Before I delve into the chronic misdeeds of our industrial showbusiness community, forgive me a paragraph or two to establish my credentials as your professor in this matter.
Much of my life in showbusiness until now has been defined by the work nobody in Hollywood actually wants to do, but that everyone would gladly take credit and experience for having done, if they could. For ten years, I learned the risks and rewards of producing by financing other people's indie films with cold-calls to potential film investors. Most of my life has been spent on stage, and my classical theater education grounds my directing work in the fundamentals of dramaturgy and live performance.
While I have literally lost count of how many screenplays I've written, I can say that eight have been optioned, sold, or written for hire - not counting the four I am producing myself. Between the producing, the years of finance calls, the years I've spent staring into one version or another of Final Draft and the decades I've invested in my theater community, I'm a product of habits that most people in Hollywood can't find the time to develop.
Many readers already know that in 2013, I was struck in the head by a sword during a film shoot and suffered a debilitating traumatic brain injury. Apart from the many humbling and sobering symptoms I experienced (which you can read about in my Stage 32 article, Reality Checks from an Inspirational Cripple, my injury put me at a very high risk of stroke - so to ensure that my life in showbusiness wasn't wasted, I wrote down and catalogued every single thing I knew at the time about building and maintaining success in entertainment. Among the many fruits that were borne by this exercise, I found a working definition of culture:
Our culture is the body of experience that people choose to have in common.
When circumstance forces a bunch of people together, whether it's in a job that everybody hates or through some kind of economic or social disadvantage, that shared experience does very little to promote trust between them. Pushed together, people are generally willing to betray or hurt one another to establish some kind of control over their own environment. In contrast, finding out that we share something personal in common with another person, like a religion, a hobby, an educational focus, a favorite book, movie, song, show, sport, an ethical or moral system - literally any experience that we have voluntarily invested ourselves in - means we have some insight into what that person is capable of. In this way, our shared experiences become a baseline of trust for all our communication with other people and for all our collaborative labors.
If our culture is underpinning of all our communication and group effort, then the quality of our culture is going to have a huge impact on the excellence of our endeavors as a society. As content creators, our job is to decide what experiences people can and should expose themselves to as the foundation for their relationships with other people. Our community is responsible for stewardship over the mindfulness and selflessness with which we build our values as a society.
When I was a kid, the least challenging way for a person to engage our culture was through sports. At the time, I resented the bullying and the disregard for intellectual pursuit that sports culture can promote. But as a ground-floor cultural standard, sports also promotes respect for hard work, the celebration of personal achievement, and the inherent value of cooperation. Remember when we could more or less assume everyone shared these values?
Today, the least challenging way to engage our culture is through reality television. Instead of actively choosing which experiences an audience should be exposed to, our industry has let itself be defined by the search for content which larger and larger numbers of people are willing to accept. After generations spent mining our marketplace for data guiding us towards those projects to which our audience will offer the least resistance, we have gradually built a culture that requires nothing from the audience at all. Innocently enough, all this was done so that when any given project fails to make money, no one person in the system can ever be blamed for the financial loss - but in exchange for corporate job security, this culture is now the framework by which we communicate all matters of politics, science, public health, ethics, morality, and belief to one another as human beings.
That, my friends, is how we came to the place we're at as a nation.
Rebuilding our cultural authority is a process that will take us decades, but it's a process we can all engage directly as content creators. Setting an example for our colleagues in the industry is obviously vital, and setting an example for the audience gives them the means to be more discriminating and to help us curate our culture. Here are two simple things that every one of us can do to fix this:
Fight the notion that success in Hollywood is a prize that gets handed out to whoever has the coolest idea or holds the winning lottery ticket.
If you haven't noticed it yet, that value system is a product of our reality TV culture. Instead, start investing in your craft as though you were training for the Olympics. Start investing in the people around you based on how much and how well they develop their own craft. Make it all about the work.
Specifically, look at the quality of your contributions to a show not just in terms of how present and dedicated you are on the day of production. Measure yourself with a critical eye toward the day-in, day-out training and preparation you put into making yourself the artist that you are. Be the best person for the job not just because of your creativity and attitude, but because no human being could possibly keep up with your daily, unrelenting pursuit of growth. Embrace the fact that there are some objective measures for greatness and mediocrity in the arts, and turn that truth to your advantage.
Be the strongest example of your craft, and whatever you create becomes your legacy.
Provide deliberate leadership to your community and audience. Get to know the craftspeople you're working with and the audience you're working for personally. Figure out what challenges these people and what excites them. Make some personal decisions about the work that would enrich their lives, and MAKE THAT. Be the person who's paying attention to the experiences these people are sharing in common, and offer them something that will help them grow together as a community.
Take personal responsibility not just for the work you do on a production, but for the impact that work is having on the audience and the community your productions are building. If you can offer that community your personal support, then use social media. Show up to events in person, even if it means volunteering. Get involved...
...because someone has to. Because that's our job. Because we create the tools by which people relate to one another, and because right now those people need our help.
Other Stage 32 Posts by Tennyson:
Tennyson E. Stead an award-winning writer and director who has written 25 screenplays in total, and sold or optioned eight. In addition to almost 30 years of production experience on stage and screen, Stead carries a decade of experience as an independent film development and finance executive. Today, Stead's primary labors revolve around writing, directing, and developing cinema and online content as the founder of a repertory film company called 8 Sided Films.
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