Wages of Fear

Biz survival guide: Nine tips for holding on to your industry gig

To paraphrase Hollywood’s most famous homegrown politician, it’s morning in America — again:

The stock market is so frisky that Fed chairman Alan Greenspan could set himself on fire on the steps of the NYSE and it wouldn’t change the juggernaut pace. Consumers are spending like never before. And mega-mergers are giving a new name to “irrational exuberance.”

It’s morning anywhere else but here, that is. In Hollywood, it has to be near midnight.

Out here, we seem to be living in the shadow of everyone else’s prosperity, as the creative job market is shrinking as fast as the ever-narrowing 10% profit margin most studios find themselves squeezed into. Like a former Soviet satellite state, we all have to find new ways to survive the winter.

We may have to wait a long time:

“The Big Choke-Off of ’99” slashed producer deals while leaving many survivors anemic. An entire tier of execs now stays in dead-end jobs because jumping anywhere means risking the paycheck.

Party’s over

“Look, anyone who’s serious knows the party is over,” one senior agent told me over lunch the other day. “The business hit a spike in the early ’90s, and I don’t think it will ever come back to what it was.”

In this local job implosion, Wages of Fear is offering a few suggestions on how to hang on to your gig a while longer:

  1. Take credit…

    for things you have nothing to do with, of course. This is no time to be modest; include yourself in every possible context. I’d even risk being associated with a few clunkers, since it still puts your name out there, and you can take credit for the part of the movie everybody liked. (“Hey, man, loved the score.” “Yeah, the composer lives in my building.”)

  2. Return calls.

    This may seem axiomatic for those wishing to stay in the seat for a while, but you’d be surprised how many just don’t do it, especially after they’ve supervised a couple of pictures or made a few big client deals. No, “dropping” a call at 12:59 p.m. or “leaving word” at 8 at night doesn’t count. Go on. Pick up the phone. If you don’t want to touch the thing yourself, have your assistant do it. But in this economy, that’s decent advice.

  3. Don’t blow off meetings.

    This is hardly the time to ignore creative meetings. You only have yourself to blame when a colleague comes up to you and whispers, “Director’s kinda eccentric, so we decided to keep the meeting really small. Don’t worry. I’ll tell you what happened.” Later, when the 10 pages of notes arrive — complete with a list of the meeting’s 18 attendees, right down to a kid you’ve never heard of — you’re basically off the movie, loser.

    Since your only source of ownership is the dirty fingerprints you leave on a project by showing up, I’d start leaving some.

  4. Emulate your boss.

    If you work in an environment where the pack mentality is rampant, you may want to gradually send signals to your boss that you’re on his/her team by starting to dress, walk and talk like him or her.

    Everyone needs an acolyte for a while, especially in transition periods like right now, and you can build a career from this piece of advice alone. Just pay attention to when it may make sense to quit doing so: An early warning sign is if your boss picks a new favorite flunky and suddenly looks at you like you’re wearing brown shoes with a tux.

  5. Don’t get excited.

    When I first started as an executive, one of my bosses gave me just that advice, since my natural instinct to react to either brilliance or stupidity was an obvious flaw. So take the time and practice this in the safety of your home: Have friends surprise you with wonderful news on a fictitious project and react with feigned ennui. Once you bore even yourself, you’ve mastered the art of noninvolvement and can toss columns like this one in the trash without worrying I may be right.

  6. Keep one bullet in the chamber.

    Or, in other words, save one last nugget of information in case your boss calls on you in an unguarded moment. If you’ve ever been in a meeting with the big boys and seen a colleague give away all his information, only to be nailed with the follow-up question he had no answer for, you’ll want to avoid that.

    If the chairman hears your idea, he may even notice you. Of course, you may outshine the guy who thought you were just his flunky, and that leads us to …

  7. Never outshine your boss in public.

    This is tricky, since your job is often to act like a cross between Robert Duvall in “The Godfather” (to be seen, but not heard) and George C. Scott’s aide de camp in “Patton” (to get the hell out of the way when daddy is angry) and still look smart. So how do you accomplish that without threatening your boss? Here’s one hint: Tag your boss’s name onto every good idea you utter in front of other people. It shows you’ve got class and that you’re not afraid to show it. It also shows — after a while — that there’s no way your boss could have come up with that many good ideas. When this theory is put to you, just smile and shrug, silently implying that you’ve taken the creative omerta, and that you’d love to admit how you’re the real power behind the throne, but you just can’t.

  8. Apologize when you’ve treated someone like the slave you think they are.

    Think about it. Doing it too often might diminish your power, but if injected a few times, it will also give you the veneer of sensitivity or personal growth, as in, “Wow, he’s really much more pleasant than I remember him.” Sometimes, such knee-bending comes too late but can buy you crucial time while the person you just apologized to tries to figure out what the hell happened.

  9. Ignore the previous suggestions.

    Because nobody in Hollywood really knows anything, I could be way off base. You may have a job where you fear no sudden shifting of the ground underneath your feet, in which case you’re either Steven Spielberg — or someone who thinks he is.