SYNERGY

 

By Stephen Jay Schwartz

That was the buzzword when I worked at Disney Studios. I was the assistant to the Director of Marketing for BVI, or Buena Vista International. Disney had just established its own network of international distribution, where I had worked as a long-term temp (three months) before getting a real job (with real benefits) in the marketing division. This was right when Aladdin came out, to give you a point of reference.

Synergy, synergy, synergy. It was the era of Jeffrey Katzenberg’s famous internal memo about what was broken and what needed to be fixed in Hollywood. The memo targeted Disney Studios in particular. At this point, Katzenberg was best known for putting Disney’s animation films back on the map and, when he didn’t get the number two spot (behind Eisner) after Frank Welles died, he left Disney Studios to form SKG with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.

Synergy was about getting all the different departments to “work together” for the common good of the studio. We were encouraged to stop inter-office bickering and do what was necessary to create an environment of success. Lines of communication were opened and barriers to progress supposedly eliminated. There wasn’t an inter-office memo that crossed my desk that didn’t include the word “synergy” in paragraphs one, six and eight. There was a bit of a cultish feel to it and there were a few subversives, present company included, who felt we’d stepped into the pages of a George Orwell novel.

The whole thing didn’t really mean that much to me. I had my own agenda.

Behind my new boss’ back I wrote my own inter-office memo and I addressed it to Jeffrey Katzenberg himself. Before getting my temp job at Disney Studios I had been struggling away as an independent film maker, which meant that I was cash-advancing my credit cards and beg-borrow-stealing my way through a maze of production services in an attempt to make 16mm and 35mm films. I had just finished shooting a half-hour film (the last film that Chuck Connors ever did) and it had completely broken me and drained all the resources I never really had. By this time my fellow producers (aka college buddies) had moved on to find normal jobs capable of sustaining normal lifestyles and I was left to carry the weight of the project on my worn-out shoulders.

I needed to re-shoot a couple scenes before going into post-production, and I made a desperate plea to Jeffrey for help (Hollywood encourages its members to call the big guys by their first names – Jeffrey, Steven, David, etc. Of course, I was to be called “Mr. Schwartz” the day HR escorted me from the premises, but we’ll get to that).

A few days after I rolled the dice I received a phone call from the President of Production at Disney Studios.

“Jeffrey received a memo in his inter-office mail yesterday,” he said.

“Yes?” I replied.

“I have to admire your balls for sending it.”

“Thank you,” I said.

“Jeffrey wrote a note on the memo that reads, ‘See if you can help this guy out.'”

I was ecstatic. The President of Production at Disney Studios was going to help me finish my film with Jeffrey’s approval! That day I went into my boss’ office (remember, I was a lowly assistant–although he allowed me to use the title “Executive Assistant” to make me feel powerful– to the Director of International Marketing) and told him what I had done.

“I’m glad you told me after you sent the memo,” he said.

I knew he’d be cool with it, he was a renegade, too, which became much more evident months later when he “accidentally” sold the same promotion to McDonalds and Burger King simultaneously. He then announced he’d be leaving the Land of the Mouse for a studio on “the other side of the street.” His actions caused me to become the Executive Assistant to No One, which did not instill in me a particularly hopeful sense of job security.

But I digress.

I started getting my ducks in a row with the President of Production and discovered that they actually rented all their production equipment, so I wouldn’t be able to get any free services. If I’d only needed post-production I might have been able to make it work, but since I had to do some reshoots I was out of luck. They could get me some great discounts and take a budget of around $100,000 down to $20,000 or so, but by that time I was about $60,000 in the negative. In the meantime, the cast and crew had disassembled and entered the great Hollywood diaspora, which means they all went looking for jobs. And my big star was getting older.

One day I got a call from him – “You gonna finish this film before I die, Schwartz?”

“I’m trying, Chuck!” I said, full of youthful bullshit.

Chuck Connors died before I could finish the film. He gave me the best performance that no one will ever see.

So, the whole memo thing ended up being just a neat little anecdote left to dissolve in the lore of Hollywood history.

