Over on his website, my pal Mark Evanier had Part 9 here of his terrific and random series about rejection in Hollywood -- mainly for writers, but it's applicable for most people working in Hollywood, and often can even be expanded to rejection in general -- how it comes about, how to deal with it and more. I particularly like this latest episode, since Mark wisely writes about a practice very similar to something I say when I'm asked to lecture or give advice about the Movie Biz. I usually describe this advice as "The most direct path from A to B is sometimes a jagged, twisted line."
The short version that Mark explains is that you can't worry about The System and complain about how it's working against you and is unfair. Yes, it's unfair to you, but it serves those operating that way, and you aren't going to change it. So, quit letting it tear you up and instead accept it and figure out how to make the parts that are flexible work for you. (Mark discusses this much better, along with several intriguing tales that got him to that point.)
Great though his ultimate advice is, Mark describes this summary in general terms, and I can see some people perhaps foolishly dismissing it as being pie-in-the-sky and unworkable -- when it's anything but that. So, I figure I'd put an addendum on his judicious words with a story I often tell to give it a Real World detail.
Back in my wayward days when I worked in movie publicity, I was a Senior Publicist at Universal Studios, the head writer in the Publicity Department. I was also the youngest Senior Publicist there by a lot, something that was blatantly clear to me was a problem for my boss, the head of the department (now deceased...), a very insecure man who viewed as much as he could in the world as a threat to him. Most of the others on the staff were reasonably settled in their ways, and had reached the positions they were good at and happy with. But a young whippersnapper was clearly a threat to him -- at least in his mind. (I always wanted to tell him that being head of the Publicity Department was not even remotely on my agenda. I had a Masters Degree in screenwriting, and that was why I was out in Hollywood. Besides which, I was a lousy publicist -- but I was a good PR writer, and put together very good press kits, production notes, press releases and such. Never mind that the others in the department were much better than me at PR, and actually were more a threat to the guy, especially immediately, several of whom could have stepped into his shoes at a moment's notice. And though happy in their jobs, probably would have been fine with moving up. At best, I was five years away, if I even wanted to -- which I didn't.)
At the time, the then-head of the studio was a fellow named Bob Rehme (who some of you may recognize from when he later became president of the Motion Picture Academy and would come on stage during the Oscars to give his little welcome). It seems that he decided he wanted to have a summary every morning of any mention of Universal Studios in the trade papers that day. And so someone in the PR department had to come in early, go through the Trades, and put this little summary together, getting it over to Bob Rehme's desk before he came in. And my boss gave that piddly assignment to...me.
Now, you must understand, this was not a Senior Publicist's job. It wasn't really even the job of a Junior Publicist. It was basically a clerical job that any assistant or intern or rock could do -- and should. But my boss gave the job to me. And it was immediately easy to see why. I would now have to come into work an hour before everyone else, which meant I would also leave an hour before everyone else. And do this mindless, clerical paperwork job. The result of it all was that it effectively took me out of the PR Department. My schedule would now be different from everyone else's -- even my secretary's. And I'm certain he intended it to be "demeaning" work for a Senior Publicist. Because it was. But he made clear that he specifically and solely wanted me to do it, and not pawn it off on anyone else because, after all, it was for The Head of the Studio.
(I don't know if it comes across in my description how obvious and intentionally humiliating this was -- but do believe me, it was. Others in the department recognized it and commiserated.)
It really pissed me off. I had to wake up early, get to the office before anyone was there, do this basic paperwork that anyone could have done which gave me an hour less each day from doing my actual work, and I said goodbye to everyone in the department before they all left. If there was anything at work afterwards that needed to be attended to -- as there often was, like running press screenings -- well, I wasn't around to participate.
And so every day, I got there very early, alone in the office, did this little clerical job, handed it off to my secretary to bring over to the Black Tower where the studio president worked, and then finally could get to my actual work, after an hour of my day was wasted. I grumbled and groused...and then began to call around to friends and acquaintances, looking for a job that might be open at other studios or movie companies. Because it wasn't just this assignment that was so belittling, but that it was intentionally meant to belittle, and was just the latest in a long string of such actions, all of which would continue, if not expand. So, I was miserable and wanted out of there.
And then, as I waited for a change and stayed stuck in this spiral, I started to think about it, about what caused it, about how to best deal with it. And I realized that not only did I not like grousing about it all, but I realized that a person could complain and whine about anything. Literally. Anything and everything. You could complain that you weren't one inch taller. Or two inches taller. Or three inches taller. Or have slightly smaller ears, or a little bigger, or blond hair, or slightly more-brown hair, or have 11 fingers, or 12 of them, or that the weather wasn't three degrees warmer, or four degrees colder, or that you didn't have pizza for lunch, or...or...or...or...on and on endlessly about literally everything. The best you could do is take of stock, not of what you don't have, but what you actually do have. What you have in your possession, in your control. And then figure out how to do something with that.
