Once I had a lot of stuff to get rid of, so I gathered it all in a big pile and called someone in the trash-hauling business to come and cart it away. That’s the key detail: I called somebody who was specifically in the trash-hauling business.
So the next day an old rattling truck creaked up the alley, and a bunch of vaguely seedy characters hopped off and started piling my stuff into the back of the truck. The raggediest guy turned out to be the owner of the enterprise, a guy named Terry. He and I chatted briefly as he barked orders at his crew.
“What business are you in?” he asked, kicking though some of the piles of my throwaway possessions.
“I’m a writer,” I said. He nodded sagely.
“I’m an actor myself,” he said. “But I also produce.”
He was sifting through my stuff for items he wanted to save—but when he looked into the cracked mirror leaning against the rusty mountain bike in my garage, what he saw was: Terry, Actor-Producer. In Los Angeles, this isn’t unusual.
Everyone here knows that show business has its ups and downs. No one ever gets to the top in an unbroken series of sunny days. So my rule is this: If you say you’re an actor, fine: You’re an actor. If you say you’re a producer, I’m all in: You’re a producer.
And also: Being a writer-producer has been my actual, contractual, widely accepted job title for nearly 33 years, and most days I don’t produce anything at all and the only thing I write is a to-do list. What’s worse, between 1993 and 2007, I would be described in professional biographies and bottom-of-the-article identifiers this way: Rob Long is a television writer and producer. His production company is based at Paramount Studios.
Production company! That conjures up an image of multiple assistants buzzing around, making clickety-clackety noises on the polished floor, running in and out of creative meetings and story conferences. Instead, we had an office and a bathroom and a surly assistant, and most afternoons we would stick damp towels under the doorjambs to keep our cigar smoke from wafting throughout the building, which would trigger a visit from Paramount Studios Security to remind us that smoking in the workplace is a violation of Section 5148 of the California Occupational Safety and Health law.
What made it a “production company” was two things. One, a piece of paper: It said so on the contract. And two, a title card at the end of every episode we produced with a company logo—two cigars in an ashtray, as it happened—and our names. The industry term for that item is vanity card, which perfectly describes its true purpose. It didn’t mean anything, but it sure made us feel important. (Additional benefit: It cost the studio nothing.)
That was, as I said, until 2007, which was the beginning of a strike of the Writers Guild of America against the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers. When that strike ended in 2008, money was tight, and there was a big reduction in the number of production deals. All that was left for a lot of us after that major contraction was the vanity card.
Now that the 2023 Writers Guild strike is over and show business is recovering from 146 days of total inactivity, it’s pretty clear that the “major” contraction in 2008 is about to seem quaintly “mini.” Since May 2, 2023, when the strike was called, the assorted CEOs, bankers, investors, and money-suppliers who have kept Hollywood in an unrestrained spending frenzy for the past decade or so haven’t had much to do. So while the writers marched around the studio gates holding up signs with catchy slogans, their counterparties in the executive suites had time to reflect on the madness of building about 100 new streaming services that no one is watching and producing 600 scripted television shows that no one can find.
The best way to measure the difference between the entertainment industry in 2008 and the industry today is to examine the changing nature of the production company. In the early 2000s, the “companies” were just names on a contract and figments of the creative imagination of the producers. They had no assets and no independent value. They were a flattering way to describe a very old Hollywood relationship: a writer under contract.
For the past few years, a very different kind of production company has emerged. Maybe some of these names sound familiar. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have a production company valued at $100 million, which is about $20 million more than Higher Ground Productions, which is owned by Michelle and Barack Obama. Sports figures such as LeBron James, Steph Curry, and Peyton Manning have production companies of their own, with LeBron’s topping around $700 million in valuation. Most famously, Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine Productions was valued at $900 million.
And by “valuation” I don’t mean some hypothetical vanity valuation. No, all of those names—and many, many others—received huge investments from private-equity shops, entertainment conglomerates, and deep-pocketed investors in the expectation that a company helmed by a famous name would generate big hits and dependable profits.
This wasn’t a crazy idea. In a world of 600 scripted shows on television, you need something to stand out and cut through the clutter. This is what drove the studio system from the 1920s to the 1960s, when movie studios kept a stable of stars on the payroll. More stars than there are in the heavens was how MGM described itself. And when Hollywood was releasing 2,000 movies per year, and theater marquees were stacked with titles, it mattered who was starring in what. We’re facing the same overproduction challenges now. And that’s why famous names and faces still deserve the big bucks.
But not the insane bucks. If you look at the actual economic performance of many of these talent-driven production companies, the results are lackluster and (mostly) hitless. Paying his contract stars gigantic salaries made sense for Louis B. Mayer. Valuing Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine at nearly $1 billion (as private-equity outfit Blackstone did in 2021) leads to what an entertainment industry investor described to me as “very sad math.”
What happened between 2008 and 2023 was that a lot of people—investors, financiers, and talented actors and personalities—forgot that a “production company” isn’t a real company (and shouldn’t be) and that the card at the end of the final credits is a vanity card. Many usually hard-nosed investors made a classic rube’s mistake. They mistook the set dressing for the real thing. For the past five months, they’ve had time to total up their mistakes. Look for the end of the expensive, money-losing, celebrity-driven production company, and look for the resurgence of the other kind, the fake kind. (My kind, in other words.)
I’m glad that I didn’t let Terry and his workers take out of my garage the stack of framed prints of our old vanity card.
When they were done carting the rest of my stuff, I gave him his money and he gave me a few of his business cards to hand out to my friends. The card said Trash Hauling, Junk and Toxic Waste Removal and then beneath that: PRESENTED BY TERRY.
“Presented?” I asked.
“I like the sound of it. Gives it pizazz.”
Which it does. My vanity card had two cigars in an ashtray. Terry’s vanity card has the word “presented” in an odd and hilarious context. In the wake of the 2023 strike, there’s going to be less of everything in show business. Except for vanity. And that, as we know, is the cheapest thing to satisfy. All you need is a card.
Photo: Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP
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