Thursday, January 04, 2007

Studio Politics (Again)

You remember the stock spiel I give to disgruntled studio employees? Usually after they're laid off after some argument or altercation with some higher up? And they're ticked about it? The spiel goes something like this:

"Don't ever get the idea you don't do the political thing. If you're breathing, you're playing. And you're either playing well, or so-so, or badly. But you're playing."

This struck me yesterday (again) when I was over at the Diz Feature Animation hat building. I was walking around doing my usual last minute hand out of 401(k) forms. A few of the people who hadn't survived the December 11 and 12 cuts were lamenting how they had rubbed some administration person or supervisor the wrong way, and how maybe that was why they were getting their walking papers now.

And I said how there wasn't really any way to know, since nobody was going to tell them. ("Yeah, you aced yourself when you argued with Stanley six months ago. We put a black mark next to your name right then and there. We knew you were finished.") I said that it was a safe bet that staff wasn't culled strictly on the merits; I've heard too much testimony to the contrary.

And while I told them this, I thought back to one of the moments when I didn't play it right at the House of Mouse: I was in a meeting in a second-floor story room of the old animation building, working on Oliver & Company with Pete Young and George Scribner. Pete asked me to take notes about what was being discussed.

Pete Young at the time of the stress and trouble...

Like everybody else at Disney Animation in mid-'eighty-five, I was under stress. I was working on two features just then, running from Glendale to Burbank. And like everybody else I didn't know if the new management team of Eisner-Katzenberg was even going to keep animation going. And I did something really stupid.

I looked at Pete and snapped: "I'm not a secretary."

It was a bad thing to say. The wrong thing to say. And Pete went rigid and glared at me and from that moment on froze me out. Because I wasn't a team player. Helping him when he needed help and had asked for help.

I didn't know it then, but it was the first nail in my professional coffin at Disney (more were to follow).

So when people over the last few weeks have talked to me about stupid moves they've made under yet another new management team at Walt Disney Feature Animation, I know exactly what they are talking about. But's not within most people's power to know how some stupid crack they make will be received, or whether last month's argument with the production coordinator will result in a negative report that ends up in some studio file or data base.

And most people would go crazy trying to puzzle all of that out. ("Did I say??"... "Should I have said?"...) We are the bundle of talent and personality that we are, and we have to go through life using them as best we can.

I guess what I've decided after ricocheting around this crazed and crazy business for thirty years is, you have to be aware of studio politics, but you can't wrap your existence around them. Trying to calculate all the bank shots will just make you nuts. Better to do the best job you can, work to avoid unnecessary fights, and leave it at that.


Anonymous said...

Interesting thoughts, Steve.

People use to tell me I was playing with fire by continually drawing cartoons about my superiors while working at numerous studios throughout my career.

I've always hated politics, and made it a point not to play that stupid game. I've drawn cartoons from everyone from good old Bill and Joe, John Lasseter, Steve Jobs, and yes -- even Walt Disney. I figured if those guys could take it -- those lower on the food chain could take it as well.

I've never lost a job over doing or saying the wrong thing. Probably just over my usual incompetence.

Anonymous said...

Floyd, you're an affable, level-headed guy. Which was why you never had troubles politically.

Me? Part of me is neither affable nor level-headed. Which was why I did have trouble.

Luckily, I have mellowed a bit with age.

Anonymous said...

So, is it play the politics well or not at all? Should we just be yes men and women? Don't rock the boat and you keep your job? Is that not the perfect recipe for mediocrity, cronyism & nepotism. And movies with crappy stories?

- anonychaz

Anonymous said...

You miss the point. Everybody plays politics (there's no choice.)

So everybody has to decide what their priorities are. It's good to decide beforehand what's important to go to the mat over, and what not.

I had a person walk into my office who lost a job arguing about nipples on a character. He -- the artist -- wanted them, but the director didn't. The artist refused to compromise, (i.e., not draw the nipples), and the artist was soon gone.

