Guest column

When Mike Ovitz was running the zeitgeist, he was the scariest man on the planet. He saw Hollywood as a battlefield and took no prisoners. 

When he ran CAA, it is said, he told Smokin’ Joe Ezsterhas that agency foot soldiers would wear his guts for garters if he dared to take his 90% elsewhere. As Chief Operating Cast Member, it is now revealed in shockingly entertaining court papers, he was able to command perks that would have made Imelda Marcos blush as bright red as her 5000th pair of Manolo Blahnicks.

At the top of his form, Mr. O was fond of citing the philosophy of the Chinese warlord and professional kibbitzer Sun Tzu, as expressed in the best-selling old chestnut, “The Art of War.” Like many executives in business and the military, he kept a weathered copy on hand for inspiration during egregious situations.

The crux of Sun’s Tzu’s pitch was that the truly prepared, genuinely strategic warrior doesn’t actually need to fight at all. The other guys just sort of fall over from the sheer weight of the General’s potential energy and might. I don’t know about you, but the last time that happened to me was, well… never.

That’s because for people like us, there’s no business like Tzu business. The original Art of War teaches an ultra-crafty, super-tactical approach to warfare that a bone-munching behemoth appreciates mostly in others. Because they don’t really operate that way. They crush, spindle and mutilate instead.

Art? Ha. It’s no Tzuch thing.

Take cursory read of your morning paper. In every section, it’s war all over. War as entertainment. Entertainment as war. I’m not talking about Iraq, either. That conflict will be done, eventually, however it ends up working out over the next several decades.

The ongoing conflict between studios, between networks, executives, production companies, the wars between in-house and personal PR people, between agents and managers, between moguls and their subsidiaries.

Those wars will never end. They’re hardwired into what we do. The smaller the stakes, the harder we fight. And the race is to the swift, the tough, the merciless – not the strategic sissies positioning their assets into perfect alignment for victory.

War gets things done, maybe in our form of enterprise more any other. This can make things unpleasant for those of us who do what we do with insufficient truculence.

For instance, I sat next to Scott Rudin on a plane a couple of weeks ago. I’ve heard that Rudin is a very big screamer, but on this flight he was very quiet and pre-occupied. I tried to strike up a conversation with him, because I thought if I made friends with him he might be able to do something for me.

But for some reason he wasn’t very friendly. I felt quite strongly that if I persisted in being affable, he would grow less so. So I backed off. He won, thanks to the crustiness and world-class reputation for irritability that makes him Scott Rudin, and me not.

Think about it. How many jolly, happy people do you know who are doing well in this business?

I’m not talking about the kind of happy they get when they decapitate one of their “friends” in a deal or nab a terrific table at Spago to the detriment of a hated rival. I’m talking about the happy you feel when you’re petting a puppy.

Real show business warriors don’t have that, sporting instead a generally hyper-competitive, warlike stance, even when they do manage to grab hold of a trembling puppy out of central casting. You need the same high, sharp attitude to have any hope of being rich, famous and artistically fulfilled around here.

Yes, you and I live in a world populated by 8000-pound dinosaurs, none of them herbivorous. We need an “Art of War” that teaches how to fight when we have no army, how to leverage small firepower into some form of dominance over situations and people dedicated to crushing us into anchovy paste. And how to win without the innate defects of character that make the great and the near-great as big and scaly as they truly are.

Here are the weapons that will serve you best in this ongoing effort:

  • Paranoia – informed by a healthy insecurity masked by delusions of grandeur.

  • Anger – don’t leave home without it. It’s like heading off without your underwear on, and you know what that can mean if you’re hit by a bus.

  • Superior intelligence – No, dummy, I don’t mean smarts. I mean the 411.

  • A willingness to suck up – Not in a greasy, obvious way of course. But then you know that, don’t you, you handsome/beautiful chunk of beef- or cheesecake! Love your nose! Who does it?

  • A penchant for action before thought – Great warriors would rather clean up after a bloodbath than get caught on the wrong side of one… and a lust for self-promotion – as attested to by this very column.

Start with baby steps. Even those of you who are as-yet sub-fearsome have someone you can shove around rudely at this very moment, I bet. Start there.

And if you don’t? Why not get a puppy? They love you no matter what, which is more than you can say for half your buddies in this town.

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