Hollywood Was Never This Rude

Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin
Heather Graham, Eddie Murphy and Steve Martin in Bowfinger (1999). Photo: Getty Images
David T. Friendly
June 19, 2022

I first heard the term “ghosted” when my kids started dating. Happily married for 30 years, I don’t have to experience that indignity. But, in this business, it’s been happening to me more frequently than I would like or expect—and I know I’m not alone.  

Recently, I pitched a four-part docuseries on the rise and fall of disco and its impact on dance music. (It did not sell.) At one of my first stops, a premium streamer, a senior executive seemed genuinely interested in my subject and take. At the conclusion of a productive 45-minute Zoom, she said, “This is intriguing. Let me get the boss’s thoughts and we will circle back shortly.” 

A week went by. Then two. No circling. I emailed a gentle follow-up inquiry. Then I called. Zero response. Figuring I had little to lose, I eventually emailed her boss, who I have met. He emailed right back: “Not sure we have room but sounds interesting. Send it over.”  

Same drill. A week went by. A gentle follow-up from me: “Any thoughts?” Apparently not.  

I could offer up numerous other examples. In reaching out to a dozen of my producing peers, some with more than a picture a year to their names, I was alarmed to find they too have encountered multiple versions of such shabby treatment. To be clear, I’m not talking about the countless “passes” that producers experience on a daily basis. We don’t like hearing no, of course, but everyone appreciates knowing where they stand. Here’s what has changed: Gone are the decorum and basic courtesies that often accompanied the rejection. Like a little water with your whisky? Not served in modern Hollywood. 

This is happening with both sellers and buyers. With agents, part of the problem is the death of packaging. Today, reps target the low-hanging fruit. In other words, they are a lot less interested in a script, life rights or I.P., no matter how good, that is not already set up somewhere. Some attribute the bad behavior to an influx of untrained, newer executives. Phil Rosenthal, the creator of Everybody Loves Raymond, put it more succinctly: “No one wants to do their homework.”  

He may be right. With significant compression on the movie side, and the expansion of buyers on the TV/streaming side, a tidal wave of material is being rolled out. During Covid, production came to a standstill or was delayed significantly for distributors. Executives are now overwhelmed. 

That excuse does not cut it for me. Coming up, I was trained to return every call the day it came in and to respond to any submission within 72 hours. I cannot say I always succeeded at this, but that was my intention. “Today, you wind up begging people for a response or a return call,” said one veteran producer. “It’s disgusting.”  

Another valuable lesson: do the hard calls first. I’ve been a buyer. It’s never fun to pass on someone’s passion project. But passing by omission (ignoring the sender) is far worse than by commission. I’m sure that to the current generation, the one raised on tech, it’s not insensitive, it’s just efficient. Getting back to those kids of mine, 99 percent of the voicemail messages I leave are never heard. The more typical response, sent via text: “What’s up?” 

Not surprisingly, while many folks I spoke with have experienced this unfortunate phenomenon, people do not want their names mentioned. It may feel to them as if such treatment lowers their stature. But I can assure them  this obnoxious phenomenon is entirely democratic. 

One producer told me his tale of a proposed remake of a popular movie. He had already attached a well-known actor. The producer and the actor talked to the actor’s agent, who immediately turned the script over to a junior agent to help recruit a meaningful director. The junior agent said he loved the idea, would immediately read the script, and come back with a list of suggestions. Weeks later, that producer is still waiting for the agent’s read and list. “It left me shaking my head,” he said. “This is how they represent their own people?”  

Rejection is a daily staple in the life of a producer. We get far more nos than yesses or maybes. I tell myself to “embrace the rejection.” Sure, it’s always disappointing, but it’s not going away. It is the very definition of ceaseless immersion.  

Much of the collegiality that used to exist in Hollywood has vanished.  People are under pressure to justify their jobs. They feel they must get things made to get noticed. They receive changing mandates from their bosses, and they are left scratching their heads about what they can or cannot sell internally. Here’s one thing I know for sure: Today’s buyer at Netflix can easily become tomorrow’s seller. “If someone ghosts me on a project I truly believe in, do you think I’m going to forget that?” one movie producer asked me. “I’m certainly not going to them first the next time and I might not go back to them at all.” 

In situations like this, I always try to understand the psychological underpinnings of such head-scratching behavior. Dr. Phil Stutz, psychiatrist to the power elite, said the following: “An outright ‘no’ is a form of limit setting. Most people like to think they are loved or at least valued, and to that end, they want to be a ‘giver.’ A clear ‘no’ means they have nothing to give you. They avoid being in that position by not taking any stance at all, hoping the issue will just go away.”  

I started in this business way back in 1987. In those “good old days,” we valued long-term relationships with our peers, which made it easier to be more forthright about our true feelings. No one likes a pass, but a response of any kind is always better than the sound of deafening silence.  

So, if this one’s not for you, just say so. Be honest. Return calls and emails and keep your conscience and heart intact. Remember, that woman you are worried about offending or hurting? She may be your next boss.

David T. Friendly is the Oscar nominated producer of Little Miss Sunshine. He recently executive produced Queen of the South for its 5 season run.