Yesterday, the daughter of a friend of mine called me up for advice. She is graduating from college soon, and she’s interested in a career in the entertainment business. Her father had arranged the call, and I asked him what I usually ask when I’m about to have this conversation with the child of an old friend.
“How do you want me to spin it?” I asked. “Encouraging and upbeat or bitter and discouraging?”
“Just tell her the truth,” he said. And then he added: “But her mother and I wouldn’t mind if you struck a more cautionary tone. I don’t think we can afford to support her for another four years.”
“Got it,” I said.
When she and I got on the phone, I told her the following story:
I once went to a party at a giant house in Malibu Canyon.
It was one of those houses with lots of outdoor gazebos and trellises and pools and decorative ponds. Enormous stones from some exotic river had been sent across an ocean in a shipping container, dragged through the canyon by smoking and squealing trucks, arranged along the pathways of the artificial creek, and dramatically uplit.
It was the kind of place that you walk around and think, “This house belongs to a Bond villain.” I expected piranhas in the koi ponds and guys in matching orange jumpsuits.
I don’t know how the inside looked because we weren’t allowed inside. There was a big guy by the terrace doors with a thingy in his ear and an intentionally unfriendly look. He was telling everyone who approached that the “home is closed to guests, the party is an outdoor affair”—in a way that suggested that he had memorized the sentence phonetically.
Whose house was it? Honestly, I have no idea. It was a fundraiser kind of thing. I don’t think the owner was even there.
I was a “plus one,” which is my usual position at these affairs—I never get invited to anything—but no one could really tell me, as I walked around the place, who owned it. Or how the owner had become so rich. And it wasn’t like I was being subtle, either. By the third glass of wine, I was walking around the place and asking everyone, with Chardonnay-inspired frankness, Hey, anyone know how this guy got so rich?
He’s in the entertainment industry, a passing waiter told me. “Really?” I asked? “Is he a director or a producer or an actor or something?” No, I was told, he was one of those guys who took DVDs and repackaged them for different global zones, back when that was necessary.
I didn’t really understand what that meant, but by that time I had lost interest in the explanation, as had the explaining waiter. Which is typical of people like me, who write or direct or act or produce. We like to think of the entertainment industry as just a bunch of show people like us, with varying degrees of talent and luck. That’s what people think of, anyway, when they think of “Hollywood”—a collection of creative misfits making filmed entertainment for the globe.
But the truth is, the real entertainment industry is a collection of small businesses—like my host’s, often lucrative businesses—that have little to do with the splashy and often money-losing stuff that the noisy people do. We forget that we’re a small moving part in a big set of gears.
I tried to explain this to the daughter of my old friend. “Do you know who Lyle Waggoner was?” I asked.
Lyle Waggoner was a recurring performer on the old Carol Burnett Show and later a series regular on the 1970’s-era television series Wonder Woman. He had the looks—and the range of expression—of a Ken Doll, practically zero comic timing, but he had one crucial insight into the workings of the movie and television business.
Studios and production companies rent an enormous number of portable trailers for their productions. Some of them are deluxe units for the stars, some of them are for hair and makeup teams, and some are just places for the crew and background actors to go to the bathroom. Before Waggoner’s eureka moment, these were provided by a hodgepodge of rental companies and in varying states of cleanliness and luxury.
Lyle Waggoner’s entrepreneurial venture was to buy a lot of old trailers, fix them up, and rebrand them as “Star Waggons”—get it?
Within a few years, his company’s trailers were all over Hollywood. Lyle Waggoner was inarguably a bigger deal in Hollywood and a more central part of the entertainment industry when he was renting portable toilets than when he was portraying Major Steve Trevor in The New Adventures of Wonder Woman.
“Do you understand what I’m trying to say about being successful in the entertainment business?” I asked my young friend.
“Not really,” she said.
So I asked her what she thought of the movie Taking a Shot at Love, which was a huge success for the Hallmark Channel. So far in 2021, the Hallmark Channel is the number-two entertainment cable network in total viewers and households. It is regularly the number-one network among women ages 18 and up.
She hadn’t seen it, of course. She had seen parodies of Hallmark movies, and she was generally aware of the genre but had never sat down to watch one. She hadn’t seen Taking a Shot at Love or A Timeless Christmas (3.4 million viewers on its first airing; most-watched cable entertainment program of the week) or for that matter an episode of Darrow & Darrow, a very successful Hallmark mystery series that has been running for three years.
The key to Hallmark’s success is that it delivers slight variations on a popular theme. Hallmark is insulated from the ups and downs of show business because its leaders found a formula that works. In the same way, Lyle Waggoner was protected from a waning career by realizing that actors need a comfortable place to sulk and everyone needs to go to the bathroom.
When you say you’re “interested in working in the entertainment business,” I told my friend’s daughter, you really should look at the industry as a whole—not just the shiny glamorous parts, which are often just a matter of being lucky. What keeps people from being successful in Hollywood is often sheer snobbery. They don’t want to rehab trailers or format DVDs or make predictable Christmas movies. They’re not interested in the entertainment business, they’re only interested in a tiny part of it. The cool part.
I knew I was making an impression when she asked me about the party in Malibu. “Did you ever find out whose house that was?” she asked.
They told me, I said, but I had never heard of him. Which made sense, because until five minutes before, I had never even heard of the category of the business that he was in, despite the fact that we’re both in show business.
He and I are splashing around in opposite ends of a very big pool. He’s in the end with the Moorish tile and the Jacuzzi jets and the swim-up bar, and I’m at the end with the foam noodles and the noise and the kids who suddenly look away with an abstracted expression.
It’s the same pool. It’s all part of the entertainment industry. It’s just that one of us is dependent on writing a hit television show and winning an audience and the other has found an income stream where it really doesn’t matter if you’re good or popular. Lyle Waggoner rented trailers to hit shows and flop movies alike.
You have a choice, I said. You can be part of the risky and unpredictable and often soul-crushing part of show business, or you can have river stones all lit up at night.
Now do you understand what I’m saying? I asked my young friend. I think she did. Her father tells me she’s talking to another one of our friends next week. He’s a venture capitalist in Palo Alto.
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