That big THUD you heard over the weekend was everyone involved with Underwater (6.9 million take against at least a 50 million budget – and that’s before promotion/distribution costs). The thud sound was from their collective leap off a cliff into the ocean – which was at low tide. Who could have seen this coming? Oh yeah, me.
I’m really not trying to pick on this movie – movies tank all the time for a wide variety of reasons. And pinpointing blame on these duds is just as hard as pinpointing those who deserve kudos on the successes. Of course there are some obvious places to start – the highest-profile participants (producers, director, “stars”, top studio execs) – but there are really a lot of people involved, though most of them have little to no effect on the outcome (even though they all think they do – at least when the movie is a hit).
But that’s not the story today. The story is that in Hollywood there’s a huge list of things that can get you fired – and way down near the bottom of that list is performance. Really that should be very near the top of things that can get you dismissed – but that would make too much sense. No, Hollywood is mostly about failing up, and if you think about it, that pretty much explains the state of the industry. (Yes of course there is a small percentage of truly visionary, smart and talented people – I’m talking about the other 90 percent, many with significant clout).
This is because in a nepotistic, relationship-driven world like Hollywood, there’s a lot of grey area thanks to the subjective nature of movies (and TV/streaming/etc, lets not forget the bastard step-children). Words like “talent” and “creative” are open to interpretation. And many big decision-makers are so insecure about their own talents, they cling to the “safety” of re-hiring people who have repeatedly failed simply because somewhere in all the failure was a moment or two of success (deserved or not). This is the main reason why failed filmmakers and execs continue to get hired after disasters like Underwater. Smart, huh?
But people get fired all the time. Just rarely for performance-related reasons. Occasionally a studio will have a prolonged series of embarrassing flops and someone will take the fall – but even that doesn’t happen as often as it should. Usually everyone somehow rides out the bad year (or two or three) and then they get new contracts when they finally deliver a hit (or even before the hit). And when they actually are dismissed for failure, another studio is there to scoop them up. Cause, you know, gotta get me some of that.
Same goes for filmmakers. How many duds do some of these people need to crank out before they stop getting hired? Yeah, maybe just maybe that hit or two they had way back when were one-offs? Nah. M. Night Shyamalan is due for another Sixth Sense any day now, you’ll see. Sure, we’re much more likely to get another Lady In The Water out of him, but as long as I can tell my boss I hired the guy who did Sixth Sense my job should be safe. Recipe for success in Hollywood!
So what CAN get you fired if not performance? Almost anything else. HR departments are great at keeping real reasons very quiet, usually with parting gifts, like cash and prizes (and the board game, so you can play at home). You think there’s outrage about the harassers in Hollywood? There should be a lot more over the crazy amount of money they often get to go away. Apparently somehow being abusive or a harasser doesn’t violate the ethics/morality clause (like there is one) in someone’s contract, so payouts are in order. Big payouts.
And then there’s more benign reasons for dismissal. Personality things, attitude, voting for Trump, “culture fit” is always a fun one, as is “re-structuring” or “eliminating the position” (until they find someone else to do it). There’s a lot of different things they will say, but usually not the outright truth. The truth though is that it’s almost never about the performance – good or bad. It’s politics and personality and all that other stupid high school stuff.
On the flip-side, if they are already looking for a reason to get rid of you then the old adage is true – you’re only as good as your last film. And when it flops, the phone stops ringing. But don’t kid yourself into thinking the flop is the real reason why you’re out.
So what’s the cumulative effect of Hollywood doing business this way? Could it be the decades of decreasing movie ticket sales year after year? Nah. Think of how many people would have had to fail up into key positions in the industry for that to happen.
And it can’t be their fault.