The battered denizens of Wall Street confront an array of challenges as they return to work next week. Not only will they have to clean up their act, they’ll also have to tidy up their language. Which leads me to wonder: Will Hollywood be far behind?
The mandates issued from Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley and their brethren are clear-cut: When texting colleagues or clients, skip the expletives and excretives or face the firing squad. All communications must be conveyed in “professional, appropriate and courteous language,” as Morgan Stanley’s hierarchs put it.
Having spent a couple of hours at a major talent agency last week it occurred to me that if Hollywood faced similar constraints, the entire industry would go mute. At studios or agencies, every script is “a piece of shit.” Any executive balking over a deal is a “douchebag.”
Hollywood is the sanctum of scatology. Last week on “Entourage” the always incendiary Ari Gold faced a firestorm of litigation because a former employee’s actions led to the leaking of phone tapes of his invective. “Climb back into your mother’s vagina and cook a little more,” he told one colleague.
TV critics have long savored their “fuck you” emails from Steve McPherson, who departed ABC recently. The emails were considered a badge of honor.
The decision of Goldman Sachs to admonish its executives was triggered by a recent Senate hearing. Lawmakers became fixated on an email from one of the bank’s executives, Thomas Montag, who referred candidly to what he described as a “shitty deal” — a deal Goldman Sachs had been busily peddling to customers. The firm had to pay a $550 million fine to settle charges that it was aggressively selling what it knew to be “shitty deals” designed to capitalize on the collapse of the housing market.
Off-color candor will no longer be permitted to emanate from Wall Street starting in the fall. At Bloomberg, for example, communications containing profanity or expletives will elicit pop-up warnings.
Given Hollywood’s growing paranoia about job cuts and belt-tightening, it would not be surprising to find similar constraints at the networks, studios and talent agencies. And that might even be a good thing.
Some management gurus believe the use of expletives serves as a cover-up for deception. A study from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business measured communications between executives and concluded that those execs who were prone to lying were the most dependent on swear words.
Jack Warner called Hollywood the “Wild West for Jews.” The original studio titans were not exactly paragons of good manners. There were more “fuck yous” in a typical meeting with Columbia’s Harry Cohn than in a Judd Apatow movie.
Still, the succeeding generation had begun to embrace a stalwart civility — indeed, the manners and mores of Hollywood in its heyday began to take on an almost clubby aura. When talent agents at the old William Morris office decided to raid a rival, a phone call would be made warning of the incursion.
This curtain of civility was torn apart in Hollywood and on Wall Street alike during the ferocious moments of millennial expansion. The tyranny of the email obliterated nuanced corporate communication. Every deal that didn’t fly was “shit” — that seemed to become the catch-all explanation.
Both in style and substance, there are many similarities between Hollywood’s talent agents and Wall Street’s operatives. The pay is lofty and so are the risks. Bankers of the millennial era dedicate themselves to selling deals they fully realize will self-destruct. Talent agents know that their top-heavy tentpoles will, in most cases, turn out to be collapsible. The numbers keep getting bigger and the lies more toxic.
But now at least the lexicon of commerce may become more sanitized. It may be possible yet again to close a meeting without a blizzard of “fuck yous” … even when both parties know they’ve been fucked.