Like I say. Pick your battles. Personally, I don't think nipples/no nipples is a battle that should be fought. But hey, that's me.

Anonymous said...

You know what? I'd say that unless the artist you're trying to get through to is still very young and truly green they probably can't/won't benefit from this excellent advice...that the ones who need most to take said advice get in trouble because they just can't see how they come off. Of course that's no reason not to continue to offer it, but I've seen over & over again people in the danger zone who obstinately self-implode when it would have been easy to avoid a bullet with the smallest of changes in behavior...but some folks just won't change(or again, can't).
But again--there's the mistakes of pure inexperience and youth and those kinds of boo-boos I've seen rectified many times, too by guys who do live & learn.

Anonymous said...

But is it possible for one to ever see what is written in these "secret" files? To actully know for real what is being said? Or are we just stuck with our paranoid fantasies?

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately I think all of us have been guilty of being the "angry young artist" or just being stupid and accidentally stepping on a landmine or two and not being aware of it at the time. If anyone thinks they are teflon and immune from politics and negative reations than they just have never heard from the right source. Even as we get older it's not always easy to be careful of what is said in confidence, bravado or stupidity - and as I know, the interent makes that even easier these days. Now I try to be a little more cautious, but it's not always easy to know when what you might think is an innocent remark might be a challenge to someone's authority.
Steve, I either heard someone describe your incident to me or I was there because it sure is clear in my mind down to your expression and everyone else's as well. There were a lot of 'weird' politics going on at that time and a lot of 'angry young men' - not just you. I supsect things would have been different if Pete had survived because it was right after his death that things changed drastically on Oliver&Co. Maybe they would have happened anyway, but I think Pete was the linchpin on that project. There were politics being played (even by Pete) that I don't think any of us were very aware of at the time. None of us foresaw what great things were to come at that time and there was a definant negative and a sense of hopelessness during those days.

Anonymous said...

I don't know about "secret" files, but the studios that do reviews certainly do show the reviewee in black and white what the pros and cons are. Copies are given to artists as well as discussed with them. How the reviews are arrived at is through canvassing various superiors in confidential(yes,"secret")conversations and no studio or employer has to show anyone those. The point is that it often turns on how much people enjoy-or don't enjoy-working with you just as much as it does the quality of your work. Because getting along with the crew IS part of the quality of your work. Filmmaking is collaborative.

Steve Hulett said...

Because getting along with the crew IS part of the quality of your work. Filmmaking is collaborative.

Yep. This is the gist of it. And it's amazing the number of people who don't realize this.

But then, I was a young nincompoop once, too. Now I'm older, a little wiser, but in many ways no smarter.

You trip over landmines all the time, often without knowing it.

Anonymous said...

Heh--I was all that and more too, Steve(anonymous you quote above being me). You live & learn--either the hard way--or by taking some great advice. What you say here is gold and it does apply to everyone.

Steve Hulett said...

But is it possible for one to ever see what is written in these "secret" files? To actually know for real what is being said? Or are we just stuck with our paranoid fantasies?

Here's something: There's a few artists and techs (not many) who I know a lot about from third-party sources. How they're preceived by a particular supervisor, how they're not.

And I know there's a misperception by some of these indvidual artists because they think, based on what they've told me, that "so and so" thinks they're swell. And I know that so-and-so doesn't think that.

And in most of these cases, I keep my mouth shut because a) So-and-so wants me to, and b) I know from personal experience with a given artist that telling them the real reason they weren't retained for the second season or laid off or whatever would just make them crazed and make the situation worse, so why bother? In most cases, they also wouldn't learn much from what I said.

This, by the way, also applies to me. I know damn well that some people tell me one thing to my face and quite another behind my back. I know I'm not management's favorite person (no union rep is, and I'm a more active and meddling union rep than many of my kind.)

I mostly don't take the above crap personally for long, because there's no profit in it. When you're a union rep you irritate many people just by breathing. But it sort of part of the job description, so what're you gonna do?

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