After the Director of International Marketing (my boss) left, the President of the Marketing division took me and another marketing person to lunch to see what there was to work with. Ever clueless, I told him about my big unfinished, thirty-minute film and my experience with the memo. The President spent the rest of the lunch talking about Synergy, ending with the memorable quote, “At BVI we market films, we don’t make them.”

I went to my little cubicle and printed his quote in Times New Roman 80 pt and slapped it on the wall next to my computer. It was a way to remind myself that I didn’t belong here and I wasn’t going to let myself slip into the “machine,” further away from my dream of writing and directing films. The little note did it’s job because about a week later I was downsized from Executive-Assistant-to-No-One to So-This-is-Unemployment.

Apparently, I was not the most synergistic cog in the machine.

I’ve always had this self-destructive tendency. I’ve lost or quit numerous jobs in an effort to advance my career.

When we work for people we give them our most valuable asset – our time. I’ve always known this, even while working piddly summer jobs during high school. I can put almost no dollar value to my time. And yet we all have to, we can’t help it. We have to make a living. And so I’ve taken the jobs I’ve had to take and the jobs I’ve been lucky to get and I’ve demanded that I get more in return. Not necessarily more money. Instead, more education, knowledge, access. It might take years for me to acquire the skills I need from a job — the skills that will help me in my own efforts to become a better writer or film maker, but once I reach the saturation point, once I’ve got the job down and I’m not learning anything new, I have to leave.

This was a lot easier to do when I was young and single.

I’m just happy I’ve been able to jump off the treadmill for a while. For now my time is my own. I’m writing a novel and a screenplay. The screenplay is an assignment, but it’s fun and it’s exactly what I want to do. It isn’t causing any pain. And the novel is what I have to do for my soul, regardless of what other work I need to do in order to survive.

When I worked at Disney I didn’t know that, twenty years later, I’d be using the things I learned there to help manage my future career. Things like Synergy.

At Disney I learned that everything needs to be working together if the company is going to succeed. Now I’m the company. So I have a literary agent, a film agent, a film manager, an accountant and an intern. I’ve got a publicist and a publisher and an editor and a publicity department working behind the scenes. My job is to get everyone working together for a common goal. It’s not so easy, as many of you know. It’s not like these people wake up every morning thinking about me. They’re not paid to think about my career 24/7. Neither am I, for that matter. But I do it.

What’s cool is that it’s working. Not in a Big Disney sort of way, where Aladdin hits two thousand screens simultaneously world-wide and every department in the Disney Universe claims they played a part in its success. But in a smaller, still-effective way, where Stephen writes a blog and it posts on Murderati and all the folks who work to help grow his career read it and think, “Well, it looks like Stephen is still out there. Maybe I’ll make that call and get him that deal he’s been wanting.”

Now, that’s Synergy.

19 thoughts on “SYNERGY

  1. Phillip Thomas Duck

    Love the post. Lucas McCain, Boston Celtic, baseball Dodger…Chuck Connors was a gem. The publishing business, much like the movie biz, is tough going. Glad to see you following your dreams and making it happen. Even happier you are content with your "team".

  2. David Corbett

    We spend a great deal of time trying to figure out whether that clicking sound in the back of the mind is things finally beginning to gel — or coming unhinged. And we never know until we look back and say: Huh. I made it.

    Or didn't, and ended up elsewhere.

    But we never do it alone, no matter how much it feels that way sometimes. We're always trying to find the balance between steely determination and the kindness of strangers. Or loved ones. It's a constant, moment-by-moment calibration. There are no iron-clad rules to guide us. We're all flying blind.

    Synergy sounds like one of those buzz words we give ourselves as we feel our way through the dark. It's no better or worse than any other, and sometimes the most ridiculous thing can get us through. Read Kafka's "The Silence of the Sirens."

    You have suffered much and forged on. I feel the grief of seeing that short film with that fascinating man lying in its grave of invisibility. I hear the ghost of that dream whispering to you, even as you try to walk on.

    I'm always moved by your pieces. Always.

  3. Louise Ure

    When I was Director of Marketing for the phone company (I use that term vaguely since I held that position for at least three of the big ones), the big buzz word was "momentum." The Big-Mo, they called it. And they all used the same meme, as if it had been printed on the day's talking points memo. Ugh.

