Top L.A. shrinks advise on what makes four kinds of high-ranking studio execs tick — plus their secret anxieties.
There are many paths to getting to the top in Hollywood, meaning that power can be acquired with different styles. THR spoke with leading L.A.-based psychologists who work with executives in the entertainment business to find out how to understand and read the various types of clout emanating from corner offices.
This story first appeared in the June 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Though the dynamic has declined somewhat in recent years, Hollywood is renowned for bosses who assert power at the top of their lungs. Some of the more notorious include Scott Rudin, Harvey Weinstein, legendary network exec Fred Silverman and the late Dawn Steel. Jeff Blume, a Beverly Hills-based psychologist, says these types succeed because yelling creates the perception of power: "Often people who are screaming are seen as people who make decisions forcefully, especially in Hollywood, where so many decisions have to be made and many people have difficulty making decisions." Critical parenting is often the origin of this type. "As adults, they demand that others meet unrealistic standards, what is called 'other-oriented perfectionism,' " says Philip Pierce, a clinical psychologist and producer-screenwriter. Or "they don't know how else to handle stress, so they become a bully," notes Blume. L.A.-based therapist Siri Sat Nam Singh, star of Viceland's The Therapist, in which he speaks with music stars (most recently, Katy Perry) about their inner lives, adds: "These are unevolved beings. When people scream, they begin to look very crazy to someone who is conscious."
CAREER PITFALLS "To be successful with such overuse of anger requires a higher degree of talent than most of them have. The more inflexible their opinions, the more often they will alienate others and discourage creativity, unless, of course, they are brilliant themselves," says Pierce. Underlings may be fearful of sharing negative information, even if important. Screamers "take disagreement as a personal affront," says Dennis Palumbo, a former screenwriter turned psychotherapist. "So you may end up with films and TV shows that aren't good, but execs just plow through with them." He recalls an exec who refused to believe the negative results from test screenings of his pet pilot and kept ordering more screenings. Finally, his subordinates gave him fake positive numbers, "because they realized he would keep doing this until they gave him the numbers he wanted," he says.
INTERNAL TOLL "MRIs show that the emotional effects can stay locked in the brain of screamers for days and weeks. It raises the level of cortisone, the stress hormone," says Larry Shaw, a psychotherapist with offices in Beverly Hills and Topanga Canyon. Repeatedly flooding the brain this way can lead to long-term depression and anxiety.
HOW TO HANDLE With caution. Shaw recommends walking away whenever possible: "You can take about 90 percent of the charge away — when there's no fight in the game, the other person sometimes gives up. They aren't getting the reaction they want."
More thoughtful, quiet types include Sherry Lansing, Bill Mechanic and Peter Chernin. This type can assemble all the information before proceeding, and "look at issues from every angle and think their way out of decisions," says Palumbo. Adds Pierce, "Their thoroughness and avoidance of errors can arm them from blame when things go wrong." One methodical exec patient of Shaw's "takes long pregnant pauses, even in negotiations, and it seems to calm the whole environment."
CAREER PITFALLS Sometimes they don't pull the trigger. "It can inhibit creative, independent decision-making," says Pierce.
INTERNAL TOLL Excessive anxiety, which can lead to making even fewer decisions, problems with sleep and less enjoyment of life.
HOW TO HANDLE While employees admire thinkers for their intelligence, working for an indecisive boss can be maddening. Encourage them to trust their gut, which "you, the underling, have a great deal of faith in," says Palumbo. He advises finding out what kind of info this boss relies on for decision-making — "numbers, polls, nominations, status, impressing his or her significant other, etc. — and present pitches based on that."
Often a failed writer or director, this type can drive filmmakers crazy with notes or meddling in the editing process. "This personality is often trying to make up for an inadequate sense of identity as a creative individual," says Pierce. "If they do have talent and can be open to others' ideas, this type can be effective."
CAREER PITFALLS "Writers and directors get frustrated because they haven't been hired for their own vision," says Palumbo. "They've been hired to execute the executive's vision."
INTERNAL TOLL "The further the executive is from their ideal creative self, the bigger the risk of depression," says Blume.
HOW TO HANDLE To move awkward situations forward, experienced writers and directors have a set of responses, says Pierce, such as, "Good note," "Thanks, that really helps me" or "Hmm, let me think about that."
At the extreme, says Palumbo, this type "takes pride in not having a creative opinion and sees films as commodities that either make a ton of money or don't." Sometimes, says Blume, "these may have been people with introverted childhoods who had trouble connecting with people. They connect to numbers. Ambiguity is hard to deal with."
CAREER PITFALLS Overreliance on sequels and bankable stars. "I had an exec describe Little Miss Sunshine to me as a 'non-repetitive phenomenon,' " says Palumbo. "When a movie takes off that doesn't fit their ideas of what works, they often don't understand why."
INTERNAL TOLL "Because they don't have strong social skills, and Hollywood is such a people business, they are not interacting as much as they might like," says Blume. Adds Pierce, "In a world in which creative success receives the most attention, this type of executive can feel misunderstood and unappreciated. Their efforts to control costs can leave them isolated. When coupled with failure, this can lead to depression and a lost sense of worth."
HOW TO HANDLE "A creative who is working with a number cruncher may start to see the bean counter as a parent and experience the situation like they are children, by rebelling, or saying, 'I quit,' when told no," says Blume. "It's important to identify what is getting triggered so it doesn't get acted out in a professional setting."