Graciously passing on a pitch preserved relationships
The dedication of the Brandon Tartikoff Legacy Collection last week at the USC School of Cinematic Arts included customary tributes to the legendary NBC programming chief. “Law & Order” creator Dick Wolf, for example, spoke about surveying the crowd during the 1997 Emmys — a few months after Tartikoff’s death — and realizing “almost every face I fell on owed their careers to Brandon Tartikoff.”Even more striking, though, was the remembrance delivered by former NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol, who referred to his longtime friend as “the absolute personification of grace,” citing how carefully Tartikoff handled passing on a pitch. In a business “so loaded with rejection and disappointment,” Ebersol noted, Tartikoff exhibited a knack for delivering bad news and still leaving those on the receiving end rooting for him. “In the most disappointing moment of their life,” he said, “he made them feel that good.” We hear a lot exalting the art of the deal. It’s not every day people sound so poetic discussing the art of the pass. Ken Levine — a veteran TV writer whose credits include “Cheers” and “Frasier” — made a similar observation on his blog. Tartikoff was “so respectful of talent,” he wrote, “even when he passed on your project or cancelled your show, he did it in such a humane way you couldn’t wait to bring your next thing to him.” This isn’t intended to elevate Tartikoff to sainthood. Nevertheless, such a portrait represents an intriguing image mostly because it flies in the face of what often appears to be the norm. These days, it’s increasingly rare for execs and creative personnel to view each other as genuine partners. Besides, greenlighting hits decorates offices; discussions of humanity are reserved for charity dinners and eulogies. To be fair, it was easier to appear magnanimous back in the 1980s. The number of competitors was significantly lower (a fourth broadcast network didn’t even emerge until the latter part of the decade), and there wasn’t the same nagging sense that some new technological twist might cause the business model to crumble. In addition, wounds opened during the writers strike remain relatively fresh, in part because the core issues — including what’s fair on new media given lingering uncertainties — have yet to be fully resolved. Media conglomerates and talent work side by side but continue to eye each other warily, with reason. Many networks also lean heavily on unscripted television, which means their “talent” roster consists of ordinary folk whose skill sets don’t necessarily provoke the same admiration or awe as those of honest-to-gosh stars. Professional fortunes may depend on the vagaries of the “Jersey Shore” gang or “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” clan, but nobody should confuse short-term necessity with true respect or collegiality. Finally, there’s the question of honesty and how scarce that commodity can be in development meetings. Frankly, it’s amazing how often writers will insist a project of theirs looks great at a particular network. Even allowing for an element of self-delusion sprinkled with hope, it’s hard not to wonder when these things fizzle (as most inevitably do) whether the executives were poorly acquainted with their own thinking or simply looking for a low-impact way to avoid being the bearer of bad tidings. Of course, there’s also a practical side to treating talent well. As Tartikoff no doubt knew, if you truly believe in a certain writer or star, one disappointing project doesn’t mean his next one won’t pay off handsomely. In this regard, behaving humanely and employing a long-term view can actually yield practical dividends. Two movie references come to mind here: the scene in “Manhattan” when Woody Allen discusses the desire to be remembered well; and Billy Wilder’s “The Apartment,” in which the doctor tells Jack Lemmon’s character, “Be a mensch! You know what that means? A human being.” For all that’s changed in the intervening decades, it’s still pretty sound advice.