Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘James Andrew Miller

Live from Silicon Valley

leave a comment »

Last week, on an impulse, I picked up a used copy of Live From New York by Tom Shales and James Andrew Miller, an oral history of Saturday Night Live that came out more than fifteen years ago. I honestly don’t know why it took me so long to get to it—it’s a fantastic read, particularly if you allow yourself to browse at random, and it seems to have singlehandedly kicked off the oral history boom that has become pervasive enough to be the object of satire itself. There are countless anecdotes that I’d love to turn into the subject of a post, but I’ll start with this one, from legendary comedy writer James Downey:

Lorne [Michaels] at the time was anxious to get into movies in a big way, and he had a deal with Paramount. And different writers and teams of writers—like Tom Schiller wrote a movie—each had movie ideas. Lorne was pushing [Al] Franken and [Tom] Davis and myself the most to do a movie. But we didn’t really have an idea. We had the deal before we had the idea, which is not a good way to do anything. So from like the summer of 1980 on and off for the next two years, we just in a desultory way wrote the screenplay, which once we finished it Paramount was then able to officially reject.

The italics are mine. And while it’s tempting to agree that you should start with the idea, that’s often not how it works in Hollywood. Instead, like Michaels, you get a development deal, which amounts to a bet by a studio that you’re talented enough to eventually come up with something interesting.

And you don’t just see this in the entertainment industry. Yesterday, my wife brought my attention to a post on Hacker News with the title “We have a great team and capital but can’t find a good idea.” The poster noted that he had a group consisting of himself and two friends, one with a lot of money from a stint in private equity, the other with a doctorate in computer science. They had “investors that are willing to write blank checks” and “cash in the bank to continue experimenting,” but they were missing one crucial element. The poster elaborated:

We have read everything on how to come up with startup ideas (ranging from Paul Graham essays to The Mom Test). We have ran interviews with friends in corporate and startups, asked old colleagues, attended conferences, organized meetups in our city, a ton of time spent networking, etc. The few product ideas we came up with following the above process we dropped, often because we discovered that that space is ultra crowded or commoditized. We will not give up but are getting unsure on how to break the stalemate. Any tips or advice?

The suggestions, not surprisingly, ranged from “stop looking for ideas and…start looking for problems” to hiring an “idea generator” to getting out of the game entirely. (My favorite: “Find an unsexy domain that you have more access to than the average person. Start to build domain expertise in that area as quickly as you can…Loop back with the people in the unsexy industry to get feedback.” I like this because it’s basically how I wrote my book.)

It’s easy to smile at this sort of thing, but it reflects an assumption that still permeates much of Silicon Valley, which is that what matters isn’t the idea, but the team. Hacker News is an affiliate of the startup incubator Y Combinator, which essentially provides development deals for promising entrepreneurs, with a business philosophy to match. In his book The Launch Pad, Randall Stross says of its cofounder Paul Graham: “Graham is much more interested in the founders than in the proposed business idea. When he sees a strong team of founders with the qualities that he believes favor success, he will overlook a weak idea.” Elsewhere, Graham himself has written:

The fact is, most startups end up nothing like the initial idea. It would be closer to the truth to say the main value of your initial idea is that, in the process of discovering it’s broken, you’ll come up with your real idea…Since a startup ought to have multiple founders who were already friends before they decided to start a company, the rather surprising conclusion is that the best way to generate startup ideas is to do what hackers do for fun: cook up amusing hacks with your friends.

And the notion that the team itself is what truly counts has led to a lot of talk, legitimate or otherwise, about the concept of the pivot, in which a startup that began by doing one thing abruptly decides to do something else.

In fact, the underlying point here seems sound enough. Ideas are cheap, and incubators are probably right in investing in founders rather than in concepts. If I had the money to be a venture capitalist, I’d do the same thing. But in the end, the real test of the team is its ability to generate and execute a good idea. (Most people who get development deals of any kind have already managed to do it at least once.) And you only get the tools that you need to do anything well by coming up with ideas on your own and taking them as far as you can. Just as you can learn vastly more from writing a novel from scratch than from fanfic or ghostwriting somebody else’s book, shepherding an idea to start to finish is the most reliable way of developing certain indispensable skills. As Chris Rock says in Live from New York:

The best thing about the show is that when you did write a piece, you were responsible for it. You were in charge of the casting. You were in charge of the costumes. You produced the piece. I wouldn’t know what the fuck I was doing if I hadn’t been on Saturday Night Live. It’s the absolute best training you can have in show business.

You could say much the same thing about any project, as long as you see it to the end. Its lifespan may not be any longer than that of your average comedy sketch, but its lessons remain—which is just another way of saying that ideas and experience emerge from the same cycle. And the apprenticeship is necessarily brutal, in Silicon Valley or anywhere else. As Martin Short puts it elsewhere in the same book: “You’re a star on Saturday night, but if forty-eight hours later you haven’t come up with an idea, you’re a failure.”

