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.