Sunday, April 10, 2005

The Hollywood Ecosystem

I am constantly amazed when I look around and observe how people from completely different walks of life must come together to successfully create and complete TV and film. I was recently on the floor of a sit-com taping (being on the floor basically means you are backstage with full access) and found myself becoming engrossed as I watched all the different people who were connected to the production mill about.

There are the men and women who handle the more technical aspects of the show, like the lighting, sound, etc. They are a shaggy denim clad group. Then there are the Assistant Directors who are in charge of wrangling both the actors and the crew, and look like they’re so stressed out they are going to implode at any given second. You can spot them from a mile away because it seems like their eyes can rotate a full 360 degrees allowing them to see through the back of their head. There are about a million type of producers who work on the show. There are the producers that are focused on the financial and logistical aspects of the show, like the line producers and the associate producers, these guys were often crew members themselves, and just worked their way up the ladder. Then there are the producers who wrote the script, and make all of the executive decisions. These are the guys in charge of a lot of the creative aspects of the show – think slightly neurotic writers, and edgy perfectionists. Then there are the managers who are producing because their clients are involved in the show. They do a lot of talking to other agents and managers, and serving as a liason to the studio financing the show, etc.

On the floor the night of the taping, there are a passel of other agents and managers, who all are anxious to see how their client will do that night, or if they should get their client involved in the show. These folk are not only obvious because they’re in dark suits, but because they avoid eye contact and are always on their cell phones (stereo-types really are true sometimes). I did get quite a kick of watching at one point, the two contrasting silhouettes of the agent in navy, standing next to a gaffer in jeans and a sweatshirt. Its interesting to me that they are at the same event, but that tradition and practices cause them to dress so differently.

But I think of all the subjects who fell under my people watching gaze, my favorites to observe were the studio and network executives. Most of them have such a paradoxical existence. Like Wormtongue in Lord of the Rings, who wishes to wield his power above those under him, he remains terrified of offending or upsetting the great sorcerer Sauramon. The execs throw their weight around on set, and they give notes to the writers and the producers. Its almost as if they hang around for an extra ten minutes because they know that their very presence makes the producers and crew nervous, or even nauseated. However, the minute their boss (the president of the company) emerges they accidentally stab themselves with their pens, and clumsily bump into each other as they rush to stand to attention. Their faux expressions of cool, calm, and collected that they have pasted on their faces, often betrays how flustered they really are feeling. Desperate to impress without offending, they want to stand out while blending in, and speak up while shutting up. I am almost driven to feel pity for the dangerous game of corporate behavior poker they are forced to play. Almost.

Each little clan of executives from the studio and the network is like a small tribe with its own sub-culture. If the president goes business casual, his/her underlings follow suit. If the Chieftan dons jeans, than jeans it is! The president dictates whether everyone else will imbibe alcohol that night. Peering through the curtains of the executive greenroom, I saw all the execs titter nervously around the bar, casting glances at their boss to see if he would signal the way the evening would go. They waited eagerly for him/her to pour a glass of wine or crack open a beer so that they could wet their whistles with something more substantial than Diet Coke and Pelligrino. Apparently, if the studio president starts drinking than the studio executives can pop the cork, but the network executives still have to abstain, and vice versa. Each little group needs approval from their own leader.

This was completely fascinating to me. It was like an anthropological case study, Hollywood style. The film and TV industry is really like its own little ecosystem. I am not sure where I will end up yet in this big crazy jungle. I suppose right now, I am the muddy toad who sits by the watering hole. No one really pays much attention to me, if they even notice me at all. I don’t think I’d want to remain the toad for ever, but for now it allows me to watch and observe the prides of lions, the warbling hippos and the vicious crocodiles. Sometimes the absurdity of it all leaves me feeling sour and with a bad taste in my mouth. On that night I was just able to shake my head and laugh.


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