Archive for September, 2014

On The Bill Simmons Situation…

September 29, 2014

I have a ton of empathy for Bill Simmons right now because I too was once sacrificed at the alter of ESPN’s broadcast partners. This was about ten years back. My creative partner, David Levien, and I got a call from a producer who said he had an idea for a series that ESPN loved, if only they could find someone to really figure out the story and write it.
The show was to be a drama called The Fix that would be set at an NCAA division one school; the story of the season would be how and why a college football game would be fixed.
Levien and I went up to ESPN and had a terrific meeting. They loved our take on the idea and wanted to hire us to be the creators and executive producers. It was at this point, that we asked the question: “but guys,” we said, “are you ever really going to be able to put a show like this on the air?”
The head of programming (who’s no longer there) turned to the room and said: “if you guys write the pilot you are talking about writing, we will green light the season.”
“But what about the NCAA?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
Being young(ish) and fascinated by the premise, we agreed to write the pilot. We turned it in, the head of programming called us. “I love it. You delivered. We are going to make it. Come to the office tomorrow so we can officially do this, but go to sleep tonight knowing you are going to be running a show for me.”
Next day, we head back up to ESPN. But the faces we see ringing the conference table are far from buoyant. We know before the Head of Programming even begins speaking.
“Can’t green light the show, fellas. NCAA negotiations are coming up.”
“But…”
“Broadcast partners. We had thought they were okay with it. But when they read it…”
“You showed them our script?”
“The point is: we’re sorry. How would you like to write a show about poker?”
 And that’s how we ended up creating Tilt, which they did green light and air. (Truth is, the invitation to write a poker show happened a few weeks later. The rest is exactly how it went down).

When Simmons got suspended this past week, I immediately flashed back to The Fix. He made the same mistake we and the head of programming did. He forgot that ESPN will never really bite the hand that feeds it. Sure, some of its news shows might feature a bracing look at the story, and Olbermann might make a smart, cutting remark or two, but if you cross some imaginary line, make it personal somehow, call attention to the real hypocrisy at play–you will be smoked.
ESPN will always act in its self interest, as the top people at the network define the term. That doesn’t make the company unique, or evil, at all, that’s what companies do. But ESPN holds itself as something more, as a journalistic organ, as an institution that challenges the PR machine.
Earlier this year, ESPN dropped out of the concussion documentary that they were supposed to do with PBS. And now, they’ve silenced Bill Simmons.
They may say it’s because he violated a journalistic principle by calling Goodell a liar without a smoking gun. But as rational adults, we have to know that’s not why they did it. They did it because he got personal with a broadcast partner, they did it because he has the biggest microphone, the biggest audience, they did it because they need to reassure the NFL that they want to be back to business as usual just as quickly as the league does.
Look: I am not objective here. I have known Bill for 13 years, I write for Grantland, Levien and I made a 30/30 that Bill executive produced, and I host a podcast on the Grantland Network. Beyond that, I am a huge Bill Simmons fan. I think he changed the way sports are covered, the way a whole generation of people watch sports, the way those people talk about sports. I am also a dedicated ESPN viewer and have been for longer than I can remember. ESPN is an important part of my life–that 30/30 is, obviously, an ESPN program. I love ESPN. Which is why I wish they had seen this moment for the opportunity it actually was, instead of taking the opportunistic easy way out and impressing Goodell and the NFL with how they discipline even their most valuable employee when he steps out of line.
I haven’t spoken to Bill about what his plans are. I hope he’ll be back, writing and running Grantland, as soon as his suspension is up. And I hope that he will not modulate his approach even a little bit. Because if this incident changes the way he does his job, then ESPN, this place I value so much, will have cost itself a great deal more than just its journalistic credibility.

Permission Granted!

