by Alex Lewin
Two men are having lunch at Adriano's, an expensive Bel-Air restaurant. While they are eating, Frank Sinatra and his entourage enter the restaurant and are seated at a large table in the corner. Seeing this, one man says to the other, "I'll bet you fifty bucks that I know Frank Sinatra." (He doesn't.) His friend, thinking the bet would be easy money, smugly agrees. The man gets up and walks across the restaurant to Sinatra's table. He puts one hand on Sinatra's shoulder and offers the other for a warm shaking. "Frank!" he exclaims. "How you doing? Good to see you again."
Sinatra rises, shakes the man's hand heartily, and asks how he is doing. He and the man spend a few more moments in cheerful conversation before the man comes back to his table to collect his winnings from the awestruck friend.
This is a true story, and the diner's skillful manipulation of Frank Sinatra is a classic example of the value of shmoozing. Shmoozing is the most important skill there is for a Hollywood nobody (and let's face it -- that's what we are, those of us who fantasize about seeing our name on the credits or our faces on the screen).
In Hollywood, a résumé or a degree mean nothing. Some argue that skills and talent mean nothing. Deals do not get made because X has an MFA in screenwriting and got an A+ on her thesis, or because Y starred in I Hate Hamlet at the Winesburg Playhouse and his performance was lauded by the local papers. Deals get made because Z is a friend of Michael Eisner. It was through his friendship with Robert De Niro that Joe Pesci secured his first film role, in Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull. Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects) attended college with Usual Suspects director Bryan Singer, and was asked by Singer to write the script. It was Quiz Show screenwriter Paul Attanasio's friendship with director Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Sleepers and the Attanasio-scripted Disclosure) that got him into the industry.
But what about the rest of us? Those who have high Industry ambitions but lack high Industry friends? Are we without hope?
Perhaps not. Perhaps there are ways to make Industry friends and influence Industry people -- the skill which the man in Adriano's had perfected. You have to strike up a conversation, make a solid impression, be straightforward. And above all, you have to talk to your subject (the shmoozee) in a way that will put the two of you on friendly terms. The key lies in the shmoozing.
Last summer, I had the good fortune to come across tickets to the MTV Movie Awards. Kevin Spacey, fresh from his Oscar for The Usual Suspects, was there and won the MTV award Best Villain for Seven. Let's say you are in attendance, and after the ceremony you have a chance to talk to him. Spacey, now that he is rather famous, is serious player in Hollywood and can do wonders for your career, if he wants to. So what do you say to him? How do you act?
Don't panic. Just remember these items:
-- Hollywood does not make bad movies. Despite what the box office grosses were, despite what the critics said, despite even what you think of a particular film, you must always sing its praises. You never know what film your shmoozee might have been involved with. As far as you're concerned, Spacey's film The Ref is, in some ways (though you needn't be specific about what those are), on the same level as Citizen Kane.
-- Your shmoozee has no last name. When congratulating Kevin Spacey on his award
and his performance, never say, "Congratulations, Mr. Spacey. Very well deserved."
There is no greater heresy. You always say, "Congratulations, Kevin. Very well
deserved." (Note: It doesn't matter whether or not Kevin actually deserves his
award. As far as you're concerned, he deserves the award he got, as well as the ones
-- If you are fortunate enough to actually be employed by a firm with some involvement in the industry, then, as the shmoozer, your last name is extended to include your company's name. Having worked for Premiere magazine for a time, I had the luxury of introducing myself to Kevin Spacey in the following way: "Kevin. Good to meet you. Alex Lewinpremieremagazine." (You may wish to rehearse this in front of a mirror, as it can be quite a mouthful, particularly if you work for Bresler, Kelly, Kipperman or Donner/Shuler-Donner.) This informed Kevin that I was almost somebody -- and therefore worth talking to -- without my having to say so.
-- Never underestimate the importance of the word "over," as in, "I've been over at Premiere for two months now." It may sound trivial, but it helps to convince Kevin that, despite the geographical largesse of Los Angeles, every company remotely involved with Hollywood is located on the same happy block, and you're all the best of neighbors.
-- If you are acquainted with person A, who is nobody, and person A is acquainted with person B, who is somebody, you are, by default, a good friend of person B. A woman I worked with at Premiere, for example, told me one day that she knew screenwriter Paul Attanasio. An admirer of his work, I eagerly asked if there was any way she might introduce the two of us. At this point, she buckled, and explained that she, in fact, did not know Paul Attanasio -- she knew his brother.
"Who's his brother?" I asked. "Anybody?"
"No, he's nobody. But I did meet Paul once."
A more skillful shmoozer would not have admitted so quickly that her connection to Paul was a shmoozer's connection and not a real one. For example, when I was chatting with Kevin Spacey and the topic of Seven director David Fincher came up, I was free to say, "David did a great job with the mood of that film." I don't know David Fincher, but I have a friend who does. I could conceivably get in touch with Fincher if I absolutely had to, and that is what's important. (It also helps, in talking with your shmoozee about a particular film, to refer to some vague aspect like "mood" or "tone" -- terms which make you sound intellectual, but really don't mean anything.)
I met Kevin Spacey because my good friend, Wall Street Journal film critic John Lippman, had tickets to the MTV Movie Awards and wasn't using them. (Lippman's actually a friend of a friend and I've never met him, but that's not important.) At the party afterwards, Kevin stood at a crowded blackjack table, waiting for a space to open up. I saw my opportunity, took a deep breath, and went in for the kill.
"Kevin [offering my hand]. Alex Lewinpremieremagazine. Good to meet you."
"Nice to meet you," said Kevin, shaking my hand.
"Congratulations on the award. Very well deserved."
"I enjoyed Seven a lot. Great film. Did you have a good time working on it?" (For the record, I find Seven a rather depressing and self-indulgent film, but Kevin didn't need to know that.)
"Well," Kevin told me, "I didn't have a lot of screen time, so they didn't need me around much for shooting. Not as much as Brad or Morgan, anyway. So that was easy to fit into my schedule."
And just like that we were having a conversation. Not the type of conversation that a gushy and excited fan typically has with his film idol, but a real conversation. Of course, one has to ask, "what is real?" if everything that came out of my mouth was based on strategy and a level of honesty that was tenuous at best. It's all part of Hollywood. If you want to make it -- if you want friends in high places -- you've got to fit in. Just ask Kevin; he'll tell you the same thing. Oh, and when you talk to him, be sure to mention that you're a friend of mine.