Saturday, May 4, 2019

The Question That Made A Loud Industry Go Silent

 U.S.C.'s Bovard Auditorum - Photo By Fred Herrman

I recently went to a set of symposiums at my alma matter, U.S.C.  It was presented by the School of Cinematic Arts and was a week in which the school brought in professionals from all parts of the entertainment industry.  As an occasional donor to the school, I am invited to events as they come up.  I thought this week would be interesting for me for a couple of reasons. 

Firstly, I worked in the industry for about twenty years doing both live-action production work in film and television, as well as a lengthy career in animation at both The Walt Disney Studios and at DreamWorks.  I was invited to work on two Pixar feature films, but during that time, both of my parents were declining with Alzheimer and dementia related illnesses, so I felt that I couldn’t be four hundred miles away in the Bay area.  It’s too bad because I would have loved to have worked on some projects for Pixar. 

For me personally, it was an opportunity to hear what was going on in the industry from those current working in many of its facets.  Some of the sessions I attended were hosted by agents and assistants at talent and writing agencies, directors, cinematographers, animation producers, studio assistants and assistants to producers, producers listening to student pitches.  The list of people I saw and listened to went on and on. 

Secondly, I wanted to attend the show is related to what I just noted above.  U.S.C. is able to put such a stellar program of hosts and artists literally unequalled anywhere else in the world.  It is because of their proximity to the industry here, because surely, there are other great film schools around the nation and around the world.  But really, only one is completely engrained in prepping students for an industry that is literally all around the school.  So, in short, the talent week is just simply something to behold. 

At the end of one of the sessions, I ended up walking out with Charles Minsky, Director of Photography that worked with Garry Marshall as well as many other top directors.  He and I struck up a temporary friendship that day after one of the sessions because we knew some of the same people.  He was a pleasure to walk and talk with. 

However, the reason that I call this recent series of events to mind to share with you is really because of one particular moment that occurred in one of the sessions that gave me a lot of thought.  It was a moment that caught me off guard, but which I appreciated so very much.  More than most of the people could in the room.  I was in a session being hosted by industry workers.  I believe that two of them were assistants to producers, one an assistants in an agency, and two were writers who had recently gotten hired onto a series.

As with most of these symposiums, the hosts sit in chairs on a stage and tell about their work and relate the serendipitous circumstances that allowed them to get to their positions.  Often, it was because they had started out in a temporary position helping to fill a temporary void and then, because some project got thrown at them, they were able to show their stuff and secure a more permanent position (“more,” because there are no permanent positions in Hollywood…remember that, kids!).  I was actually in a different session when not one, but two young studio workers said that they  had started in the mail room.  I didn’t realize that that was still a way in.  It’s the type of story my dad would have told me he might have done as a young man getting on a staff at a newspaper. 

But so, these hosts, and I’ll say that three of them were young women and two were men, all in their middle twenties, spoke to the audience for about thirty minutes describing their harrowing days’ schedules and the fires that they constantly had to put out.  One could sense the constant chaos that comprised their work-places.  At about that time, the moderator, a wonderful U.S.C. School of Cinematic Arts Professor named Tori, and who had organized a lot of this week’s sessions and talent, said that it was now about time to take audience questions. 

The first person who raised his hand was a film student, and he asked this question:.  “Thank you all for coming here tonight.  We really appreciate it.  My question for you all is…you each seem very anxious and stressed.  I mean, are you happy doing what you’re doing?” 

There was just dead silence in the entire room.  Not because he was in any was disrespectful.  He was very polite in his delivery and in his sincerity.  But the five of them on stage were just dumbfounded.  And I knew exactly why.  There is just no getting around it.  If you want to work as an important part of that industry, it’s always extremely stressful.  Like stress that just doesn’t let up.  It’s great to have the access and the perks of working at a studio, at an agency, as a D.P., or a director, or as a production manager.

