News Article

Power, West Coast-Style: And Zen Some

The powerful players in Hollywood -- How to think like the biggest decision makers in L.A.

I guess it goes without saying that I'm one of the most powerful people in Hollywood. There's no other explanation for the enormous lengths to which many important people go not to acknowledge my presence when I walk into a room. It is exactly the same thing that they do with Sly Stallone or Madonna or Kool Moe Dee. But more than being merely another one of the amazingly powerful, I have become over the years an important receptacle of their wisdom. Perhaps this is my real gift, because I always remember their words verbatim and I carry them with me wherever I go.

Most of these types of powerful decision-maker people are incredibly smart. Take the ones who met with playwright Wendy Wasserstein and were able to explain to her how she should fix the main character and the plot of The Heidi Chronicles…after she had already won the Pulitzer Prize for it! The people who run things in Hollywood know pretty much everything about everything! If you are a writer, they even know of another person they can hire to write your voice and your vision even better than you do! And if you are an actor, they know exactly what is right and wrong with each of your visible body parts and why that matters more than anything in the scheme of your work.

One powerful network person listened to me describe a proposed show, and then had this suggestion: ''How about a hot sexy black woman?'' Imagine! He had the kind of amazing intelligence that simply was able to sense that this was the perfect addition to my concept! And he didn't even have anyone particular in mind! He just understood at a gut level that hypothetically this is what was needed! Another powerful man listened patiently as I described a movie idea. He then looked up at me paternally and suggested I make revisions to better take into account whether I was going to be able to attract an audience in Bombay or Ceylon. See what I mean? The idea of how to entertain Ceylon had never occurred to me!

How do these people get to be this way? Well, one thing that helps is that they live in a world only superficially like the one that you live in. In their universe, tiny children speak in sarcastic, pithy one-liners; women who look like Vogue models nonetheless have hilarious, smart-ass, neurotic personalities; librarians and schoolteachers are prim and tight-lipped (until that one day when they take off their glasses and undo their hair); and hookers look like Julia Roberts.

Maybe it's because the powerful people live in a world like this that they seem to have a cognitive problem with very large numbers. For example, they seem to think not only that 5 million is a small number (for a movie budget) but that a TV show viewed by 15 million people has in fact been seen by ''no one.''

This odd problem seems to go hand in hand with their almost religious obsession with the notion that he who is not the biggest winner is in fact a loser. Or perhaps it's more appropriately connected to an emotional problem that a lot of powerful Hollywood people seem to have, the most commonly manifested symptom of which is an insatiable need to watch things explode.

One of the truly remarkable things is that these people are often able to take traits that might be considered limitations and turn them into areas of amazing skill. As one powerful person recently told a friend of mine on the eve of their proposed creative collaboration, ''I'm great with titles and time slots. For example, 'Gangbusters. 7:30 Sunday.' Whaddya think?'' These people often think in almost Zen-like parables. Consider this critique by a powerful person to another friend of mine who had turned in the final draft of a screenplay: ''This is the kind of movie that needs to be made well to succeed. Therefore we can't justify spending the kind of money you need to make it well.''

So! What have we learned about thinking like a decision maker in Hollywood? How does one arrive at the extraordinary state of mind required to comprehend that even though you just paid one person $4 million for a script, that doesn't mean you think it was such a good script that it doesn't still need work? And so it's a good idea to pay someone else $1 million to work on it? Well, you simply have to learn to be the kind of person who can drive a Ferrari out of the showroom directly to your mechanic so he will help you change the body and maybe redesign the engine. You just have to learn to have the kind of confidence that says, ''Just because something is perfect doesn't mean I can't change it for the better.'' And how does one achieve that kind of confidence?

Well, uh that's the part I still don't understand.

Merrill Markoe, a columnist for New York Woman magazine, lives in Southern California, where she has many opportunities to ponder the powerful.

Originally posted Nov 02, 1990 Published in issue #38 Nov 02, 1990 Order article reprints