September 14, 2014

This is a bright guy sitting across from me in my office. Early 20s. Funny. Charismatic. Clothed and framed out of Elvis Costello’s 1978 closet, and so suffused with post-ironic, post-modern, geek-cool that every word he speaks is loaded with world-weary wisdom and nerd-fighter hopefulness at the same time.
He’s here for advice. We’ve never met before. Lately, I’ve been asked to do this more and more. I usually say no — if I didn’t, I’d be doing it all day. But when I say yes, it’s because the young artist is serious, has a creative practice already, is doing good work, and isn’t really just asking me to make introductions in the business for him/her.
This fellow is accomplished. A peer. He’s been working as a writer and director since he quit college to take a job at a cutting edge web-video comedy site and is now, before his 25th birthday, making six-figures a year. And he’s talented.
So when he reached out online and asked for a half-hour to help talk through a career dilemma, it was an easy decision to say yes; I was looking forward to it. I’ve made the same ask to more experienced people throughout my creative life, to experts in various fields, to mentors. And I’ve gained a ton through that kind of exchange. When the timing is right, it’s a pleasure to give back in the same way. What I always hope is that the young artist has an agenda, specific questions, a reason to want to make the connection.
This young man has all that. He is on time, clear-eyed and has given thought to what he wants to discuss. He lays out the career dilemma, and it’s a familiar one. He’s trying to decide, essentially, how to manage the balancing act between creative freedom and financial comfort.
I listen to everything he has to say. Try to process all the details. He tells me that he loves the work he’s doing—making digital content for a network, half-hour shows, short segments, mini-series, that he has tremendous creative freedom within the form, but that the company is trying to lock him up for a long time. And that his ultimate goal is to make movies. I ask him some questions about his lifestyle needs. He answers honestly — that he’s gotten used to the money, that it’s enough, he doesn’t need more, but he’s not really ready to walk away from it. We get granular about the work—and he says that the freedom to make what he wants to is ideal. The only drag of it is that the company has proposed a very long term deal, and he’s afraid this will stop him from making the movie he wants to make. He’s already written the script, can shoot it for a budget. We discuss what would happen if he quit the current gig. He says he’d have to work at Starbucks. I ask him if waiting to make it is going to kill him, if he can somehow do both at the same time. He allows that he can, that the company might give him an out, that they are sympathetic. That he doesn’t really want to leave. Just doesn’t want to be committed for more than a few years.
I understand the position he’s in. And my advice is that he makes sure the term of the new deal is short—two years, that he bank money during that time, reduce lifestyle so he can save, and then, if he wants to leave to make movies only, he should.
He thanks me. Says that this seems exactly right. But it’s clear something is bothering him. Finally, right before he stands, he says it. “I just thought…I hoped that you would tell me to fucking bag it, to quit no matter what, to work in a Starbucks if I had to so that I could make my movie right now. I wanted you…”
He wanted me to be the version of myself that he knew in six second bites, the version that encourages people to chase their dreams, that calls people out on their excuses. He had this idea of what he needed to hear based on an imaginary dialog we’d have, one that he had already had with me in his mind.
I see the disappointment on his face. Instead of begin jingoistic, ignoring the realities he laid out for me, I had tried to actually listen, to figure out what would be best for him in this specific moment. I had been reasonable. He needed me to be unreasonable, unyielding, deaf to his real life. I wasn’t. So I was a let down.
He’s as nice as could be when we shake hands before he leaves my office. And afterwards, as the late afternoon sun starts to fade, I sit there and try to make sense out of the situation.
What this bright young man was looking for was permission. As together as he is, as active and creative, he still doesn’t understand that he’s the only person he can look to for permission to be exactly who he wants to be. My job, in this sort of exchange, is to take him at face value, to avoid ladling my values onto his predicament, to use my experience to give him the best advice based on what he tells me he wants. That’s all I can do, all I can be.
When I am making the Six Second Vines, I am talking, primarily, to myself, to who I was when I was a blocked artist, and I am talking to you, too, if you need a little push, a little encouragement, a little bit of evidence that it’s possible to do what now seems impossible.
And I am talking to this young man too. But what I am trying to tell him, you, and, most importantly, myself, is that none of us need anyone else’s benediction, recognition, permission to live exactly the creative life we want to live. Only we know what steps we need to take; only we know how drastic, how desperate, how urgent those steps are.
You are the only one who can give yourself permission. I am the only one who can give myself permission. And this young man is the only one who can give himself permission. And that is great news. That is freedom. If we let it be.
We just need to listen to ourselves, to speak honestly to ourselves, to permit ourselves. And then, we are off and running.


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