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making the sausage

Polone: Hollywood’s Most Important Phone Rule

Two-channel IP Phone isolated on white background

When Disney chairman Rich Ross was fired last week, many people's minds instantly flashed to the failures of John Carter and Mars Needs Moms. But the first thing that I thought of when I heard the news was how he never returned the call I put into him last August 10 about a movie of mine that another studio had put in turnaround, but that would be a good fit for Disney. 

I didn’t really know Ross, having only shaken his hand once at a cocktail party, but I was left with a pretty negative feeling about his disregarding that one call. Now, I’m not saying this disinterest in whatever I had to say had any effect on Ross or Disney; the movie I was pushing wasn’t bought by anyone else, either, though Ross’s peers at other studios did manage to call or e-mail me back when I phoned them about the same project. But I will say that those I’ve known at the top of the business who have maintained their position for many years and achieved legendary status were the type of people who always returned their calls. When I was at the very beginning of my career, I called Brandon Tartikoff, then head of NBC, and was surprised when he actually took my call; even if Jeffrey Katzenberg has never met you, he is the kind of person who already knows you have a reason to speak to him and calls you first; and the one time I sent a letter to Barry Diller, whom I’ve never met, I quickly received the letter back with a short sarcastic joke handwritten in the margin. But it was a reply.

Anybody who calls me at my office or sends me an e-mail gets a response from either me or one of my employees (unless it is someone I already know and with whom I’ve decided I’m not speaking — and there are quite a few people in that category). I always respond not because I believe in “karma” or that “everyone deserves respect,” but because it is good business. In 1992, when I was a talent agent in my twenties, while waiting in the lobby of a production company I was introduced to Richard Baker and Rick Messina, who were and are the managers of Tim Allen, Drew Carey, and others. Tim Allen was super hot from his new show Home Improvement and he did not have an agent. After the usual bullshit perfunctory conversation, I asked if they would consider giving me and my agency a chance to meet with him, and they let me know that Tim wasn’t meeting with agencies at that time but they’d keep it in mind. And then Baker remarked, in an off-handed, Columbo-esque way that he had called me a few years earlier, before their clients had broken out, to see if I would meet with them, but that I had blown them off. Ka-thwack! Unsurprisingly, I never got to pitch Tim Allen on becoming my client, but Richard Baker did give me a lesson I have kept in mind until this day.

I’m not going to have a conversation with everyone trying to sell me muni bonds or see if I can get Conan O’Brien, my one management client, to perform at their kid’s bar mitzvah. But even in those cases, my assistant can certainly take a message and get back to them about their inquiry in a timely and respectful manner. If someone e-mails me about a great script they’d like me to read, I quickly e-mail back that I can’t take unsolicited material for legal reasons; as I’ve written about before, I’m being sued for allegedly stealing a movie project that wasn’t ever submitted to me. (I draw the line on responding to people I don’t know who contact me on Facebook or Twitter, which feels more like stalking than a business interaction.)

When I'm the one making the call, I don’t mind if an assistant asks what my call is regarding and then their boss has a subordinate deal with my issue; I just don’t want to be dismissed. Not having your call returned says that the person declining to deal with you thinks you are not only valueless at that moment but that you won’t be in the future either. And while most calls that are ignored are probably not going to result in any benefit for the ignorer, there will come a time during someone’s career when an unknown caller could present a valuable opportunity; though it doesn’t happen often, I have developed projects that came in from an agent or manager I'd never met before. And even if the person initiating contact doesn’t have something worthy to offer the high and mighty impresario or executive at that moment, he or she might be useful in the future when that powerful person finds him or herself in different circumstances. Like, for instance, recently de-jobbed.

Photo: George Dolgikh/Flickr