Galloway on Film: How Hollywood Says, "You're Fired!"
Enough with doublespeak. People want the unvarnished truth.
Last week, the news broke that Greg Silverman finally was out as Warner Bros.’ president of worldwide production. His exit was hardly a shock, but the way Warners presented it did raise a few eyebrows.
“Widely respected film industry veteran Greg Silverman, who currently serves as president, creative development and worldwide production, Warner Bros. Pictures, has announced that he will be stepping away from his executive responsibilities at the first of the year to lead a multifaceted new venture focusing on both content production and media and technology-related entrepreneurial ventures with support from Warner Bros.,” the studio said in a press release. “Further details regarding Silverman’s company, which will be based at Warner Bros. Studios, will be announced at a later date.”
Deadline’s Mike Fleming waved a red flag. “Given the rough time that Warner Bros. experienced in 2015, there will be those that wonder if he was eased out,” he noted. Nope, said Silverman, “I had this desire to be entrepreneurial.”
Now, far be it from me to question that desire. It’s quite possible that Silverman watched a few too many episodes of Shark Tank, strolled into his boss Kevin Tsujihara’s office and said he fancied himself an entrepreneur. It’s also possible that there were once pirates’ victims who volunteered to walk the plank, or wives of Henry VIII who opted for their own execution. (One of them did, in fact, thank the king for hiring the best executioner in Europe.)
Most executives come to loathe their jobs, even as they fight tooth and nail to keep them. As the late producer/executive Dan Melnick observed, running a studio is a bit like leading a cavalry charge: “The position is prominent, but the mortality rate is uncomfortably high.”
And yet that mortality is always described as the executive’s preference.
When Sony dumped Amy Pascal, it used language that would have made Miss Manners proud, issuing a press release in which Pascal said she had always wanted to produce and that she and Sony chief Michael Lynton had been discussing the transition for “quite some time.”
Give Pascal her due: she had the guts to 'fess up a week later, telling a conference in San Francisco: “The women here are doing incredible things. All I did was get fired.”
No one ever seems to get fired in Hollywood.
People “exit,” “resign,” “step down,” “move on” or “segue to another role.” They’re “downsized” or “laid off.” They choose to “explore other opportunities,” “spend more time with their families” or — the mot du jour — decide to be “entrepreneurial.”
We have more words for firings, it seems, than the Eskimos have for snow.
All this is part of a doublespeak as pervasive in Hollywood as it was in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. And it doesn’t just apply to losing one’s job.
Actors are eternally “resting” rather than unemployed. Pictures “underperform” rather than fail. Screenplays are described as “interesting” instead of unreadable. Filmmakers part ways following “creative differences,” not fisticuffs.
Consider executives’ titles: someone is a co-president reporting to a president, or a co-chairman reporting to a chairman. We can’t just say “deputy,” because that would mean recognizing the other one’s the boss.
In the late 1990s, an overzealous studio apparatchik wrote to reporters insisting that Warners’ Bob Daly and Terry Semel be referred to as “chairmen and co-CEOs,” not “co-chairmen and CEOs” or “co-chairmen and co-CEOs.” By contrast, their staffers Lorenzo di Bonaventura and Bill Gerber were “presidents,” not “co-presidents.” It was hard enough remembering how to spell their names, let alone their gobbledygook rankings.
Not that doublespeak is always a bad thing, I’ll admit. On one occasion, I asked a producer what on earth I should say if I didn’t like someone’s film. “Say this,” he advised: “ ‘You did it again!’ Or ‘It’s all there on the screen!’ ”
Once, such linguistic pyrotechnics had their value. But this is the Age of Trump, a man who got elected by being blunt. Whatever you think of him, his biggest career boost came from using these two words: “You’re fired!”
We’re living in a country that’s clamoring to be told the truth, even as we operate in an industry that’s congenitally averse to it.
When Nick Styne left CAA earlier this month, it was “to start a new career chapter,” according to one report, which added: “Styne is forming a management/production startup that he has yet to name. He is putting the pieces together on the new company, and it isn’t yet clear which of his clients will go with him.”
Someone at CAA must have gone apoplectic, because hours later another version of that story appeared, in which a CAA rep acknowledged he was “terminated.”
When Jim Gianopulos was edged out of 20th Century Fox in June, everyone in the industry knew what had happened: He’d lost a power struggle. I felt bad for Gianopulos, a man I rather like, but I felt a whole lot less bad when I read the kumbaya statements that followed.
“I’m looking forward to this final year of an amazing 25-year journey at the studio, and to exciting new adventures,” Gianopulos proclaimed.
“Jim has played an integral role in growing our global film business into the powerhouse it is today,” James and Lachlan Murdoch said in a statement. “[We] look forward to continuing to work with Jim in a new strategic capacity after the close of his current contract term.”
That “strategic capacity” has yet to be announced, and Gianopulos in all likelihood will plop down at another studio, where his counsel is more genuinely valued.
The words these men use — like the words so many of us use in our day-to-day interactions — are more than mere politeness. They transform the nature of events, not so much sugarcoating the pill as hiding it altogether.
“What is really important in the world of doublespeak,” noted one critic, “is the ability to lie, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and to get away with it; and the ability to use lies and choose and shape facts selectively, blocking out those that don’t fit an agenda or program.”
And yet, knowing this as we do, everyone in the industry, and many in the press, go along with the pabulum quotes and decorative fibs. We play by one set of rules even as we know that real life plays by another.
Because, deep down, we hope the same lies will be told about us. We live in fear that we’ll follow in Jim and Amy and Nick and Greg’s footsteps, and that when we’re given the boot, the outside world will observe us with opprobrium, as if simply being bounced from a job makes us morally less worthwhile. We pray someone will write that we’ve chosen to step aside, exit, resign or even become entrepreneurs. Heaven forbid they should say we've been fired.
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