An old pal—let’s call him Hal—once told me the story of his first cool Hollywood car. It was over margaritas, chips, and a big bowl of killer homemade guacamole. Mine, to be honest. The recipe is a secret and if I told you I’d have to kill you. But my pal’s super bitchin’ show-off car wasn’t a secret. As he told the tale, it was a two-year old Jaguar. Low mileage. He was the assistant to a big time talent agent, having clocked twelve months on the power-dealer’s desk when the agent decided it was time to switch to a new ride. The assistant was tasked with arranging to sell the vehicle. Thinking his boss’s sleek black Jag was a good investment, he cashed out a savings account and arranged to purchase the car himself.

The next day, my friend was rollin’ in four wheels of high style. Though he wasn’t yet an agent himself, he sure as hell looked the part.

Some years later, as I was discussing business with my own agent, we got to talking about the Hollywood food chain and the importance of understanding precisely where one inhabits it at any given time.

“You remember your buddy Hal,” said my agent.

“Still is my buddy,” I replied.

“Well, do you know why he never made it to a full-fledged agent?”

“I don’t.”

“Remember that Jag he used to drive?”

“The one he bought from his boss?”

“Exactly my point,” he said. “He didn’t know his place. Assistants don’t drive Jags. Especially ones that used to belong to the guy whose desk you’re on.”

“Really stupid rule,” I observed. “So much about ego.”

“True. But hey. That’s the food chain.”

Now, for some this story makes perfect sense. For others it seems utterly without logic. Hal’s acumen for saving money and knowing a good deal when he saw one might speak of a potential keen business sense. Then again, his inability to understand the politics of the job space might reveal a genuine lack of neurosynaptic reasoning.

The film Swimming with Sharks comes to mind. George Huang’s incisive story bears a litany of moments alleged to be based on his real life experiences on then executive Barry Josephson’s desk. There’s the scene where Kevin Spacey’s character, Buddy Ackerman, describes to his assistant–played aptly by Frank Whaley–the perfect simplicity of the food chain. Big sharks eat littler sharks. Littler sharks eat fish, etc. etc.

If it sounds downright Darwinian, well, so be it. Scary? Well, that depends on perspective. I chose to read the food chain as informative.

Countless times I’ve been in meetings or on phone calls where producers or agents are making promises or assertions about the next step in the process.

“This is exactly what Alfonso Cuaron is looking for,” an agent might say. “I just had a signing dinner with him and this pretty much describes what he wants to do. I’ll send it right over to him.”

Translation? Maybe the producer knows the director. Maybe he even had dinner with him. Or maybe he was at a dinner attended by the director. Or perhaps in the same restaurant where the director was dining. The fact is, whatever this meeting or the resulting memo was, the agency made a big signing and is throwing every resource it has at the director in hopes to please its newest big-time client. That means every script, cast member, and notion for potential revenue is at their disposal. So it’s of veritable importance that despite the bona fide or bullshit representations of my agent, I needed to know where I was in the food chain and the process of my screenplay would undergo finding its laborious way to Alfonso’s reading pile. Otherwise, I might walk away from the meeting actually imagining my agent personally emailing my script directly to the director’s bedside iPad with a subject line that says: DROP EVERYTHING AND READ THIS NOW!

Not to say that might not happen. But so far, in my long and dubious career, little if anything has ever proceeded in a way that defies the physics of the almighty food chain. And here’s why it’s a good thing. My consistent and constant assessment of my own rung on the ladder informs me of where and how high to place my expectations; otherwise I might blow a few circuits when things don’t go my way.

For things might go like this:

There was this high-profile screenplay I’d written that had a superstar actor attached. Even better, a mega-major producer was on tap to, well, produce. The package was strong. All we needed was a stratagem to proceed to director, budget, then a hallowed green light. Only the superstar movie actor had a manager whom he’d attached to also produce. No big deal, I thought. Managers are routinely attached to the endless conga-line of producer credits we all read on movie screens. What harm could this manager-slash-producer do?

Well how’s this? The manager-slash-producer somehow got the idea that he was the alpha dog on the movie and began to throw his weight around. Okay. Not his weight. But the weight of his client, the superstar movie actor. Soon enough, the mega-major producer began to feel his nipples squeezed beyond his comfort level and–well–I expect you can see where this is going. Eventually, the whole dream package turned into a crap pile that nobody wanted to even scoop up, let alone make into a movie.

Of course, I was incensed. Not only because my movie had just been flushed, but because my agents, who also happened to rep the star and his idiot manager, were unable to collar the problem and make the bad boy heel. I mean, hell, they were my agents, too. And to my knowledge they hadn’t lifted a pinky in my or the movie’s defense.

So I did what any self-righteously indignant word-jockey would’ve done. I fired their three-letter ass. I picked up the phone, read the riot act to whoever would take my pissant call and relieved the agency of their duty.

Wrong move.

Luckily for me, reason returned to my sub-cortex before the bridge had fully caught fire and I remembered who and where the hell I was. Or more succinctly, my relative spot in that damned food chain.

Was I any less angry or disappointed that the movie was still in the dumpster? Not at all. But in the scheme of all Hollywood things, who the hell was I? Well, by my count, in that calendar year alone (and it was a banner financial year for me), I was roughly one fiftieth in billable commissions of the superstar movie actor and his imbecile-of-a-manager. Or for those who prefer decimals, point-zero-two percent. Which means whatever balls the agency possessed, the actor and manager had one hellish grip on ‘em. For me to imagine a solitary scribbler such as myself could come before their almighty bottom line was plain foolish.

