I realized this week that I’ve now spent a year working for a Hollywood agent, which in the entertainment world is your white-collar bar mitzvah. Think of it as finishing your two-year tour of duty at an investment bank or passing your CPA exam in accounting. It doesn’t make you credible but it does give you the bare minimum experience you need for people around town to at least look you in the eye when they talk.
Nominally speaking, this blog is about moving from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, CA; from a desk in the U.S. House of Representatives to a desk somewhere under the Hollywood Hills, two worlds that share a lot of DNA.
So here are three lessons I learned in Washington and relearned again in Hollywood. “Give me the same, only different!” they say here, and that’s what this is piece is all about.
Controlling Your Message
Politicians are meticulous about “messaging”. It’s about consistency: always answering the same questions the same way. It’s about repeating things until they become true. It’s about deflecting hard questions and bringing them back to the issues you really want to talk about. And for the people behind the scenes, it’s about wearing this message only, wrapping yourself in it, and becoming the master you serve.
The ultimate lesson here relates back to the value of information, because good political operatives never disclose their true motives. They offer “freedom”, “equality,” and “job creation” but rarely nuance. They tell you only what you need to know about themselves and their agenda and stay invisible at all other times.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood has a similar disposition. It’s important to be “on message” whether you’re promoting yourself or your client, but your audience’s expectations tend to be the opposite of the political crowd’s. While a bag of goods moves through Washington only when it is successfully related back to big box ideas (“equality,” “freedom,” etc.), in Hollywood, people tend to want something very specific. Every producer and studio has a finite need to meet a finite audience and your message needs to reflect this.
Then there’s the personal layer. That rock star lobbyist who was invisible from his perch on K St? Who will tell you his alma mater but not his favorite sports team? He wouldn’t last a day in Hollywood, where you must always be upfront. You have to promote yourself, your story, and your goals from day one. If you aren’t selling yourself for what you really are – an actor, a writer, an agent – then you’re going to be spinning your wheels for a while.
The Social-Professional Spider Web
In both worlds, there’s no dividing line between your social life and your professional life.
My experience in Washington was that rank-and-file staffers were risk averse in the same way that the elected officials they worked for were: they tended to avoid drugs; they didn’t do a lot of sleeping around; and they were generally mindful of their public image. They were also horrifically boring and on occasion, wore pleated shorts.
I haven’t really seen that in Hollywood. That’s not to say that people aren’t image conscious, because they are, but there’s no uniform code of conduct to shape what works. A suitcase full of drugs and a hotel room full of hookers might get you in trouble on one end of town, but you’d probably make some influential friends who saw character in your shame too.
See, entertainment isn’t a gentleman’s game and it’s definitely not one with tight boundaries refereed by the government. That’s why a lot of the business is about finding people you can trust and rising up together according to whatever rules you opt-in to.
Shark Tank Mentors
One of the more pleasant parts of coming up in the Capitol is that a lot of people want to be your friend. Remember: in politics, you can’t make anyone money but you can give them power. So there’s a big rush to establish the right relationships to service your Member of Congress, Cabinet Secretary, or lobbying client’s needs.
It’s why senior lobbyists who used to write bills for presidents don’t scoff at meeting 23 year-old staffers. They understand that today’s intern is tomorrow’s Chief of Staff – or in the case of Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, Paul Ryan, and Steny Hoyer – tomorrow’s Majority Leader, Minority Leader, Committee Chairman, and Minority Whip.
Not so in Hollywood. This is going to come off a little tougher than it should, but no one really wants to be your friend here. There are a lot of people who operate under the belief that when you can step on someone, you do, and there is a definitive caste system in place. You are either an assistant (the underclass) or an executive (the upper class). Your competence is in large part based on your ability to assert yourself where you are otherwise unwelcome.
There are strengths and weaknesses to both models. On one hand, D.C.’s exhaustive professional coddling has left our government with thousands of under-motivated drones who exist as a drag on the entire system. These are the people who only have jobs because they owe important people favors. But on a good day, the family tree of staffers, lobbyists, and fundraisers that surrounds every political organization is both efficient and informed, and can head-off a lot of storms before they rumble down Pennsylvania Avenue.
Hollywood, on the other hand, is ruthless in its efficiency.
The Hollywood caste system smokes out all but the most passionate. How else do you survive near minimum-wage income for 70 hours a week? You may not be able to see Adam Smith’s invisible hand but you can feel it wrapped around your neck, choking you every time rent is due. That’s what happens when everyone on the planet wants to be making movies. It’s efficient to a fault – literally – because Hollywood struggles with loyalty and is constantly stuck in a rut.
So What’s the verdict?
D.C. can seem like Monty Python with the way it requires genuflection to every single niche interest before the machine can start moving; and Hollywood has used its own patronage system to self-select for so long that it can’t help but trip over its own narrow worldview. But the transformational promise of a new star or a better distribution model injects Hollywood with dynamism that doesn’t exist on Capitol Hill, where centuries-old rules of procedure keep a lid on things.
What is rarely understood about our democracy is this: it is by design, nearly inoperable. And that’s just fine, because I make my home now in an oligarchy where princes bark orders from headsets in their convertibles, walking only on red carpets until they disappear back into the Hills. It’s machine politics – unfair but efficient – and if you’ve got a problem with that, get out while you can. Don’t be fooled by the sunshine, ignore the palm trees, and take note that the address of the Pacific Ocean reads “Santa Monica,” not “Los Angeles,” because LA is a tough town and Hollywood is an even tougher business.
Look. If you can’t get jacked-up by a little uncertainty, just find the nearest accounting firm and start learning Excel. You’ll thank me later.