    But your path led to what I imagine is a wonderful short film, and something that you can be immensely proud of, even now that Chuck is gone.

  4. billie

    Wow – I have such a vivid image of you with that paper on the wall staring at you every day.

    In the field of public mental health and social services there was a phrase that got bandied about constantly – collaborative efforts. We in all the agencies (mental health, social services, public health, etc.) were supposed to operate as a team when we shared cases, which in the case of abused children, we were generally all involved.

    It was a phrase that ideally meant good things, but in the trenches meant next to nothing. Most days I felt like I was fighting a wall of incompetence and indifference when it came to the social services agency whose mandate it was to PROTECT children. I remember a day when there was a huge meeting about one of my cases – about which I had raised very difficult questions b/c of the work of the dept. of social services who were royally screwing things up by not doing their jobs. They called in a bigwig from way up in the state office to come explain why we had to utilize 'collaborative efforts' to manage the case and why I was so out of line to be demanding more of her dept. She sat and looked me in the eye after I explained what the treatment plan was and what was not getting done by her dept. and she said: Sometimes we have to accept the least worst outcome.

    I walked out of that meeting, after saying that was not an option for me when dealing with the life of a child. I was sure I was going to get fired, but that didn't happen. Nothing I've ever done is as hard as that job was.

  5. judy wirzberger

    We spend a lot of time on the Yellow Brick Road, besieged by creatures real and imagined, making progress or resting with the poppies, carrying our basket of dreams and wishes. We stumble forward with our past and present tugging at our sleeves, our eyes looking toward our future.

    Some us find the Emerald City and are captivated by glitz and glamour. Some pull aside the curtain to reality and discover success and fulfillment.

    We discover weโ€™ve always had it, within us, knocking at our heels to come forth.

  6. Gar Haywood

    Stephen: Great post. Seriously. The Big Dream never involves a convoluted process — navigating through a maze of unexciting jobs unrelated to anything just to eat and keep those we love eating — but that's almost always the reality. Those meant to succeed do what they have to do without losing hope or their minds and reach the promised land. Others just grow tired of the constant compromises and digressions and give up. You're not giving up, ever. One, because you're too wise and talented to do so.

    And two, because I will hunt you down and kill you if you do.

    You've got that IT thing that publishers and Hollywood are always looking for, even if they haven't figured that out yet. They will. Keep knocking out great stuff and the word will eventually make it into the right editor or producer's office. It's just a matter of time.

  7. Allison Davis

    Stephen, Stephen, my work road took a lot of divergent steps, stumbling as well…the big one when I went to law school which took me 25 years off the path of writing (pretty much but not entirely) for security and family. And I wonder now if all those steps were the right ones to take (and now of course it makes no difference)…but looking forward, one of the lessons I have learned is to savor the day. This whole working for the future thing doesn't always work out and I've tasked myself with carving out more time from this work thing…

    We used to use the work Synchronicity when everything fell into place and was aligned. Looking for that. When the deal call comes down.

  8. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Philip – Yep, publishing seems even more difficult than before. I am thankful I've got a good team, and I'm thankful they're as good as they are. It's taken me twenty years of one-step-forward, two-steps-back to find them.

    David – thanks for your awesome words, brother. Yeah, I have not given up on the film directing dream. Even though I'm not as blinded by the glamour of the biz, I still want to tell stories in that medium. Unfortunately, it's kind of a young man's game. Not so much the actual directing of a film, but all the hustle and begging and proving of oneself that goes on in an effort to make that first feature film, or even those first four feature films. It's Social Darwinism at it's worst. Most of the effort has nothing to do with the craft of telling a good story.
    And, while it was hard to see that short film die on the vine, by the time its time came to an end I had decided that I had grown a bit, and the film didn't really represent the best of what I could do anymore. I'd had to compromise so much throughout the project – compromises that came from having no budget and working almost entirely from donations of services. I learned a lot from doing it, but, ultimately, I realized it was time to let it go.