Mind you. We’d all like to hope that our showbiz brethren would, at least every so often, rise to a moral cause and buck their own buck-seeking system. Alas, the biz isn’t made of heroes. It’s made not of art patrons but folks that expect a profit on the dollars they invest.

And when that doesn’t occur? Big fish eat the little fish. And so on and so forth.

Doug Richardson
Doug Richardson
Author and screenwriter. Books: THE LUCKY DEY THRILLERS: BLOOD MONEY, 99 PERCENT KILL, AND REAPER, THE SAFETY EXPERT, AND THE SMOKING GUN. Movies: HOSTAGE, BAD BOYS, DIE HARD 2.
  • ChRiS

    The food chain… One of the bad things that didn’t change in a million years.
    Thanks for giving us this insight into the industy, Doug.

    • Doug Richardson

      You’re welcome Chris from a guy who feels a million years old.

  • paul

    You pinpointed what has confused me about the industry. When a manager or a producer tells you something that you’re not happy with, are you just supposed to bite your tongue and go with it until you become a bigger shark? Often managers, producers, etc…. put together stuff that’s good for them, but not for you, and then just want you to be grateful that you even have that chance…. or they do stuff that actually is not in your interests….

    • Doug Richardson

      Paul. Agents and managers are almost ALWAYS going to do what is best for them. Their interest is YOU making them MONEY. If they are wise, they will manage you well so you both make out.

  • Andrea Snider

    Your insight and stories are immensely helpful to read. As a screenwriter myself, I have to keep remembering it’s called “show business” not “show art”. It’s extremely wise to know the rules of the food chain. But I will forever hold on to the love of the art… even if I have to keep it quietly hidden inside as I navigate the biz. Just keep swimming, just keep swimming… 🙂

    • Doug Richardson

      Appreciate the kind words, Andrea. And yes. Keep swimming. Learning. Growing. Consuming. Being consumed. You never know where the stream will take you.

      • Andrea Snider

        I agree wholeheartedly! I feel like my only job right now is to learn everything and anything I can. Your blog has so much to offer in that respect! I appreciate you taking the time to teach what you have learned and have come across in this crazy amazing town. Thank you!!!!

        • Doug Richardson

          Sweet. Glad you appreciate me. Now if I can just get you to buy a book or two and review it.;)

          • Andrea Snider

            Haha! Smart man. Will do. 🙂

  • Phyllis K Twombly

    And yet screenwriters get far better treatment than authors, especially when it comes to movies. Better quality of ocean, I guess. Another great article, Doug.

    • Doug Richardson

      Gracias Phyl.

  • John Thomas

    I get the food chain – experienced it in every business I’ve worked in.

    Here’s the part I don’t get – from a purely business perspective, it seems to be in the reps best interest to at least make an effort to prevent the movie from crashing and burning. Along the lines of “Yo, Mr. superstar, we’re totally behind you. But if this conflict continues, this movie you love is going to crash and burn, and nobody is going to make any money on it. Are you cool with that, or would you like us to try and moderate?”

    OK, ok, I really do get it. It’s just that as a business person, I never understand letting the ego get in the way of the business. It happens all the time, in every business I’ve been in, but I never get it. And I do tend to get in trouble for pointing out the obviousness of it all, so I’ve learned to respect my place in the food chain as well. *Sigh*. Welcome to Humanity 101. Vent your frustration by writing a script about it (e.g. Swimming with Sharks) and move on…

    But here’s a biz question for you – would it have worked if the superstar producer had walked, and then the throwing-his-weight-around manager/producer had taken over? In other words, what about this caused the movie to be trashed, rather than just becoming a rugby pass? Did Mr. manager/producer just not have the chops to get it done on his own?

    Thanks as always Doug, for the hard-earned wisdom.

    • Doug Richardson

      Good question(s) John. You have read between the lines and picked up the complications that would’ve made the post ten thousand words. Let me just blame it on egos tripping over other other egos, a studio trying to please everybody with an ego, and an underlying rights holder demanding all parties cease and desist.

  • John Thomas

    Ah, yes, that sounds much more reasonable…or, well, at least more like what I’ve learned to, um, appreciate about these kinds of situations.

    Great fun – ego and the law rarely mix well! (Come to think of it, does ego mix well with anything?)

    Thanks Doug!

  • Senator of 3rd Avenue

    Doug:
    Absent an email, I am burying this question to you: An old friend at a significant studio opened the door for me to a significant production head to read my television treatment. They are not really close, nor friends (not sure if that’s important). Production head tried to get a hold of my phone number (it was on the treatment, but whatever), and me three times in one day (thanks to an ineffective assistant on their end it was delayed). When we connected the following day Production head said that although networks are not clamoring for my genre of treatment because of cost, she “found it fascinating.” And, she said with no enthusiasm, nor dismissiveness, “If you have a pilot script I’d be interested in reading it.”
    Question: In Hollywood speak, from my description above, would you say that leans more towards just being polite, or does that lean more towards moderate interest? Although I am feverishly working on rewriting my pilot, though it’s been months, and the production head’s motivation is irrelevant since I am trying to put my best work forward, I’m looking for a dose of general insight. Thanks!
    Senator