Gavin Polone: Will You Ever Make $1 Million a Year Working in Hollywood? (Guest Column)

Hundred Dollar Bills - H 2014
AP Images

Hundred Dollar Bills - H 2014

The producer cautions against simply chasing the big paydays out of Silicon Valley and Wall Street

This story first appeared in the Nov. 14 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Internet piracy, declining ticket sales, layoffs and lawsuits initiated by interns: Is a career in the entertainment industry still worth pursuing? I'm often asked by those starting out for advice about how to get ahead in the business. Given recent headlines, I wonder if my response should be, "Why bother?"

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When I started out as an assistant at ICM, oh-so-many years ago, revenue at the major studios and networks was growing at a fast pace; executives at those companies were realizing seven-figure gains on their stock options through mergers and buyouts; all of the talent agencies were smaller, with lower overhead, so as their businesses grew with the expansion of the film and TV industry, their net profits grew exponentially — and so did the incomes of the individual agents. Hot late-20s, early-30s up-and-coming agents were pulling down $1 million to $3 million a year, and the biggest of the bigs, CAA's Michael Ovitz, was taking home many times that amount. Smart, motivated people wanted to come out west and see if they could make it huge in Hollywood, enduring long hours and humiliating tasks — as I did when I would have to take my drug-addicted boss to the hospital so she could get a shot of Demerol to soothe her weekly made-up migraines.

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Personally, I was lucky enough to participate in the gold rush, making a big salary as an agent then collecting on the backend of a couple of successful movies and TV shows. Today, studios and networks have been able to consolidate their operations vertically, giving them greater power in negotiating with talent. There is no such thing as an adjusted-gross-profit definition on a TV show, and first-dollar gross on a movie is rare. The two major talent agencies, CAA and WME, have expanded wildly and to do this have sold big pieces of themselves to private-equity firms, who now have a say in their operations. This has resulted in a greater focus on the bottom line, reducing the available share of the pie for those who showed up late to the meal. An agent starting out today would have very little chance of earning what the partners to whom he or she reports have earned, or certainly will have earned when they liquidate their ownership. The same can be said of studio and network executives (less in stock) and producers (smaller backends). And now it feels like the people just out of college who can get hired anywhere are headed to Silicon Valley and Wall Street, rather than Burbank and the Westside.

The future seems pretty grim for the next generation in entertainment, right? Not right. I think people earning less is, in a lot of ways, a good thing. Even on this reduced scale, we all make a shitload of money, and cash shouldn't be the only compensation for the work we do. Yes, it is easy for me to say that, having already fed at the trough, but in all honesty, more than money I appreciate my connection to the careers of the incredibly talented people I represented as an agent and to the few truly good movies and TV shows I produced. Going forward, those entering the business will probably be more passionate about the product and less so about how much they can make from that product — and this will surely yield better work. I promise you that I did a better job representing those whose art I respected than I did the few I took on just because I knew they would pay me sufficiently. I'd say the same about some small projects I produced for little or no money, in comparison to bigger projects where I received my full fee.

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So if your goal is a path to nine figures, I recommend starting a hedge fund or developing an app that can be sold to Google and will be forgotten in eight months. But if you absolutely have to participate in the creation of the next Breaking Bad or Gravity, there is only one place to go.

Gavin Polone is a film and television producer and sometime contributor to The Hollywood Reporter.