After oh, I'd say about ten seconds of silence, and the young hosts looking at one another for a clue as to how to respond to such an unveiled truth, microphones flaccid in their hands, one young women, I think it was one of the writers, said, "Oh, well, we're just nervous speaking in front of a big crowd." The rest of the panel nodded in agreement.  And I forgave her for that little white lie.  I forgave all five of them because I know that at that age, being in one of those coveted positions is worth turning a blind eye to the toll that it can take on a person.  It's reasonable to play down the stress for a while.

And it would be very difficult for a host of twenty-three years old, brought into a symposium where she once went to school to talk about how she finally made it into a job that everyone wants, to then talk about the very real, uncomfortable stress that she has to live with every day to have that amazing job of hers.  So, I totally accept that justification from her.  I did the same thing for a long time until I realized that out of twenty-four hours in a day, most of my waking time was given to the industry, and just a little to my hobby of long distance running, and then, maybe a tiny bit to call a friend on the phone to say, "Hi."   

The student was right, of course. Entertainment industry stress comes with about the most elongated stress of any occupations, save maybe a few on Wall Street, and probably litigators.  Even surgeons who have a lot of stress only engage in it for a limited set of hours.  But in entertainment, you live in a sea of stress, anxiety, and megalomania.  My therapist first taught me that word, megalomania, when I was seeing him about my stress…acquired from the entertainment industry! 

Entertainment and it’s bottom line demands that each person in the system put out 200% of capacity at all times, minimum, and that’s if everything is going okay for a little while.  There may be some slow days here and there, but in general, if something is needed, it’s needed yesterday.  It’s always like that.  When this young man asked his question, it was in response to his listening to each of them speak for the past half hour exuding their stress. 

Because, when you describe your function in that system, you can’t do it without also delivering the urgency which goes with that role. I know that, I remember that.  I remember when at family gatherings, such as Thanksgiving, when I was asking what I was currently doing in the studios, I would have to relive the stress of my earlier day in communicating it to them.  It just comes out.  I would always have to take a break after filling them in on my life, and just go walk into another room and shake it off a little. 

I loved my time at Walt Disney and at DreamWorks; most of it.  But what I didn’t like was how I got in at 8:00am or 9:00am and never, and I mean never, leaving the studio before 7:00pm, and that was early.  Most of the time, I was there until 9:00pm and often until 12:00am or 1:00am, to get the director’s script notes from London, who was just waking up.  I was almost always in on Saturdays, and the production periods, so appropriately called, "crunch," would last for a good nine months out of a two year production cycle for a feature animated film. 

The greatness of friends, the experiences, the massive amount that I learned over those years, and the benefits of working for powerful Hollywood companies cannot be understated.  It’s just amazing.  You can feel like you are at the true epicenter of something.  Going to awards events and premiers and holiday parties with other industry people; it can give you a very warm feeling.  And most important, that the aggregate of your work is somehow manifested in something that you can show for it; a position, a film, a TV series, the people you know.

However, as I’ve probably made painfully clear already, it is an extremely stressful occupation, not only because of the demands made every day on those in the industry from the studio’s bottom line and profits, or by the agency’s need to have the top tier of acting and writing talent, but also because no job is secure, and you can be working on month, and then easily be rolling calls to ask contacts for any work out there.  It’s a little less of the latter of you are an employee of a studio like I was for most of my career, rather than an independent contractor or with a smaller production company or agency.  But, any external, economic, change of strategy, unpredictable force can even be thrust inside the studio and can change the dynamics of what is needed of employees, and can also make them unneeded. 

So, that evening in the symposium, I said in my own head, "Hats off to that student for having such keen radar to have sensed something awry with the hosts’ sense of well-being as they spoke."  I was looking at him like, "How did you possibly know to ask that question, you savant-genius?  It took me two decades to see as clearly as you just did with your question"  Oh yes, my young grasshopper protégé, that is called entertainment industry stress, and one wear it like an abrasively loud cologne.  But you know, that young man was just further proof that U.S.C’’s School of Cinematic Arts has some of the most astute students in the world!  I always have pride in my U.S.C. Trojans!