Multitask masters

In the face of rapid industry change, passion and persistence remain the keys to success for young entertainment executives.

Human nature hasn't evolved much during the past million years or so, but one extraordinary change has transpired only recently: The entertainment business is morphing so fast that when industry veterans toss out phrases like "back in the day," they might be referring to last week.

When it comes to film, television and representation, something that seems antiquated could date back only as far as the "dark ages" of dial-up. This rapid change, say today's leaders, has resulted in a landscape where passion, intelligence and drive matter more than ever before and the ability to multitask is a given. Charming it up at the Ivy? Not so much anymore.

"I think the amount of change and the speed of change is much more rapid and intense than it was when I was coming up," Picturehouse president Bob Berney says. "I think you have to be much more adaptable, much more flexible. Even though it was always our mantra in the indie world, it's even more true now. There's more to know, and things shift overnight. Even this year, we're seeing rapid changes in the media mix -- from newspapers to the Internet -- that are going to affect us for years."

A mere 10 years ago, it was possible to learn the skills required for a job and use them to do that job exceptionally well. Today, things are far more complex. Think about this: That same decade ago, people entering the business were still listing word-processing skills on their resumes, as if being computer-literate were something to be heralded. Staying on the cutting edge these days means not only sitting in front of a computer but keeping one's otherwise-occupied eyes and ears open.

"People in their 20s who show up as interns and in entry-level jobs are much further along in navigating the Internet and knowing how to do things electronically than those of us who packed typewriters off to college," says Jonathan Wald, senior vp business news at CNBC and a former executive producer of NBC's "Today."

But one shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief because he or she can cruise, read, text-message a lunch date and take a conference call, all at the same time. Young executives who really want to succeed also must find time to read promising novels, watch movies from up-and-coming directors and listen to the hottest new bands.

"It has always been a seven-day week," HBO entertainment president Carolyn Strauss says. "But it used to be the car ride was your sanctuary -- no longer. Maybe it's because I'm older, but I felt like I used to know every new band, and I do put a lot of that down to the fact that I'm on the phone all the time and not listening to the stuff I used to in my car."

Feeling lost or overwhelmed? Wondering what your contribution to the world might be? Better pack that knapsack and head to India. Determination and a decisive nature are de rigueur for young executives; moving to Los Angeles and waiting for a career to fall into one's lap is unwise.

"One needs to be even more committed than when I was coming up, when I think you could sort of find your way with a little luck and a little appetite and a little bit of serendipity," says UTA independent film group co-head Jeremy Barber, who began his career as an entertainment lawyer. "There was no plan to my path, and I think you couldn't get to where I am now simply by liking movies, hanging out with people and getting lucky."

Although Zola Mashariki began her career in a field other than entertainment, she agrees with Barber. Mashariki gave up practicing law in Manhattan in 2000 and moved to the West Coast to take an internship at Fox Searchlight. Now a vp production at that specialty division, she is quick to point out that her resolve to complete the task at hand -- whatever it might be -- has never wavered.

"I loved law, but (the movie industry) was something that was my passion that I wanted to try, and this is the thing I love the most," Mashariki says. "But it's not that the time I spent in New York was 'finding myself' because I had a strong sense of what I wanted -- I was always driven."

For Toby Emmerich, who worked in the music business before becoming New Line's president of production, changing fields required writing a spec script to prove he understood what it takes to make a movie happen. "I didn't have currency in the development side until I wrote (2000's Dennis Quaid starrer) 'Frequency,'" he says. "For me, it was about finding a way to have more control."

On the bright side, one no longer needs to make an unwavering commitment to a specific discipline within the business. "Because of the digitizing of entertainment, there's a vast opportunity," Fox Searchlight president Peter Rice says. "Content is becoming delivered in a similar way, so there's more ability to say, 'I'll go work for a Web company or a cable TV company or a network.' Both in front of the camera and behind, people are mixing and matching stuff more than ever before."

And while studios might be decreasing the number of movies on their slates, "Breakthrough indie films like (2002's) 'My Big Fat Greek Wedding' or (2004's 'The Passion of the Christ') show that there's no ceiling," Berney says. "You don't have to be part of any stratum or the studio world. The possibilities are much greater, and we've learned success can happen anywhere."

While that might be true, chances are success will happen quickly or not at all. Movies open and close in rapid succession, TV series -- even critically lauded ones -- can come and go in the blink of an eye, and audiences are turning their ever-shorter attention spans to the next great gadgets faster than wily technology companies can churn them out.

What does that mean for young executives hoping to climb the corporate ladder? Make a good impression as soon as possible because there probably won't be enough time simply to put one's head down and work hard.

"There's a frenetic pace to everything," Strauss says. "The gestation period of things is much quicker, so I don't think the talent has the seasoning time it used to have, whatever your art form. There are so many outlets people burn through, and there's an institutional impatience with everything, so there aren't a lot of second chances for people, which is unfortunate."

Adds David Lonner, co-head of WMA's motion picture department: "The obviously radical change in the industry is in terms of the amount of films being made. When you have Walt Disney (Studios) cutting back from 18-22 films to eight to 10, and Sony doing 12 instead of 24, that makes the landscape much more competitive."

Like Strauss, Lonner notes that the contraction means young executives are being granted fewer opportunities to take chances on risky material. "A lot of people are operating in fear right now as the shelf life of executives becomes more and more based on financial returns," he says. "I was having lunch with my client (writer-director) Michael Tolkin, and we were talking about whether you could get (2002's Ben Affleck/Samuel L. Jackson starrer) 'Changing Lanes' made now for a regular studio, and the answer is definitively not."

But even with the uncertainty that comes with the changes affecting the entertainment industry, established professionals point out that the core values of a good leader -- hard work and enthusiasm -- remain the same. "Here's the thing: There are plenty of bozos who stay in the business, but if you work hard and juggle a lot, good things seem to happen," Benderspink partner JC Spink says. "Determination and stick-to-itiveness are the keys to anything."

Combine that with talent and passion, and a young executive is on his or her way. "Look at the most successful people -- Jeffrey Katzenberg, David Geffen, Brian Grazer and Joel Silver, to name a few," Spink says. "They're working all the time. Jerry Bruckheimer is not phoning it in by any means. He's working as hard as he did 20 years ago because he loves it."

Adds Rice: "I've always felt that someone in my business needs to love movies. We're not second-guessing what the audience likes -- we are the audience. You have to have a pure sense of discovery."

When Lonner needs a reminder as to why he chose his career, he thinks back to his days as a messenger at WMA, trying to deliver scripts to homes in the canyons near Hollywood and finding himself lost. "I would be having primal screams," he says. "The thing that would keep me going was thinking, 'What else would I want to do?'"