Tuesday, September 16, 2014

"Getting Down To Business"

I was an Executive Producer on my friend John’s show Kristin, a short-lived half-hour comedy starring Broadway superstar Kristin Chenoweth.  For me, being the Executive Producer on a friend’s series is primarily a job of Executive Adviser, sort of like the Chief of Staff for the President but involving less decisions about sending immigrant children back to poor countries and strategically bombing where you accidentally kill civilians.  (That, by the way, is specifically why we go into this business.  In our world, the only thing that can die is a show.) 

As Kristin’s Executive Producer, I co-wrote and co-rewrote all the scripts and made strategic recommendations concerning the direction of the show.  (Since Kristin failed, I should probably play down my participation.  But in truth, I enjoyed the experience and I believe I did some respectable work on it.  So sue me.)

What I did not do was participate in the business aspects of the operation, contract negotiations and such.  That was strictly John.


We wanted a Consulting Producer on our writing staff.  A Consulting Producer is a (usually established) writer, hired for a day or two a week to help shape up the script that is about to be produced.  Consulting is maybe my favorite job of all, as it combines substantial remuneration with great working conditions.  You may work long hours, but it is at most for two days a week.  The rest of the week, you lie down and you look at your check.

A good Consulting Producer injects fresh energy and a new creative perspective.  Everyone else on the writing staff is exhausted and quite often “too close” to the situation to objectively see what still needs to be done.  A high point in my career was serving as a Consulting Producer of Garry Shandling’s wonderful The Larry Sanders Show (a low point, serving in the same position on Sherman’s Hemsley’s Goode Behavior, where, during the rewrites, the show runners had the TV on set to CNBC, so they could see how their stocks were doing while they were working.) 

Consulting was a job I thoroughly enjoyed, and would do to this very day, if I were not seen as a legend, wherein “a legend” means being too old to be able to work anymore.

But I digress.

John wanted to hire a superior writer named Phoef as the Consulting Producer on Kristin.  (The name Phoef is so rare, when I Googled “Phoef”, his last name automatically popped up beside it, as if – and this may actually be the case  – there is only one “Phoef” in the entire universe.)

The problem was, Phoef’s agent was Elliot.  And John had an extended dis-relationship with Elliot, making him certain that the negotiations for Phoef’s services were unlikely to proceed amicably.  As it turned out, however, my agent was also Elliot.  And we had a pretty good relationship, considering I was a sensitive “creative” and Elliot was a cutthroat bottom feeder.  (Or so writers believed about agents, though we appreciated when our bottom feeders got us terrific contracts.)

As a result of this configuration, John persuaded (Read: instructed), me, his aesthetic consigliore, to negotiate the deal for Phoef’s consulting on Kristin with Elliot.  Do I, at this point in your knowing me have to write “I did not want to do that”?  Well, I didn’t.  But I was given no alternative.  So I did.

The price for Phoef’s services had already been agreed upon.  The sticking point in the negotiation was the following:  NBC had ordered twelve episodes of Kristin.  Phoef’s agent was demanding an “out” clause, so that if a more attractive opportunity came along, Phoef would be free to immediately leave Kristin and take the other job.  Our position was that though we wanted Phoef’s participation, it had to be guaranteed for the entire twelve episodes.

I was ready to be nervous.  But then I thought about this negotiation, and, astonishingly unexpectedly – as my business experience to that date had been minimal and I in no way saw myself as a “businessman”  – I knew precisely how to handle it.

I got Elliot on the phone, and in a surprisingly relaxed tone, I explained to him that since we considered Phoef’s involvement in the show vitally important, we could not agree to his departure before the end of twelve episodes.  We understood (I actually used the word “we”, without checking with anyone) that if Elliot found this condition unacceptable, we would lose Phoef’s participation, but that was simply the way it was.  We would take Phoef for twelve episodes, but not less.

I have to tell you, I entirely amazed myself with my performance.  And, by the way, we got Phoef for the whole twelve episodes.  Making me “one-for-one” or batting a thousand in “business negotiations.”  And it was so frickin’ easy!

You determine what you want and you hold strong to your position, understanding that, though you would greatly prefer things to go your way, you are ready to live with the possibility that they won’t. 

Is that business?  Is that all there is to it?  I could not believe it!  I thought business was screaming and name-calling.  I thought business was a duel to the death.  I thought business was lying and cheating and backstabbing and duplicity.  (And I don’t even know what duplicity is!)

I thought “business” was all the terrible things the sixties told me it was.  You mean
business is not about gouging the consumer and air-dropping poison on helpless poor people in Asia?

It turns out that, at least sometimes, business is just talking clearly about what you want and knowing what you are will to accept if you don’t get it.

Or is it?  This is a “sampling of one”, so I cannot speak with considerable authority on the matter.

Still, wouldn’t it be weird if, instead of being bad at business, I was actually pretty good at business?

And I had no idea,

Till I was out of it?

1 comment:

Andy Andy Diefenbaker said...

Thanks for reminding me - I bought Phoef's book, "Fifteen Minutes to Live." Knowing that he'd written for Cheers, I expected quality stuff and of course, humor. I just checked: I made it thru 44 pages. Just couldn't get interested. It is well written, it's just not grabbing me. Maybe I'll try again when I finish the current book.

I was/am a fan of Kristin Chenoweth, but I did not know she had a TV series. I had to look it up. Too many folks like me must have contributed to its downfall.

I made a living as a negotiator so I know that feeling of satisfaction when you 'win' one. And no matter how often you do it, nothing beats a win!