And so I thought about it. And pondered more deeply. And tried to figure out what I actually had with this miserable job. And what I came to the realization of was -- in his effort to humiliate me, my boss had put me in daily contact with the president of Universal Studios. A glow filled me. It was one of those "Eureka!" moments.
As a result, I began doing the job totally differently. Rather than simply listing the little news items from the trade papers in my summary, which is all I was asked to do...I began also analyzing the news clips, putting a perspective on them about why they were important and perhaps what could be done about them. And if nothing was important about an item, I still found a way to add a personal comment, even if just to state that the story was only something minor and not worse focusing on. Or if I had a good idea that was related to these news stories, I would include that, as well. Or if I just simply had a good idea, period, unrelated to the news, I'd include it. Or if I had a funny quip, I'd put that in. And -- just as importantly -- I told my secretary that she no longer had to bring the list over. She was thrilled. I said I'd take it over to the Black Tower myself and deliver it to Bob Rehme's office personally. Every day.
Which I did. Every day. His secretary and I became friendly and got along wonderfully. Sometimes his door would be open, and the studio president and I would wave. And so it went, week after week. Month after month.
One day, Steven Spielberg opened his big Amblin Studio cottage on the Universal lot, a home base for his production company that had been under construction for many months. It was a Big Deal, with a big ceremony. Steven Spielberg would be there, Bob Rehme as head of the studio would be there, other mucky-muck dignitaries would be there. And of course the PR Department had to be there for something this big. Before the festivities started, all of us from PR lined up, waiting in anticipation for whatever duties were needed. As we stood there at the ready, all these Big Shots passed by, on their way to the new offices for a tour. And as they walked past our line, Bob Rehme (in the midst of the VIPs) turned his head, saw me and said, "Hi, Bob," and walked on by with Spielberg and the others. What happened next was like a comic moment is a slapstick movie-- every head in the PR line spun to look at me, this youngest kid in the department, all with their mouths open and jaws dropped, eyes bugged wide. None had likely ever met the president of Universal Studios in all their years working there, and the few that had didn't expect he'd ever remember who they were, let alone cheerfully prompt the conversation himself with a cheerful hello. I just sort of shrugged at them, and beamed inside my head.
I continued on with my daily summaries and trips to Rehme Land. Eventually, over a few more months, I became friendly with his second-in-command, a Senior Executive VP of Production. I finally got up the gumption to ask if we could have lunch. Over our meal, I brought up my background -- that I wasn't just a low-level PR shlub who delivers reports, but I had a Masters degree in screenwriting from UCLA, a Bachelor of Science degree in film from Northwestern, had won a couple of screenwriting awards, and wanted to do more in film. He said he'd talk to Bob about it.
A couple of weeks later, after delivering my morning summary, the door to Bob Rehme's office was open, he saw me and called me in. There was a novel the studio was interested in. Would I please read it and write him a report on it for tomorrow. (Tomorrow?? I love reading, but I'm very slow.) Sure, I said, wondering how on earth I'd accomplish that. But I read the book overnight, wrote up my thoughts, and gave it to Bob Rehme when I stopped by the next morning. And the next week, he called me into his office again and said he had a couple of screenplays he'd like my thoughts on. (I remember it -- the film got made, though by another studio, and wasn't were especially successful. It was was by Blake Edwards and got re-written so much that he took his name off it, called Kansas City.) I turned in my report on them, and went about my job. Over the next few weeks, I was given more scripts -- one was Return to Oz, another One Magic Christmas, and again both were made by other studios without success.
It was a couple of weeks later when I got a call to come over to Bob Rehme's office. It turned out that he wanted to hire me as his assistant. Would I be interested? In case you're on the edge of your seat awaiting my answer, I said "Yes." And that's how I finally moved into Production Development. Which was far more what I had come to Los Angeles for.
And it all came from being given a menial, humiliating job that was so demeaning that I started looking for work elsewhere. But instead decided to figure out what I had, no matter how lousy it seemed, and how to make the best of it.
Yet the story doesn't even end there.
Because several years later, after Bob Rehme left the studio, and I did, as well (working instead on freelance publicity as the "unit publicist" assigned to movies), I ran into Bob on the street in Westwood. At that point, he was head a small, but very well-known production company. He asked what I was up to, and when I said I'd written a couple of screenplays, he said he'd love to see them, and I should send them over to the company. I did.
And one of them, Harry Warren of the Mounties, got a great response from his company, and they bought it. And that's how I got into the Writers Guild.
The film didn't get made at that point, but the rights reverted back to me. And really, that's just fine. Because... well, I suppose you can figure it out why selling a screenplay though not getting a production out of it was just absolutely fine.
As Mark Evanier says in his commentary, "What I had to do was to, first of all, understand that System. Once I more or less did, I then had to figure out how to operate within it…to get good at it, rather than expect it would change to suit me."
Actually, Mark says a lot more, and it's all very wise and good to read. And this story here explains, I think, why.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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