't problems, and when he finally snapped and just pitched the same show the same way to a different set of executives at a totally different network and made a sale, he realised how this town really works: most explanations are meaningless. So the best policy is: don't ask for them. Years ago, I was working on a show and we were filming a short scene - a tag, really - in an aeroplane. The main character had been complaining for the entire episode about his bad luck on flights - he was always stuck in the middle seat, between a crying baby and a really fat person.

So, the scene was simple: the main guy in his middle seat, with a crying baby and a fat person. The first assistant director promised us he'd deliver a crying baby extra and a fat person extra. When we shot the scene, though, the fat extra wasn't really fat enough for the joke to work. We needed a really fat extra, not a merely plump extra. Now, as it happened, one of the production crew members was, in fact, a hugely fat person. So one of us had to approach this person and gingerly ask if, you know, I mean, you see the extra the first AD hired? Um, you know, do you, do you see the problem? The crew member nodded. "Don't explain," he said. "Just give me a line. So I can get into the Screen Actors Guild."

Deal. We added a line, which we cut for film, but it didn't matter to the crew member: the point is, we filmed it, we cut a Screen Actors Guild-eligible check, and best of all: we got a funnier joke with a much fatter person. Now that person was a professional. No explanation asked for or wanted. It was a simple business transaction. I wish everything worked that way. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood