Whenever there is possibility, whenever there is enthusiasm and hope, somebody comes to his senses and calls a lawyer.
Trust in the magic: at some point, every show will fall apart
Working in the entertainment industry is a little like being a character in one of those magical realism novels - it's about as close to real life as you can get and still have room for unexpected plot twists and scary monsters. But it's mostly a place built on hope, on the alluring shimmer of future possibilities. How great would it be, we say to each other when we're meeting about a project, if this project actually went forward?
Because, mostly, they don't. The amount of time and effort and money spent on projects that somehow never get off the ground against the amount of time and effort and money spent on projects that actually go forward is a terrifyingly huge ratio. Every Oscar or Emmy statuette not only represents the projects that got produced and succeeded, but also the graveyard of projects that fell through, that got hung up, that somehow never got the green light.
But we still have meetings, and lunches, and we make phone calls and check availabilities - we just keep moving forward, with hope and optimism and faith that in our specific magical realism novel we won't suddenly get eaten by a snake or shrink into a raisin or, you know, one of those things that happens in those fat South American novels by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. We believe in possibility, in other words. And whenever there is possibility, whenever there is enthusiasm and hope, somebody comes to his senses and calls a lawyer.
This is true especially in my part of the business, the television part. In television, where contracts last six or seven years, and a successful series can last even longer, contracts are brutally clear: if you're working on a show, you're busy - you've got a show to write and produce and worry about the probably inevitable cancellation of, and you're locked up until that's done. But if you're not busily working on a show, you're in "development" - you're meeting and talking and pitching and getting things set up (that's what we say: "set up", like dominoes, or marks in a con game) and trying to get some projects going.
Which means trouble, even though it rarely happens that someone has two shows moving forward with production orders. Projects tend to fall away as the year progresses: scripts get written and passed on; pilots hit casting trouble; pilots get overlooked and unordered; that sort of thing. And even though we all know that most shows we're busily working on and getting enthusiastic about right now are not much more than a couple of tense phone calls and a night of angry drinking away from being dead and forgotten, we still have to get everything organised and ranked, in what we call "position". And that's where the lawyers come in.
What that means is this: if a project is in "first position" and it goes forward, you're contractually obligated to do that one. If it's in "second position", it's next up. Sometimes you can fudge it a bit and convince people that first and second are basically the same - that you can do two projects at once (which you can, of course, and should, especially at the currently depressed prices) or that the show in first position isn't ever going to go, in which case you've got something we call a "safe second position". The problem here is that these things are eventually hammered out by lawyers and business affairs people, who plan for everything, including the impossible magical realism outcome that everything goes forward, that everything get ordered, that no one gets eaten by a snake or turns into a raisin.
It never happens that way, of course. The snake eventually eats everyone, including the raisins. But this is a business built on hope - this is a business in which people get embroiled in furious negotiations about how to split up a mythical pie of totally unlikely profits for a project that simply isn't going to get off the ground. So what position you're in, what position a project you're trying to sell is in, becomes a very important issue.
Here's how I handle it. (Actually, here's how I handle everything.) I dither. I hem and haw. I kick the can down the road. I tell everyone what they want to hear, I promise everything to everyone and simply move forward with the conviction that every project I'm pitching or working on or thinking about is in first position. I trust that eventually, before it gets to the lawyers, enough projects will fall away or get bogged down or be too expensive or simply implode that I won't ever have to work out which position is which. I just put my trust in the inefficiency and greed of Hollywood.
And I've never had any trouble. Hollywood never disappoints. It's always equal parts hope and hopelessness. Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood