Tough times in Tinseltown lead to new careers

There’s no nice way to say this, but barring an unforeseen short-term economic up-tick, a lot of people are going to have to start contemplating the prospect of life after Hollywood.

Trend lines for showbiz jobs could easily follow those in journalism, where a hoped-for boost from the web isn’t materializing fast enough to offset positions being eliminated and downsized — a harsh reality hastened by a recessionary climate and dried-up credit markets. Companies such as NBC Universal and CBS have announced cuts, and more will likely follow.

Some have already taken refuge in academia, but those opportunities are limited. So I reached out to a few people who have embarked on post-Hollywood careers, to ask about the transition and whether they miss oddities like having their lives governed by the pilot-season calendar as opposed to the Gregorian one.

The idea began percolating thanks to Jonathan Estrin. After working for years as a producer and writer, Estrin segued to a position as a dean at Philadelphia’s Drexel University in 2000, followed by stints at the American Film Institute and now as president of the Constitutional Rights Foundation, a nonprofit org devoted to educating young people about civic participation and democracy.

Estrin says he was “finding (producing) more frustrating and less satisfying” when he changed course. He suggests that those considering a new challenge should start by “abstracting their skill set” — that is, defining what they do outside the specific context of Hollywood. By that measure, a producer is someone that tries to hire, motivate and manage a group of people, getting them to work toward a common goal.

“What I thought I would miss was the action, and I don’t miss that,” Estrin says.  Among the adjustments, he adds, was losing touch with casual business associates where the relationships are contingent upon paths crossing due to work.

Allan Schwartz, a former producer and executive at Fox and Playboy TV, relocated to New Jersey and later North Carolina, where he’s currently working as a property manager.

In terms of making the switch, he says, “I just used all of the skills I had from the past. It was like going to a foreign location and going into production.”

Despite that, in a business where hope springs eternal and jobs are often intertwined with self-perception and social circles, he admits it was tough letting go.

“You reach a certain age and you’re not (Steven) Spielberg or George Lucas, and it passes you by,” Schwartz says. “At some point you have to stop bullshitting yourself.”

Andy Hill, who developed such shows as “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” as president of CBS Prods., reconnected with UCLA basketball coach John Wooden — Hill had been a reserve on Bruin championship teams in the early 1970s — and wrote a book detailing the lessons he’d internalized from him, “Be Quick, But Don’t Hurry: Finding Success in the Teachings of a Lifetime.”

Hill now works as a motivational speaker and life coach, explaining how to apply Wooden’s “Pyramid of Success” to one’s life and career. He was lucky, he says, because he left CBS with 18 months on his contract, allowing him to evaluate what he really enjoyed doing.

“What I finally figured out was I loved to tell stories that could change people’s lives for the better,” Hill says. “What I didn’t love so much was having to deal with all the other people involved to try making that happen.” Eventually that prompted him to do the book — and share his experience with other executives. Among the advice he conveys is that “wanting to act on your emotions is the wrong thing to do, because that’s what I did.”

There are doubtless many such stories (and if you have one, please pass it along). For his part, Estrin maintains the problem-solving talents forged by Hollywood are more broadly applicable than might be readily apparent. When he first became a university dean, for example, he was warned that he’d have to deal with difficult personalities. His response: “I made a movie with Elizabeth Taylor. You got anything harder than that?”

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