  9. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Louise – never did finish the film (see above). It was a great experience, though. I'm much more proud of my first film, which was a 16mm, black and white, 23 minute film about my relationship with my father from baby to adult, no dialogue, all visuals, a narrative (not a documentary), in the German Expressionistic style (think The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari). It was called "Meditations on a Suicide" and it placed well in film competitions around the world, once even showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. It's tough to practice the art of film making, however. It's not like you can just pick up laptop and begin typing. It requires so, so much effort to push through inertia.

    billie – your comment was really tough to read. "Sometimes we have to accept the least worst outcome." That's painful. It's especially scary for me now that I'll be having a "wrap-around" group of professionals helping work with my son and his autism/OCD in an attempt to get him tooled-up to manage himself through life. This is something we're doing instead of going to a residential program. It has to work. From my conversations with the person in charge I've been led to believe that they exist exactly to combat that type of ineffective social service attitude you describe. I'm hoping so.

  10. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Judy – niiiice metaphor. I'm finally at the age and have had enough glitz and glamor experience to appreciate the reality of my personal success. For the most part I am fulfilled. But I always want to keep reaching.

    Gar – thanks for your wonderfully kind words. I'm tempted to give up now, just to have you come after me and try to kill me. I think that would add a great deal of excitement to my life, and it would certainly give me something to write about. If I survive, that is.

    Allison – I agree so much with what you said – this whole working for the future thing is for the birds. The future is now. Maybe our Depression Era parents would disagree. But I'm real happy just making it one day at a time, writing one or two good paragraphs, scenes, chapters, or poems a day.

  11. Jonathan Hayes

    For me, the biggest lesson is that you had the balls to send the memo to Jeffrey in the first place. It might not have achieved what you wanted, but it got things moving, and eventually freed you from a place that seems designed to box you in.

  12. Allison Brennan

    "My job is to get everyone working together for a common goal"

    Yes, yes, yes!

    Terrific post. I think as authors, we sometimes live in a vacuum, but we need to be a team, think like a team, work together to create a great book with a great package and send it out in the world to (hopefully) great sales. I've always considered my agent, my publisher, and myself a team (which is why it's HUGELY frustrating when things happen without any communication whatsoever.)

    I don't think I would have had the guts to send a memo to JK, but maybe I would have. I've asked for raises at my old job even when they weren't handing them out. I usually got them. But I remember when I quit. I didn't WANT to quit. I was scared to death that my writing career would be short-lived. I simply wanted to work part-time–get the benefits, half salary, work 3 six hour days a week. So I pitched the idea and my boss said no. THEN I quit. I'd sold a three book deal, needed the time to write, and had five kids. I couldn't work full time. It was a huge risk, especially since the advance was good, but not stellar. But I did it anyway.

    I'm so glad you're happy right now Stephen!

  13. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    Jonathan – I don't regret sending that moment one bit. I'd do it again in a heartbeat.

    Allison – I tried to talk my last boss into letting me work four days a week so I could have three days in a row to write, but he wouldn't go for it, either. It's a bitch losing the benefits, but you gotta take some chances in life.

  14. Haryo Bagus Handoko

    Hi, let me introduce myself, my name is Haryo Bagus Handoko, from Malang, East Java Province, Indonesia. I'm a journalist, columnist, writer, web content writer, translator, and also book author for many genres in Indonesia. I also become a manuscript translator for Monsoon Books Publisher, Pte Ltd – Singapore international book publisher in Singapore, which have wide networking with publishers and distributor in Asia, England, Australia and USA. Since you work in Disney Studio, if they are looking for team creative or story writer, I hope you could be so kind to inform me and give me a chance, since I'm a native Indonesian, and being a writer and book author, I have so much resource about many traditional ancient Indonesian folklores, legends and mythology which is amazing to be bring up as children stories in Disney cartoon animated movies. From any Indonesian fairy tales, children stories, mystery stories, to folklores, legends and mythology, I know much about them, and I can easily translated it into a story manuscript (basic ideas) for the Disney animated movies. All I need is the trust and opportunity to join in with your creative team. So, if you need me, please do not hesitate to contact me at: haryobagushandoko.penulis@gmail.com or you can also access my website at: http://haryobagushandoko.sitesled.com

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