I ways back I used to eat my porridge every morning in a greasy spoon near where I lived. An old farmer owned it and it was one of those totally unpretentious places where everyone knew everyone, the service was fast and friendly and it wasn’t unusual to have strangers at your table. I went in the morning of my 28th birthday and ended up sitting next to a huge Aboriginal guy who was quiet, but very friendly. He heard the staff wishing me a happy birthday and he asked me how old I was turning. When I told him he said, “Ah, 28. The year you learn to say ‘no.’”
Not long after that I got a call from a billionaire that used to meet with me fairly regularly. He used to use my ability to notice strange patterns in things to help him make business decisions, although secretly I think he was actually more interested in the fact that my Dad is my hero and I think he wanted to know how to be a hero to his kids. This time the call was all business. He was greatly expanding his television network and he wanted me to come on board to help choose and develop future programming on the both the film and TV side. I had just come off a couple of movies and a few series, so I was due for a change and I agreed. What exactly I was agreeing to though, I did not fully comprehend.
Canada was/(still is?) the second largest exporter of TV worldwide after the US, but it was still a small enough industry that all of the steady working people knew most of the people in their region and a lot of us knew most of the people from one end of the country to the other. That closeness proved to be an interesting factor when it came time to do the job.
I had a budget that was the envy of the industry. I had the freedom to work in both free and pay TV, on series as well as features. It was the only job like it in the country and it brought virtually every type of producer into my office. On average we would receive about 1600+ submissions a year, we would develop maybe 25-50 and produce about a dozen, including series. Of course those numbers meant that I was saying “no” the vast majority of the time.
The trick was, I was saying no to my friends. People who I had grown up with in the industry. People I liked and respected. People close to me. And to each of those people their projects were generally the only thing they were working on. They had all of their eggs in that basket—their heart and soul was into it, and I would be the guy who would crush their dreams of ever getting or sustaining a mortgage.
Being the guy I am I was able to appreciate that someone had to make the determination. They couldn’t give the money out on a first come first served basis. Nor could we do it alphabetically, or by script weight. Someone had to give an opinion about what they thought would work and the billionaire anointed me. I won’t say that I liked turning down my friends—or even the non-friends who I knew had worked super hard on their submissions. But this wasn’t a popularity contest. I had a job and my job was to pick things that would recoup their investments and it turned out I was extremely good at that. But that meant that I had to turn down development proposals that ended up destroying companies and careers. And it’s not like I didn’t turn away some heartfelt personal stories. And undoubtedly I was wrong many times. I crushed a lot of dreams being a success at that job.
When you’re responsible for money like that it’s strange. Everyone has theories about what they would do if they had the job, but it’s much different imagining spending one million dollars on Richard Chamberlain. It’s another thing altogether to actually be responsible for one million dollars for Richard Chamberlain. Because there is no way to actually calculate beforehand if he would be worth it (it turned out he was), and there was no shortage of people I’d turned down who disagreed. I also had to chastise lazy writers, and inform neophytes about what they didn’t know. I had to not cast people’s spouses and even for those that got money, they didn’t always get what they wanted.
People used to ask me if it bothered me that there were people that hated me for those decisions (and undoubtedly for differences in our personalities too). But the answer was no, it didn’t bother me. Why would it? No matter who I chose, someone wasn’t getting money. A lot of someones weren’t. The majority of someones weren’t. And so I made a lot more people angry than I made happy. But hey, that’s why it’s tough at the top. That’s why they pay you the big bucks. But bottom line, you can’t be who you are and also cater to the desires of everyone you meet. You have to be your own person. You have to have faith in yourself. Not to be infallible. But to realize that you’ve been given a job because it needs doing. And your job is to do it the best you can, which I did.
We won a lot of awards and set a few records while I was there, but that’s not why I felt successful. I felt—and continue to feel—successful because I chose those projects with great care and with tremendous respect for the money I was investing and for the work that had gone into the projects. I knew I couldn’t be right every time, but I was going to be right as often as I could.
You sense of self can’t come from the approval of others. If everyone likes your decisions then you’re not making any—or at least any of consequence. To make an omelet you have to crack a few eggs. You can’t focus on the cracked shells, you have to focus on your objective, and the objective wasn’t to reject things. I’m sure there were many money makers in the “no” pile. But again, I only had so much money. So rather than focus on who I disappointed, I focused on who I could help. And I’m pleased to say that I gave a start some very talented people who’ve gone on to great careers. But I couldn’t have done that if I wasn’t prepared to put myself out there to be criticized for my decisions. I get that. If I worked two years on something and it got rejected I would be upset too. And I might even call the person who did it some names for a few minutes after I found out about the rejection. But eventually that would wear off and I would know that someone had to choose, and they couldn’t say yes to everything and so it only makes sense that we all have a better chance of being in “no” pile.
Don’t let fears of being liked prevent you from doing what you think is right. You absolutely will be wrong quite often, just like all of us. But as long as you’re right more than you’re wrong, they let you keep playing the big sandbox.
I’m glad to be out of that now. I had a ton of fun at the height of the industry—just before the internet took the legs out from underneath the golden age. It was nice hotels, limos, cool festivals and real life movie stars. But you got none of that unless you were willing to have some writer scream obscenities at you in a hotel bar. You had to be willing to know that a good friend considered you the reason that her business failed. Again, everyone has their separate realities and it’s obvious I would be the villain in many people’s rejection narratives. But that’s like having someone mad at you because you don’t want to date them. You’re not saying they’re not worth anything. You’re just saying they don’t match you.
Don’t be a pleaser. Be yourself and those who love you will make ample room for your choices. You’re not here to make us happy, you’re here to make you happy. So respect people. Be empathetic to their pain. But as much as possible, don’t let the downsides dictate a decision. Just make the best decisions you can with the information you have and go from there. And just always remember that they could be right; you could be wrong. 😉