HERE’S ANOTHER ONE OF THOSE ISSUES that everyone’s aware of but no one wants to discuss: generational angst.

Generational what?

I’ll make it simpler: The kids coming of age in the entertainment business resent the hell out of their elders, and the “old-timers”– those in their 40s and 50s — feel the kids are a bunch of avaricious upstarts.

That’s what’s known as war, folks, and you can see the manifestations when you walk the corridors of the talent agencies, the networks, the studios or wherever Hollywood does business. It would be nice to ignore it, but it would also be self-defeating, for all this fear and loathing, unless confronted, could result in defections at the agencies, ferment at the studios and an upsurge in business for the shrinks.

You come upon the symptoms at unexpected times. The other day I was visiting the head of a talent agency — an important one — when I bumped into a young agent whose mood was as blue as his Armani jacket. The kid had once worked as a gofer for me and I knew him to be bright and fiercely ambitious.

“I need some advice,” the kid said, grabbing my arm and guiding me into his small office. He explained his dilemma: The president of his agency had just ripped into him for failing to return phone calls. “The old farts who run this agency think that’s the most important thing on the agenda,” the kid complained.

“If I called back every has-been who calls me, I’d never have time to put together my own deals.”

He held up his phone list, and it was imposing. One name on it was David Picker.

“Did you call back David?” I asked.

“Who is that guy?”

“Well, at one time or another he’s been head of production of just about every studio in town, and he has a new deal at Paramount. He’s going to make a lot more pictures.”

“What’s he done lately?”

I looked at the young agent and shook my head. “I think this issue is bigger than both of us,” I said. “Just do me a favor and when you call back David Picker, give him my best.”

PHONE ETIQUETTE IS A SMALL ISSUE, but it’s emblematic of the factors fueling generational angst. Talk to top players in the agency business, like Ron Meyer of CAA or Jerry Katzman of the William Morris Agency, and they’ll tell you they never go home at the end of a day without returning every phone call. It’s not just a question of good manners; it’s also fulfilling a sort of social contract.

“I talk myself blue in the face, but I can’t convince my young agents to return phone calls,” says the chief of a huge agency. “Just to rub it in, one of my best young agents today didn’t even return my call.”

To the seasoned agents or studio executives, show business runs on relationships. If you help solve one person’s problems today, he’ll be there to help you tomorrow.

The kids don’t see it that way, and one reason is that they don’t come into the business through the agency mailrooms. Today’s new recruits arrive in town armed with MBAs from Harvard or law degrees from Stanford. They have come because Hollywood is perceived as the land of opportunity. The law firms are shrinking. The investment bankers are bailing. Showbiz is “in,” and the newcomers intend to invent their own rules.

“I don’t believe the old-boy network works except for the benefit of the old boys,” is the way one youthful, Ivy League-bred development executive put it to me a few days ago. He’d cornered me at a reception because he wanted to ask some questions about Daily Variety. “Your paper is like a diary of how the old boys help each other,” he said. “How about my generation? Where do we fit in?”

THEIR ONLY SHOT, he said, is to put their own unique backgrounds to work for them. That means networking, and coming up with new schemes that their elders wouldn’t think of.

The task of the elders, of course, is to mobilize their talent without getting ground under by the new wave. “If only the kids had any sense of history , any curiosity about what went before,” one senior agent told me. “Mention any filmmaker who worked before 1980, and they roll their eyes.”

This attitude is felt at many levels. At the Writers Guild Awards this week, Del Reisman, guild president, said “ageism” is turning into “an American tragedy. Talent does not know age. I find it to be a cruel and unusual punishment.”

Reisman may be worried about the refusal to employ writers over the age of 50 , but others fret simply about getting their phone calls returned.

“There was such a sense of family in this business when I was a kid,” one studio chief reflected. “A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless.”

He paused for a second and grimaced. “Listen to me, I sound like an old man.”

He’s 40 years old. But to the well-dressed kid delivering his mail, he was already extinct.

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