Wednesday, February 7, 2007

Meritocracy vs. Track-Recordism

I turned forty in the aftermath of the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and was promptly fired from the hi-tech company where I worked. It was one of those classical now-or-never moments, when you add up all the risks and decide to go ahead and follow your instincts anyway. I told my wife we were going to live on my severance pay while I wrote a screenplay like I’d wanted to do for so long but never could because of the long hours I worked. Then I ducked to avoid the flying ashtrays and vases.

I don’t blame her. Change can be pretty scary, especially if you didn’t ask for it. But I persevered, and one of the things I quickly discovered, was that in this new line of business I’d chosen, I had a distinct disadvantage compared to the competition (and I’m not referring to the violent spouse). I didn’t have a track record.

In many industries, but certainly in the media industry, a track record is the most important asset you possess. The track record has an organic structure which includes a natural correlation with age. So a filmmaker might have stuck together some home-made movies as a student, then made some professionally produced shorts in his first years in the business, followed by a feature or two, etc. By the time someone with a normal career path reaches my age, they’ve either made it or they haven’t. And it’s their track record that shows this. Mercilessly.

In my case, the complete absence of a track record has been the cause of not a few embarrassing silences, followed by, “So nothing of yours has actually been produced yet?” Understandably, people who spend their time and money making TV shows and movies, are reluctant to invest in someone they can’t pigeonhole (other than in the category of: Pathetic old person who wants a life). They’re reluctant to even speak to you, let alone read any of your material. I call it track-recordism.

Fortunately, film producers are usually pragmatic business people. They decide on the basis of a gut feeling about the commercial viability of material in front of them. Much like a prosthetics manufacturer will consider a new line of plastic knee joints in terms of profit margins, exit strategies, and so on. And when you do manage to get your material read, and the powers that be like what you’ve written, meritocracy overrules track-recordism. So there’s only one way to combat track-recordism: Keep going and write better and better all the time.

Since my career change I’ve met some weird, wonderful and awful people in the media business, all of whom have track records. It mostly means nothing. Maybe I’ll tell you something about some of them soon.

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