When a writer pitches a project to a network or studio, the process is always the same: The writer is led into a large office with a bunch of young executives and a very junior executive, who is often a guy named Josh. Josh will be silent for the entire pitch but will take notes on a yellow legal pad throughout.
The pitch starts with small talk—Crazy weather and the traffic now! And the kids on the TikTok!—and then there’s a pause and everyone takes a breath and then the hapless writer, who is often me, begins the pitch. The minute I start talking, Josh starts scribbling.
About 20 minutes later, I wrap up the pitch. There’s usually some interactive question-and-answer exchanges, some clarifications, maybe another joke or two, and then everyone stops talking. There’s an uneasy silence. Then someone on the buyer’s side says something like this: This is fun stuff. Let us talk about it internally and get back to you.
That always sounds like a polite way to pass on the project, but in fact it’s just an honest acknowledgment of the way decisions are made in Hollywood today. The pitch will be digested and summarized in an email by Josh, discussed at the next meeting with the development team, the boss, and often the boss’s boss. The idea will be measured against whatever urgent checklist is in effect—the “cool” factor, racial diversity, sex and gender inclusion, opportunity to utilize existing talent deals, the buzz around the project or the writer, and maybe, possibly, also whether it seems like it might be a good show.
But in meetings and Slack messages and conversations over lunchtime salads, the most important question will be this: Does anyone else have a show like this? What is everyone else doing?
Newcomers to show business often make a crucial mistake when they pitch a show to a network. This is new territory, they’ll proudly exclaim. There’s nothing like it on television! There’s no quicker way to get your project rejected all over town.
The insistence that an idea is fresh and new does not have the cachet in the entertainment business that you might expect. Hollywood is a cautious and fearful place, which is why movie theaters and television screens are filled with sequels and reboots and comic book universes. Out here, we like to wait until someone else goes first with a new idea.
Out here, we do not believe it is the early bird who gets the worm. We believe it is the second mouse who gets the cheese.
It wasn’t always this way. Motion-picture studios and television networks used to have lean org charts. A handful of people across town would issue all of the green lights necessary to fill the nation’s movie theaters and airwaves with entertainment. The titans of the early days—Mayer, Goldwyn, Warner—and the cowboys of the television boom—Fred Silverman, Brandon Tartikoff, and HBO’s early impresario, Chris Albrecht—heard pitches, bought them instantly, made a lot of mistakes, and acted on gut instinct.
And that brings us to Sunday, March 27.
Just to recap: Comedian Chris Rock made a joke during the 2022 Oscar ceremony in which he poked fun at the medical condition of actress Jada Pinkett Smith. Seconds later her husband, Oscar nominee Will Smith, stormed the stage at the Academy Awards and slapped Rock hard across the face. Smith then marched angrily back to his seat and shouted obscenities for a bit. A rattled Rock tried to soldier on, but the evening had been irrevocably ruined.Forty-five minutes later, Will Smith—now an Oscar winner—took the stage to accept his statue. He gave a grandiose and incoherent speech, and although I am not licensed to practice psychiatric medicine in the state of California, it’s fair to say it was utterly nuts. The audience—or most of it—gave him a standing ovation.
I am told by people who were in the theater at the time that during the 45-minute interval between The Slap and The Speech, at each commercial interruption, Smith was swarmed by publicists and handlers and advisers all trying to figure out what to do next.
Of course, it was a fraught interval for everyone. As Team Smith tried to war-game the next moves on live television, the Motion Picture Academy leadership did the same. Early accounts claimed that Academy officials firmly asked Smith to leave the event, which sounded like a bold and decisive move and therefore probably untrue.
A source later clarified to CNN that Academy leadership “firmly asked” Smith’s publicist to ask the actor to leave the ceremony following the on-stage incident, but Smith “refused and that was communicated back to Academy leadership” through the PR team, which sounds weak and ineffectual and half-measured and therefore like the truth.
But what about the audience? What about the studio executives and media titans and assorted Hollywood grandees? What were they doing for 45 minutes?
Between The Slap and the Speech, each member of the audience convened a meeting of the internal development team every Hollywood decision-maker has running in his or her head all the time.
And after weighing the usual issues—the comparative box-office clout of the belligerents, diversity, inclusion, equity, race, violence, Black Lives Matter, what they’re saying on Twitter, the marketplace effects of making the wrong gesture or taking the wrong side—what it came down to was this: Both of the gentlemen involved are black, and most of the entertainment-industry executive class is white, so maybe the safest thing to do is sit quietly and wait for someone else to do something, and then if that seems to go well, jump up and do it yourself.
In other words: Fun stuff, let us talk about it internally and get back to you.
The Hollywood audience of 2022 spent 45 minutes running through the current urgent checklist and when the time was up, and Will Smith was holding his Oscar—wait, is someone standing up? Are we standing for this? Are people standing? Okay, I guess we’re standing.
They talked internally and then followed the crowd, instead of doing the obvious thing—the thing you do when a guest is out of control and throwing punches and screaming vulgarities, the thing Jack Warner or Lew Wasserman would have done instinctively—which is to throw the bum out immediately.
A thought experiment: Had the Academy kicked Smith out of the ceremony immediately he would have been unable to accept his award. No tearfully incoherent speech, no standing ovation, no let’s talk internally and get back to you. It’s highly likely that the Academy and the entire community would have thought, okay, enough. Smith was unable to clutch his statuette and sob theatrically, and for an actor that’s punishment enough. Crisis over.
Instead, the day after the ceremony, Monday morning, the Motion Picture Academy called a special emergency meeting of its leadership. For the following Wednesday, three days later. And then on that Wednesday, they announced that they were going to take clear and firm action. In two weeks. They needed to talk internally, you see, and get back to us.
In the interval, Smith preemptively resigned from the Academy, and it became clear from trade publications like the Hollywood Reporter and Deadline that the general wave of Hollywood sentiment had turned against him. A week later, the discussions were about how to punish Will Smith, not if he should be punished at all.
On April 8, about two weeks after The Slap, the Motion Picture Academy moved to expel Will Smith from its membership—and, by extension, its ceremonies and awards—for 10 years, which just proves that when Hollywood says we’ll get back to you they really mean it. But first, they need to see what everyone else thinks.
Ten years seems like a long time—Will Smith will be 63 when his ban is lifted—but a lot can happen in 10 years. With a carefully calibrated apology campaign, he could be back on the red carpet in four or five years. After all, Louis C.K., the disgraced comedian who was cancelled for sexually predatory behavior in 2017, won a Grammy five years later.
But for that to happen, Will Smith will have to atone for a lot. After all, he has done the unforgivable, which is to make Hollywood feel foolish.
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