The titanium briefcase

leave a comment »

John Hughes

I don’t have a lot of time to read for my own pleasure these days, but over the last week, I found myself plowing through all seven hundred pages of Powerhouse: The Untold Story of Hollywood’s Creative Artists Agency by James Andrew Miller. Admittedly, I didn’t read the whole thing with equal attention: it’s an oral history, and like many products of that genre, it’s uneven. It skips over entire years in a few paragraphs and devotes three pages to an anecdote about product placement in the Entourage movie. More disturbingly, it leaves out what feels like necessary material. If you remember anything about the superagent Michael Ovitz, who was once described as the most powerful man in Hollywood, it’s the spectacular fall from grace that ensued after he blamed his public implosion on the “gay mafia” in an interview in Vanity Fair. There’s no mention of it here—an omission that I suspect has something to do with Ovitz’s extensive participation in the project. Instead, we get a lot of inside baseball about the career paths of agents who names will mean nothing to most readers. Toward the end, I found myself skimming, and the book left me with a lot of raw data but no real sense of how CAA accomplished what it did. Yet I did finish it, and there were points in the middle where I was devouring hundreds of pages at a sitting, which speaks both to Miller’s abilities as an interviewer and to the fascination of the agency itself.

And I have the feeling that this book will become something of a bible, or a user’s manual, for a certain kind of hungry young person in Hollywood. Creative Artists Agency was the most significant force in the industry for decades on end: at one time or another, its clients included Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks, Martin Scorsese, Meryl Streep, Robert Redford, and Michael Crichton, all at the peaks of their careers. It mastered the art of packaging, in which a director and star were bundled internally with a screenplay and presented as a unit to a studio. CAA and its clients seem to have been involved in some capacity with every big movie of the last thirty years, and Miller’s book, not surprisingly, is crammed with good stories. There’s the saga behind Rain Man, for instance, which kicked around town for years—at one point with Dustin Hoffman attached to the Tom Cruise part and Jack Nicholson or Bill Murray under consideration for the title role—before the unworkable script was finally saved when Barry Levinson had the idea to turn it into a road movie. We hear of how Sean Connery, much to his chagrin, found himself committed to star in Just Cause without knowing it. Best of all, there’s the unbelievable saga of how Ovitz was offered the chance to run Universal, negotiated the richest pay package in studio history, and then walked away, opening the door for CAA cofounder Ron Meyer to take the job instead. As Peter Gruber puts it: “When you have yourself as an agent and you’re the client, you have a fool for the client.”


There are plenty of other juicy tidbits like this, although they can be hard to find. (The book, unforgivably, lacks an index.) But it’s all shot through with a kind of nostalgia for a brand of influence that no longer exists. I don’t think there’s any doubt that power in Hollywood has been simultaneously consolidated and leveled in ways that aren’t favorable to the agencies: the real value is concentrated in a handful of franchises controlled by the studios, especially Disney, and the talent above the line, while not exactly irrelevant, is more fungible. The practice of packaging a star and a director with a hot script isn’t entirely gone, but it’s not as relevant to the bottom line when billions are riding on Marvel and Star Wars sequels. If anything, the older model is a greater force in television, which I’ve elsewhere argued is the last place where traditional star power has any meaning. A recognizable name in a lead role still carries weight, as do original ideas, which allows the agency to remain a viable player. In fact, when we look back at the golden age of television, I have a hunch that we’ll find that it was driven in large part by a migration of talent on the agency side, as agents and their clients shifted their resources to a medium that was better equipped to exploit what they did best. CAA itself has been a major player in television for years: it famously turned a moldering spec script into ER, earning a huge payout for Crichton for doing basically nothing. And I suspect that it played a considerable role in television’s recent renaissance, although you won’t hear about it here.

But Powerhouse is still worth reading as a sort of dream book, or cautionary tale, of what Hollywood used to be, and could be again. My favorite story is told by the agent David Styne, who describes flying to a farm in Illinois in an attempt to sign John Hughes:

At a certain point John Hughes leaves and comes back with this titanium briefcase. And he opens it up, and he says, “There are fifteen completed screenplays that I’ve written in this briefcase that nobody has ever seen…What I’d like to do if it’s okay for you guys, let me tell you about some of these and I want you to be honest and tell me what you think.” So he starts pitching these movies, and he’s like the greatest pitcher of all time. He was pitching us these whole movies. So the first one—yeah, we like that. Second one—yeah, we like that…So after that, he says, “So, this next one is about a woman, she’s in a hospital in Chicago, she has an abortion, but the abortion is dumped out in the alley at night, and it’s like a partial abortion, and it lives. And this little baby boy kind of grows up in the alley, and he’s like this street urchin. And I call this one Partial Sid.”

The agents glance at each other and finally say: “No, we don’t think that’s a good idea at all.” And Hughes replies: “I am so glad that you guys said that, because Jim Wiatt put me with one of his agents at ICM, and I pitched him Partial Sid, and he said ‘John! That is genius! Johnny Depp is Partial Sid.’” The story tells you a lot about agents, of course, but what I love the most about it is the image of that briefcase full of ideas: it’s like the unattainable object in an agent’s dream. And I’d like to think that most agents still fantasize about finding it—and the writer to whom it belongs—and bringing glory once again to an industry of Partial Sids.

%d bloggers like this: