A Shrink Reveals How to Win at Hollywood's Real-Life Game of Thrones

How to Win at Hollywood's Game of Thrones-illo-H 2016
Illustration by Julia Yellow

Phil Stutz, who tends to some of the town's top studio executives, explains the need to make decisions quickly, alone and on instinct, and "microtransactions" that get you respect — even when you've been fired.

Each person has potential for power. Because I'm interested in the philosophy of this, I have ended up treating a lot of studio executives; they make up 15 to 20 percent of my patients. Most aren't realistic about what the job is actually going to be.

In a position of power, there are three things that you have to be able to tolerate. One is uncertainty. You have to make your decisions without having enough information. It's never been more true than now. Executives are betting on all kinds of things: What are the distribution systems going to be like in five years? Are there even going to be networks? And the economy itself: There are a million things that are unpredictable.

The second thing is being alone. If you're on a high level, at the end of the day you're making the important decisions by yourself. Human nature being what it is, nobody likes it. At the midlevel, you can pass the important decisions off. But everybody I've seen on a high level who tries to pass off the responsibility has fallen.

The final thing someone in leadership must tolerate is hatred and misunderstanding. Hatred means you're under attack, within and outside of the community. In terms of misunderstanding, often your intent will be mischaracterized, so not only do people hate you, but they hate you for something you haven't even done.

It requires a certain amount of strength to tolerate these things. I tell people when they get promoted, "Just assume this is going to happen because it will." Nobody ever escapes it. Even if things are going well, everything can change on a dime. You need to develop some protocols or tools for functioning that you can live by, whether you're winning or losing at this given moment.

Among the set of protocols you want to develop is what's called a "turnaround." Let's say a star falls out of a movie. The executive making a turnaround has to move very fast to replace the person. There's no time to whine, complain or scream at the guy's agent. The movie might still fall apart, but your effort represents a turnaround because you're in forward motion. You want to make that a habit. Or let's say your movie didn't open well this weekend. The second you know that — and executives seem to know it earlier and earlier — it's very important to maintain your own sense of organization, optimism and vision. If you screw that up, your whole staff will get demoralized.

I tell my clients to collect as many of these turnarounds as you can. It's like putting bullets in a gun. It's the only thing you have when you execute your decisions in uncertainty. The turnarounds don't say that you're right. They say that if there's a problem, or if you're wrong, you're confident that you can recover; they bring you back to the place where you can take action. Some people are tremendous and don't even blink; others will be debilitated for a day or two.

Getting fired is a macro turnaround. You're dealing with depression and a complete loss of confidence and self-esteem. First of all, anybody who holds a grudge against you is going to take a shot. But that's not what's most bothersome — it's the public loss of faith. Your calls are returned slower than they used to be. Or the stupid stuff, like getting a table at a restaurant. It's like an attack on your value as a human.

I've also had clients whose jobs went to their heads, who used their position to aggrandize themselves by doing things like keeping an A-list director waiting for 15 minutes. It's a mistake; for every action, there is a reaction. Five minutes, maybe. All those little things are called microtransactions. As a leader, every microtransaction with anyone in your field will define your future.

If you're not disciplined in the small things, you're going to have trouble with the big things. Believe it or not, there are calls that even studio heads don't like to make. There are some people nobody wants to call. Besides powerful agents, there are certain actors they don't like to communicate with. So there are certain phone calls that never get made, and nobody knows it — except me. Others might realize six months later they didn't make a certain call when they're short three movies. There are ample opportunities to avoid what you're afraid of, but you always pay the price.

Another tool is a quick instinct cycle. At the end of the day, Hollywood isn't different from other industries, but it's faster. You're turning out new products at an unprecedented speed. It would be as if Toyota had to come out with a new car twice a month. You could release the greatest movie in the world, and in three weeks or a month, you're facing the same thing again. It's endless.

You want to incorporate as many facts as you can in your calculations, but at the end of the day, it's gut. Based on your intuition, you have to make a decision. A good decision-maker isn't someone who is always right. In fact, he's usually not right. But he makes more decisions and moves through his cycle quickly. The more you do that, the better your instincts get and the more you will be able to tolerate the consequences of your choices.

I've seen the whole culture of a studio improve when the chief is in therapy. When the culture improves, you get, No. 1, more artists who want to work with you, which means more opportunities to make movies. No. 2: If artists see that you're willing to take a risk and back them up, that will create a long-standing relationship, a tremendous benefit to the studio and to the executive. No. 3: If the executive takes a few risks, and those risks work even a little bit, the morale of the whole company goes up. Because then you're saying this whole enterprise is creative and meaningful, and part of your job as the leader is giving the team that feeling. But if it's all done by the numbers and a bit schlocky, it's much harder. It's understandable but not a real greatness of leadership.

The unconscious aspect of leading with power involves what's called the primal shadow. People don't let this part of the shadow come out because it's not nice and doesn't adhere to social conventions. There are people at the top with obvious shadows: They want something and they're not ashamed to tell you what that is. The primal shadow can become a liability if it gets exaggerated, but it's also the part of the mind that — because it's outside the box and doesn't care what people think — is the most creative part of the personality. It's why some stars and directors are insane. I sympathize because they need to keep this part of themselves alive to come up with new ideas, but unfortunately, some shadows get out of control and they become uncivilized.

Being good at wielding power isn't enough. You have to also love the creative process. To me, that's a very high level of power expression. A relatively low-level executive leader is somebody who wants the perks and recognition. As a civilian, I'm in a funny position because a lot of times patients will initially misrepresent themselves to me in terms of their position. Then they find out that I actually know what's going on.

Phil Stutz is a Los Angeles psychotherapist who has treated top Hollywood execs, writers, producers and actors for three decades. He and colleague Barry Michels co-authored the 2011 best-seller The Tools and are working on their second book.

This story first appeared in the July 15 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.