‘No’ Hollywood Style

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“Oh, he RSVPs ‘yes’ for everything, just in case he decides to go.”
— Movie star’s aide, explaining why said star didn’t honor his promise to attend a dinner party.

Most “creatives” — what entertainment-industry suits call musicians, writers, actors and other artists (sometimes they’re called “talent,” but sexist moguls also use that word to describe pretty girls walking by their tables at Spago) — have suffered what observers have called the Hollywood No when a powerful honcho who can’t live without their “product” suddenly disappears into the ether like Amelia Earhart.

Some of the heaviest heavyweights return calls and email at lightning speed. Do these bigwigs suddenly become too busy? What gives?

Fear of closing the door on a project that might hit the jackpot elsewhere drives many a Hollywood No. All the major record labels passed on The Beatles, and outright rejecting an opportunity like that is every exec’s worst nightmare.

For some, it’s part of the strategic dance. Like a guy who has a great first date but waits four days to call for another, they want to show interest, but not too much interest.

Pure flakiness cannot be discounted. And not the flakiness that makes Hollywood — at least according to “Google Answers” — the dermatological capital of the U.S. Your project simply flies out of the mogul’s vacuum of a brain.

Sometimes, though, the exec is just being a jerk. A movie producer went wild over a magazine article I’d optioned a couple of years ago. When she didn’t respond to several follow-ups, I called her cell. At first, she thought it was a different Michael, but nimbly retrenched: “I want to be your partner. I’m walking through my office door as we speak and will call you back immediately from my land line.” You know the rest.

Being on the wrong end of a Hollywood No can be devastating for bizzers, but many L.A. civilians face a similar brew of enthusiasm, spaciness and rudeness in social situations.

Say you’re planning a dinner party, an important institution for binding people together in this coreless city. Most invitees who say they’ll show up do, but overbooking is a must because the Hollywood No always looms:

1 “Can’t make it tonight after all. Just found out I’m moving.”
2. “I’m on my way, but the traffic is a disaster. I don’t know when I’ll get there and would hate to hang you up, so maybe I should take a rain check. What? I’m in the canyon and you’re breaking up. Call you tomorrow.”
3. “Sorry we didn’t make it last night, but we forgot Jane’s guru was in town. We couldn’t call because we were in silence.”
4. “You mean your party was last night? You told me it was next Saturday.”

The Hollywood No is a key element of a code that, once deconstructed, at least allows the petitioner to take things less personally. A similar but somehow more honorable convention exists in Japan. In their 2005 book Japanese Business Culture and Practices, Jon P. Alston and Isao Takei advise Americans against asking a Japanese businessman a yes or no question. Since saying “no” is considered aggressive, a Japanese executive may give a qualified “yes” “or a vague statement that does not obligate the speaker,” even if there’s no intention to pursue the project.

It’s legitimate to get angry when a rejection isn’t handled with courtesy. But anger, however justifiable, can also be a reflection of dissatisfaction with oneself. Saying “no” can be risky, so sometimes we say “yes” when we don’t mean it just to avoid confrontation. And let’s face it. Who hasn’t said “yes” to an invitation that sounded great at the time only to discover, as the event nears, that you’d rather occupy the couch and root for a serial killer on the latest Dexter episode?

Trying to be Zen about the Hollywood No is all well and good. But it’s not okay — in business or personal affairs — to answer affirmatively and then bail mysteriously. If you don’t want to pursue the project or go to the party, bow out gracefully. If circumstances change, say so. To paraphrase John and Yoko, “All we are saying is give decency a chance.”

Is any of this likely to change? Given human nature and the high stakes involved, the answer is — and I mean this in the old-fashioned sense of the term — “no.”

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