December 29th, 2010
Whether you realize it or not, the culture of Hollywood has permeated our society. Scientists and environmentalists have not been immune.
Do you really think you’re more virtuous than the people of Hollywood?
WHO THINKS THEY ARE MORE VIRTUOUS THAN HOLLYWOOD?
In the environmental world there is often a palpable element of virtuousness/self-righteousness/holier-than-thou of the sort that offends much of the public and stokes the fires of the anti-environmental movement. In the academic science world it is more like a naive belief in the ability to be “objective” and immune to bias in a country which today is filled with opinionation and self-promotion.
There may well have been a time, several decades ago when environmentalists were indeed more holier than average citizens and scientists were more objective. But that time is long gone. Today there is just a great deal of mass confusion and identity crises.
In 1994 I left the academic science world, cold turkey, moved to Hollywood, California, got myself an apartment in Beachwood Canyon right below the HOLLYWOOD sign, and began film school at U.S.C. It was a total, complete and absolute culture shock — much, much more than it would be for anyone today.
The reason it wouldn’t be as abrupt today is that the past decade has seen a homogenization of our culture thanks largely to the internet. In 1994 there was only the beginnings of email and the start of dial up access to the internet. The madness was just beginning. As a result, there was still a distinctive “culture” to Hollywood that took a lot of getting used to. I spent a lot of my first year of film school trying to learn about this culture, especially by talking with the “older” film students (almost all of whom were still a decade younger than me).
HOLLYWOOD: LAND OF THE FACADE
What I learned about was the crazy, rapid, fluid, infinitely short attention span, massively superficial, shallow and compulsive lifestyle that typified Hollywood at the time. I was told about how quickly people changed jobs in Hollywood — how entire production companies of 25 employees would appear on the lot at the major studios like Paramount or Universal, but then be collapsed and gone a year later. How most assistants were expected to stay at a job for AT LEAST 6 months, but then after 9 months it was pretty normal to move on. How when you made a hit student film (as I did in 1996 with my musical that premiered at Telluride) you would get inundated with calls and meetings around town (over 100 for me in a couple weeks time), but that a year later almost NONE of the people you met with would still be at their jobs (which held true for me, as hard as it was to fathom).
I was also told about the fiercely competitive world of spec screenplay writing, which had reached a fevered pitch in the mid-90’s. You would write a screenplay “on spec” (meaning nobody paid you to write it — you do it as a speculative gamble, hoping to sell it once completed), then you enter into a whole game where your agent leaks tantalizing word out around town about how amazing it is as the whole network of development executives start frothing at the mouth to get their hands on it — all desperate to be the one to purchase “the hot new thing.”
Then assistants start trying to get ahold of you to see if you’ll sneak them an advance copy, or at least a few more hints of what the hell the script is about and why everyone is gossiping so much about it. And then finally on a secret surprise day, often a Friday, your agent stages a sort of surprise attack, sending out copies of the script to 75 production companies around town, ruining everyone’s weekend as they all have to have everyone in their company read the script by Sunday night and be ready Monday morning to dive into the bidding war that is meant to ensue.
But then over the weekend people start gossiping at cocktail parties and realizing the script is just another dumb imitation of “Die Hard” — this time set on a school bus for handicapped children, which doesn’t really work, and by Monday morning the word is out that all the major studios plan to “kill” the script. By noon on Monday the phones are not ringing at the agent’s office, and he’s forced to do the odious task of calling a few of the production companies to harvest the bad news himself — “Dude, your script sucks.”
And then that script is officially “dead.” And nobody wants to touch it. End of story. But also dead is ANYTHING that looks, smells or feels like the subject matter of that script. So if someone a week later sends out a script that is an amazing drama about the struggle of the guy who created the first bus for handicapped children, nobody will support it because there is a feeling of, “Somebody just tried to do that story.” And you can’t get them to listen to the fact that the previous moron script bore no resemblance whatsoever to this dramatic masterpiece. It’s just how Hollywood works.
But that was all in 1994. Today the sad news for our society is what I see, given my set of experiences — today Hollywood is everywhere — WE HAVE BECOME HOLLYWOOD AS A SOCIETY.
So the next time you feel indignant about the moral decline of our society, realize that ALL facets of our country are now taking part in this mass insanity. Here are five examples from what I have witnessed.
1 “WHAT’S NEXT — WE ALREADY DID THAT” – Just as I described above for script sales, I’m hearing that the same phenomenon now exists for the major foundations who fund science and environmental work — an obsession with “the hot new thing,” and unwillingness to hear about anything that “just feels old.” This is also the same thing I saw with the newly created science bloggers in 2007 — the tendency to discuss a topic then be unwilling to talk about it further because, “We’re done with that.” It was an attitude I was used to for the shallow Hollywood crowd, but never expected to see among people in the science world. And it’s really part of what my book was about — the shift from substance to style. When someone is unwilling to hear about a topic because it just sounds like something they feel they’ve already covered, that is the shift to style (the general feel of something) from substance (what the actual, objective content is).
2 DEMO REELS – I talked about this at the start of my book. It’s happening. Prominent scientists who give a lot of major talks are now collecting the videos of their “performances” to be used in booking them for other major talks. It’s inevitable. And it leads to the same basic dynamics as actors evaluating their performances. Welcome to Hollywood.
3 SELF-PROMOTION/BRANDING – take a look at any science blogger. It goes with the territory. If you have a blog, you want it to be popular. If you want to be popular in America, you better be thinking about how to promote yourself. I realized this when I first entered into filmmaking. A filmmaker who doesn’t engage in a certain (albeit repulsive) amount of self-promotion is a dead filmmaker. Same for bloggers. Welcome to the real world.
4 SOUND BITE SPEECH – I had a friend in Boston who was a field reporter for a TV news show. Previously she had worked in Maine. She talked about the difference in interviewing people from the two areas. The Maine people were not “media savvy.” You asked them questions, they gave you long, innocent, candid answers. You asked people in the Boston area the same questions and what you got back were short, punchy, cliched, self-aware canned answers. She found it very frustrating. The producer of The Colbert Report on a panel discussion said they look for the Maine type of people as guests — basically “straight men” who are just being themselves in all their unvarnished nerdiness. But increasingly the science and environmental crowd is moving towards the media savvy style. Is it a bad thing? Dunno. I just know it’s happening. I see it in my filmmaking, and talked about it with my interview of Genie Scott who was great at delivering easy to edit sound bites. In her case it was great.
5 JOB TURNOVER – When I started Shifting Baselines I reached out and got to know the Communications Directors of about a dozen major environmental groups. Within about three years not a single one was still with their organization (with the one significant exception being the brilliant Matt McClain of the brilliant Surfrider Foundation which says volumes that they are the one group with a long attention span — and, not coincidentally, not based in Washington D.C.). Just like those Hollywood production companies, they all have rapid turnover and every year changing agendas and directions. Which I suppose could be good in terms of staying current with trends. But you know the argument against term limits on politicians — that there’s good reason to keep people in their jobs for a long time — in theory they get better at it. Who knows. I only know it’s the same pattern as Hollywood.
None of these observations are necessarily crises. They are just notes on what I have seen in my journey through Hollywood then back to the worlds of science and environmentalism. The world is changing. Everyone is becoming more shallow, superficial, and style-obsessed. Everyone. You can’t help it. The baseline keeps shifting (why do you think we started that project). It’s all about perception and the failure to perceive.
I only know that everyone should be careful with how much complaining they do about the “entertainment obsessed media.” We’re ALL part of the process — Hollywood or not. Scientist or not. Environmentalist or not.