Monday, December 05, 2011

Always Be Closing, Part 5: Seller Beware

Meetings are very exciting, especially if you’re just starting out. This is it! You’ve made it! You’re going to be rich and famous! And everybody is so nice! Why do producers have such a bad reputation?? They’re all smothering you in compliments! Everybody is excited to work with you and telling you how much money you’re going to make together!

Then you go home and wait for the phone to ring. And wait. And wait. Guess what? You’ve just met the other kind of asshole: the ones who kill you with kindness. Other creative businesses aren’t like this. If you sell a novel or play, everybody quickly reminds you not to get too excited because you’re never going to get rich. So why is Hollywood run on false praise and pie-in-the-sky promises?

I think one reason is simply that it’s based in California, where being too sunny comes with the territory. You read “Grapes of Wrath” in high school—what happens there? Think back...

California orchard-owners scatter the entire country with flyers telling everybody to come west where they’ll live a life of ease and fortune, but when they arrive they find troops at the border to keep them out. So why were they invited? Simply because the orchard-owners wanted to depress wages by threatening their current workers with a horde of replacements on the border.

Does this sound like any other California industry you can think of? New players, same old trick. Promise everybody riches so that they’ll give up everything they have in hopes of work, then string them along with no payoff, ensuring a perpetually deep and desperate labor pool. It’s a very cynical, very nasty trick, and it doesn’t stop when you actually get “in the door”.

Whenever you leave a meeting and say to yourself, “Wow, they told me everything I wanted to hear!,” it always means that you’ll never hear from those people again. A good meeting is actually one where they pick your idea apart.

“We love it, don’t change a thing!” is Hollywood-speak for “We hate it and we want you out of our office.” What you actually want to hear is, “There might be something there, but…” You don’t want praise—you want feedback. As for how you handle that feedback, come back tomorrow…


j.s. said...

Isn't this also a bit about the fact that the whole business is built on hope and hype and so they don't want to alienate you in case you happen to come back months or years later with a project they'd love to buy?

Matt Bird said...

I've heard that hypothesis before, but I think it's overstated. Personally, I'd be far more likely to work with someone who at least gave me the decency of a "pass", rather than praising me and then disappearing.

In addition to the desire to expand the labor pool, I also think that producers simply get a kick from playing the big shot and telling people they're going to make their dreams come true, even though they have no intention of doing so.

Anonymous said...

Again, similarities to my days as a stockbroker.

The relationship with clients was always, to some degree, adversarial. As a broker, you had to hope that it remained so, because whenever a client called you out of the blue to tell you what a very great broker you were and how much he enjoyed working with you, it meant he was transferring his account to someone else.

J.A. said...

I had two very naive friends who didn't understand this. They both actually made announcements to all their friends that their very first projects were getting picked up, one by Comedy Central, the other by Gary Oldman's production company.

The latter even told everyone that the company thought the script was "Oscar material." Then he never heard from them again. Unfortunately he quit his relatively lucrative day job when it conflicted with the meeting. It really wasn't his fault, though. He was from Utah.

Matt Bird said...

But it's hard for me to blame your friends, J.A. Everybody gets fooled at first, because why would anyone lie about this?? It's as baffling as it is harmful.

When mirage after mirage vanished after my meetings, one line kept coming back to me... Like the title of this series, it's from Glengarry Glen Ross: Jack Lemmon gloats about a big sale, but the others just chuckle derisively when they hear who he supposedly sold it to. Lemmon doesn't understand their pity. Finally, one of them patronizingly explains, "Those people just like talking to salesman."

Anonymous said...

My old boss at Smith Barney used to say:
"You can show the same old people new ideas, or you can show the same old ideas to new people. But you'd better be doing one or the other, at all times."

And another gem:
"Someone who is a prospect for everything is not a prospect for anything." If a guy shows polite interest in every idea you show him, you'll never make a sale. He's got to show real interest in just one of your ideas.

And last:

"When you make a sale, express thanks, and end the conversation." You don't want to give the guy a chance to un-buy it.