Parted ways. Stepping down. Transitioning to a production deal. Moving on to new opportunities.
These are a few examples of the language typically relied on by Hollywood executives and their soon-to-be-former employers when they announce a change in job status. Inventive verbiage has gotten a lot of use lately with the recent executive exits at Sony (film chief Doug Belgrad and TV chairman Steve Mosko), NBC (Universal TV head Bela Bajaria), HBO (top programmer Michael Lombardo), ABC (network chief Paul Lee) and OWN (co-president Sheri Salata). Now, I don’t profess to know exactly why each of these accomplished people left his or her high-paying, power-drenched position. For many, it very well could have been their own choice. But I’m willing to bet at least a few were either nudged or drop-kicked out the door. And what do you almost never hear in these situations? “I was fired.”
Show business isn’t the only industry that traffics in half-truths, partial truths and no percentage of truthiness. But in a company town, overtly negative language is strenuously avoided in public because everyone knows you meet the same people on the way up as you do on the way down. (There’s also a lot of sideways.)
But there’s no shame in being let go. It’s a Hollywood inevitability — and even a badge of honor. In the wake of the latest round of exits, I spoke with several former and current executives, counselors, agents and attorneys about why we insist on clinging to this lexicon. Everyone requested, under penalty of causing bodily harm to this writer, to be unnamed.
One well-liked former studio head cites the entrenched system for how high-publicized departures are handled. Not surprisingly, a team of lawyers, HR execs and ironclad NDAs dictated a carefully worded press release. “I didn’t have a choice,” says this person flatly of how the exit was characterized. A prominent entertainment attorney who handles executive and producer deals agrees, noting her firm is so sensitive to the effect of the dreaded “F word” that she was instructed never to use it in front of clients who had recently found themselves at liberty.
In a town that sells illusions, we even can convince ourselves of the veracity of the spin. An executive at a major studio maintains he has never been fired but allows he was laid off once. “We went from a company of 5,000 to 500,” he says.
“But were others in your department retained?” I inquire.
“OMG. I guess I was fired.”
Many believe there’s no need to use a word whose connotations include being shot out of a cannon because everyone can read between the lines. “When I left, no one needed to ask me if I was fired, as many people had similar experiences with my former boss,” says an executive who ran the production company of a well-known star. “When it did come up in a meeting, there might be a moment when my eyes would lock with someone’s, and we’d both have that thousand-yard stare, like we’d been through a battle together.”
In a better illustration of irony than Alanis Morissette could conjure, talent agents — regularly called upon to convey untrue messages like, “The producers are going in a different direction” (which means, “The producers are hoping never to see you again, even at a traffic light”) — are among the few people in the industry who openly acknowledge being fired by clients. It’s a rite of passage and often noted with particular relish when a former client goes on to, in another example of safe industry jargon, “underperform.”
Many I spoke with applaud Amy Pascal, Sony’s former studio chief, who dared drop the F-bomb after she was relieved of her duties in 2015 in what the company described as a structural realignment. “I was fired,” she said bluntly at Tina Brown’s Women in the World conference. Still, notes one exec, “because of the whole hacking scandal there was a perception she took the fall, so she had cover to use the word ‘fired.’ “
Several people I spoke with would prefer to see the language of Hollywood change. “Since everyone knows you were fired, it gives you the opportunity to express how you experienced the firing,” says Rabbi (and licensed therapist) Mel Gottlieb. “And everyone would now be responsible for their actions — honest, authentic and not uncomfortable repressing some secret.” His phone number, email and office hours provided upon request.
On the other hand, the industry is rife with chicken-and-egg causality dilemmas, making it impossible to say with confidence that someone isn’t, in fact, stepping away of their own volition. So the charade likely will continue. But if I ever were fortunate enough to be pushed from a high perch, here’s how I’d like the press release to read: “Annabelle Gurwitch was fired. She is looking forward to spending her generous severance package. She plans to dedicate her time to exploring deep-tissue massages in exotic locations. Bon voyage, suckers!”
Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress and author whose firing by Woody Allen led to her best-seller Fired! Tales of the Canned, Canceled, Downsized, & Dismissed. Her next book is Wherever You Go, There They Are.
This story first appeared in the June 24 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.