We visit six networks and two production companies. I’m struck by how normal most of the people seem, how unlike the Hollywood stereotypes, how similar to my colleagues on All Things Considered and Morning Edition. At least on the surface.
The money in Hollywood–and what it buys–is sort of stunning. At dinner my first night in town I meet a screenwriter I like very much who seems like any of a dozen magazine writers I know in Chicago and New York. I’m told later that he’s one of the many people who make a living here writing screenplays that never get made into movies. The price for his last screenplay? A quarter-million dollars.
The number is hard to fathom. The year we put This American Life on the air (just four years ago), my staff and I did an entire year of shows for less than that: $243,000 covered all our expenses–outfitting the studio, paying free-lance writers and reporters, buying satellite time to distribute the show to stations, all our meager marketing costs, and our four salaries. It was bare-bones, even by public radio standards, but workable.
When I describe this budget to Ann and Jed, they ask me not to mention it in any meetings with anyone in the state of California.
For the record, Showtime’s offices aren’t as nice as NPR’s in Washington. New Regency’s digs–including the production offices for its hit show Buffy the Vampire Slayer–have the friendly handed-down-furniture, makeshift air of a not terribly well-funded congressional race in Iowa. Bare linoleum floors. Fluorescent light.
Everywhere else is lovely, and you feel the wealth that permeates it all. At every meeting some assistant offers us a choice of beverages, a custom I did not observe once in a decade at NPR’s headquarters in Washington. There’s beautiful original art on the walls and valet parking downstairs. When agents at William Morris park their cars in the agency’s lot, attendants wash the cars, handle maintenance, fill the tanks with gas. An agent recently ran out of gas on the freeway simply because he’d been running from meeting to meeting for two days and hadn’t stopped in the office. He’d apparently fallen out of the habit of pulling over at a gas station.
Some meetings go well, some go less well. One head of programming visibly fidgets for most of our presentation. Most are very gracious and very smart. At four of the networks, it’s mostly pleasantries, our pitch, a few questions, and “we’ll be in touch.” But at two networks, the executives enter into a substantial and serious discussion of the difficulties they’d imagine we’d face if our show were to go into production. One tells us straight up that we’d have to choose more sensational topics to make it promotable to viewers. The other quizzes us at length about how we’d create interesting visuals for some of the more memorable stories from the radio show, then questions us pointedly about how in the world a show of narratives of everyday life would be promoted to television viewers. What would the promo be? “Coming up tonight–life as we know it”? Wouldn’t we need some sort of simple, sensational topic to get people to tune in? It’s a valid question and gets to the heart of something we struggled with for a long time on the radio show: how to promote and position the show with listeners so they’d want to tune in?
What divides the skeptical execs from the others? If I understand Ann correctly, some of these networks don’t purchase many shows, and the execs who buy the programs are ultimately responsible for seeing that the shows become hits. At other networks, they buy a lot more stuff, produce it, audience-test it, and then decide later on what’ll go into their schedule and what won’t. It’s the execs in the first group who are more skeptical going in.
From our point of view, the skeptical meetings are preferable to the ones with all the glad-handing. At least they’re being straight with us about all their doubts, and we get a chance to argue our case. Bennett says that you can imagine that after the glad-handing meetings, the execs all go to a back room where they say all that skeptical stuff to each other anyway, and then consult with Darth Vader, who orders them to destroy us.
It is my second day in Los Angeles, and I’m called by a reporter from Entertainment Weekly who wants to possibly include me in the magazine’s annual list of “The 100 Most Creative People in Hollywood.” I’ve been here for less than 48 hours. Word travels fast. I tell this story to Doug Herzog, the guy who picked up South Park for Comedy Central, who recently moved out here from New York to head the Fox Network, and he says that for the first week you’re in Hollywood, everyone thinks you’re a creative genius. Then everyone decides you’re just like them.
I tell the Entertainment Weekly reporter that no deal has been struck quite yet and am promptly downgraded from the List to a sidebar.
We meet with two production houses, and both times it’s like finding distant family members. Gail Berman at New Regency begins our meeting by playing Jewish geography with me; she spent a part of her childhood in Baltimore just a few miles from where I grew up. She and the TV people we meet at Brillstein Grey remind me of the best radio producers I know. They’re pragmatic and personable; they’re about getting things done. They’re unpretentious. Again they make it seem like television is not such a different business from the one I’m already in.
Can I mention how great the artwork is at Brillstein Grey? A Jonathan Borofsky here, a Lichtenstein there. I’m sure it makes me seem like a rube but I have to admit I found it sort of thrilling. Also sort of thrilling: At Brillstein Grey I get to meet Susie Fitzgerald, who does The Sopranos, the only TV show I’ve ever liked enough to make a point to catch every week.
One of the TV people at Brillstein Grey, a former NBC exec named Kevin, tells us the best we can expect from a television deal, if everything goes ahead. There’s no way any network will give us a deal where we control the final cut of the show; it’s just not done. Any network will want the right to approve the topics, the stories, and the final cut. So the key to the whole thing, he said, is finding someone who understands the show at a network, someone we like and trust, and going into business with them. Kevin was the NBC exec who worked with Michael Moore on TV Nation–a show that, like ours, stood midway between documentary and entertainment. Kevin said they worked it like this: Michael would show him a list of story ideas, and Kevin pretty much approved them all. He’d say, “This one should probably be a bigger story and this one might be shorter.” When they had a rough cut of the show, Kevin would make suggestions–make this story shorter, change this or that–and Michael invited him to the editing room to work it out. It was collegial and friendly. “There are lots of smart people at the networks,” Kevin said. “You can find one and get into a situation where you can make good work. It is possible to do good work in television.”
I’m sure he’s right, and I’m encouraged by this, but it’s not lost on me that Michael Moore didn’t survive long at NBC. As I understand it, his ratings weren’t up to network standards and they sent him packing to cable.
Fatigue sets in. We start to get a little punch-drunk from making our little presentation over and over, four times a day.
Waiting for Ann to arrive at yet another network meeting, Bennett proposes an entirely new strategy to use in our pitches. Jed will talk, Ann will talk, he will talk, but I will never utter a word. I’ll sit there silently, until the moment when Bennett is excitedly explaining, “It’s the music, it’s the visuals, it’s the story, it’s the characters, it’s, it’s …”
And then I’ll say the only word I say the whole meeting.
And he and Jed will both exclaim “Exactly!” And we cross our arms and wait for them to give us a deal.
We don’t bother to ask Ann about this one.