There was a recent NPR Forum on the new Bravo reality series, “Silicon Valley,” and some participants were about as out of touch as those in the Hollywood Hills though their audiences remain as bedazzled. This led me to do a further look into what constitutes the similarities and differences between the Valley and Hollywood. I’m often asked by one camp about the other since I live and work in both places, feeling out of place in both. Aside from the Greed is Good motto that both seem to run by, accidentally tripping into greatness here and there (or so it seems), there are far more differences than initially meets the untrained eye.
Producers = VC’s (venture capitalists) = the Money portion of a big/high-concept idea. Deserved or not, everyone hates The Money. They’re easy targets. When the character of the producer in “Shakespeare in Love” responds to the question of who he is and what he was doing in a closed rehearsal, he answers, “I’m the money.” The star, played by Ben Affleck, answers “Then you may remain – so long as you remain silent.” Shut up and fork over the cash is how we’d like it.
This disdain often has good reasons, at least in studios. Decisions can be based only on marketing quadrants and bottom lines and audiences who have no idea what they like till they see it. A good idea can get watered or dumbed down. For a little money, a lot can be demanded. Though the bad ones let greed blind them to making the best product possible, the good ones, in both cases, will make a company/movie/show even better.
How are they different: when I say “producers” in comparison to vc’s, I’m talking about studio producers or big producers of Rudin, Bruckheimer, Bad Robot, Howard/Grazer caliber. Has to be big because the returns are big. No indie producers can be compared to vc’s. VC’s are looking for 10x their investment and their investment can be a million to a few million.
Second difference: whereas both vc’s and producers can be unethical or greedy, in general, vc’s usually have at least an MBA, often from a top tier school. They are often ex-engineers, ex-physicists, ex-doctors. In short: not a dumb crowd. Whereas in film, literal street hustlers can become producers, and do. Granted, you need a different skill set that’s not necessarily an academic or intellectual one to be a good producer. But buyers beware: moneyed sharks abound but the waters are more dangerous and murky in entertainment waters.
Huge, third difference: vc’s don’t really own the company, at least not in the beginning. Funding of companies takes place in stages. Depending on the funding being asked for and what stage the company is in, vc’s can own as little as 20% of a company. Unlike Hollywood, where a writer’s or filmmaker’s script or short film is bought and probably never heard from again as it goes through development purgatory. Studios or producers own a property and do with it as they like regardless of what the original vision is.
Entrepreneurs = filmmakers and/or writers. This is an extremely rough similarity, though both are often white, skinny males with a hat and sneakers on so anyone can get easily confused. But there are more similarities than the slouchy jeans. For one, both need good teams to execute a vision. Both often put in long hours and sometimes years, sometimes going bankrupt, maxing out credit cards and putting up second mortgages to bankroll their ideas. In both, the industries are slowly opening up to women and other ethnicities. Both go abroad and hire locals to execute their ideas once their companies are set up to save a lot of money.
Both need to pitch. A good pitch is a good pitch, period. What defines “good” varies by industry but each industry has its criterion for mind-blowing pitches. Both need a little luck, a lot of networking, and the right connections as much as their good ideas to bring their dreams to light. Ambition, passion, and idealism are present in varying degrees depending on the individual in both. They are my people.
The connection that can bring the money and the idea or actor and show or script and studio together however are radically different. Though networking in Hollywood is important, it’s very much an insider’s club. “You’re no one until you’re someone” is a sad but true motif followed by far too many in the middle tiers. In the Valley, however, I have witnessed successful people mentor complete unknowns based on an idea or academic record. Cold calls and emails have a fifty-fifty chance of getting returned, higher if there is even a nominal connection. Their motif, which is as true if not followed in Hollywood, is that the next Good Idea, Big Thing, Star can come from anywhere. Many places in the Valley don’t have a policy of “don’t ever call or visit this office even to follow up” which is the motto of most agencies, production companies, and studio execs, if you can find their contact info at all. It’s interesting that even given the amount of wealth and success the Valley has drummed up, compared to which Hollywood is a poor hick cousin, they are still more generous.
One of the biggest differences between the Valley and Hollywood is that the latter is nowhere near a business. Having married a (former) venture capitalist and having met as many entrepreneurs as producers and filmmakers, I can safely say that whereas the business plan is a Bible for the execution and funding of ideas, Hollywood has no business plan. Brad Pitt is attached. Great! That’s the business plan right there. Maybe having a great script help, semi akin to a plan of sorts, but as The Black List shows, even that counts for little (why aren’t all the movies on that list being made instead of reboots of reboots?).
At least in the Valley, a great plan means something. And as awesome as movies and TV shows can be, some business plans in the Valley can transform society, save lives, and progress humanity. So there’s that. (But they still won’t come up with “Luke, I am your father.”)
The final parallel: there is a glitz over both industries that hides the muck. Practically everyone knows about fabled Hollywood’s shiny cubic zirconia amidst the rare diamonds, the Greyhound bus carrying an Iowa starlet stuck waitressing, the washed out star that can never make that comeback. So, what constitutes muck in Silicon Valley you might ask? The first comment on this page by “Hayden” has an excellent summary and analysis of the ails of the Valley that are never fully debated (wealth density in few hands that drive up all prices for everyone, environmental destruction, gentrification, lack of African Americans, etc).
And the biggest difference between these two behemoths? Almost the entire Bay Area has grocery and real estate prices like Manhattan thanks to the number of one percenters (yahoo/google/facebook/instagram etc founders). Just when I thought I’d escaped NYC rent, I land up in an area where $1 million is a starter home. If ever there was reason to stick to LA, it’s the Price and the Space though the smog and commutes may wear you down. But while you’re stuck in your car, you’ll at least have a better shot of seeing (gasp) a black person who’s a professional once in a while without having to drive over any bridges.