Santa Clara University

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After words

Work within the system—and keep your independence

By Michael Whalen
Michael Whalen
Television writer, producer, and director Michael Whalen is an assistant professor of communication at SCU. Photo: Charles Barry



This spring in my television history course, in the midst of our discussion of Walt Disney’s first foray into television, in 1954, a student asked if there was any part of the entertainment business that Disney didn’t rule. While I share concerns regarding monopolistic practices and lack of diversity in the current age of corporate mergers in Hollywood, I also believe there is an upside. Look at Miramax’s and Pixar’s recent experiences with Disney—and what emerges is a tale illustrating the benefits of an independent producer knowing how to work within the system.

Prior to 1994, Miramax made a name for itself through “art” films and independent and foreign-language movies other studios refused to make. With the financial backing of Disney, Miramax was able to move more toward the mainstream and produce the Oscar-winning “English Patient” (1996), “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), and “Chicago” (2002), and the financially successful Scream and Scary Movie franchises. Disney acquired the company for $70 million in 1993; since then, seven Miramax films have grossed over $100 million. The Weinsteins leave Disney as major players and are reportedly seeking to raise $1 billion to fund their own “giant multimedia company.”

Pixar, and Steve Jobs, also benefited from their experiences with Disney. Jobs bought Pixar (then known as Graphics Group) from LucasFilm for $5 million. Five years later, Pixar signs a $26 million deal to make computer animated films, leading to the release of the blockbuster “Toy Story” in 1995. Fast forward to 2006: Disney buys Pixar for $7 billion in stock and, in essence, Jobs’ company takes over Disney’s animation production. Jobs becomes the single largest Disney shareholder, joins the Disney board, and is now one of the most powerful men in Hollywood.

Both the Weinsteins and Jobs were independent producers who worked the system to perfection, combining originality with knowledge of the corporate workings of Hollywood to gain a stronger foothold in the industry. Both did this while working with the company that Walt Disney put on the map doing the same thing with his original television series, “Disneyland.”

It’s the way Hollywood works. As an independent producer, you have to be willing to challenge the accepted conventions enough to get noticed—but not so much as to rock the boat. Television’s history is littered with examples, from Lucille Ball to Matt Groening, who have tweaked the genre enough to create a unique show but worked with the networks to get and keep their shows on the air.

My first producing job out of graduate school was for “Trauma Center,” a show on Fox. I desperately wanted to make my mark. The show’s concept was simple: follow people as they entered the ER through their recovery and release. The network executive in charge believed “Trauma Center” was about everyday heroes in the ER: doctors, nurses, and EMTs who save lives. In a twist of fate, many of the stories that I was producing seemed to turn tragic. The patients all seemed to die, which meant my stories were not making it into the show. The show premiered to pretty good ratings, but after about a month, ratings began to drop.

Either out of frustration (60 percent of my stories were left on the cutting room floor) or desperation, I challenged my bosses: I asked what they thought the show was about. “Everyday heroes in the ER,” they answered. I told them they were wrong: The show was about who died, or could die, and the inherent drama was the fight to survive. If the show was going to be “real,” people needed to die and we needed to show those stories. I lobbied for one of my more tragic stories. An elderly woman had entered the ER with minor injuries suffered in a car accident. The stress of the accident caused her to have a stroke and die in the ER—all in front of her daughter, the driver of the car. The doctors, nurses, and social workers of the hospital helped the daughter deal with the grief of knowing that she caused the accident. In effect, I had found the “hero” in the story. Midway into the first fall season of “Trauma Center,” its first death story aired—and the show became the highest rated episode of the series.

Hollywood will always be open to innovation, I tell my students: Just know how to work within the system. Independent producers who understand this will ultimately be successful in bringing their unique vision to film and television. But creative freedom, and the power it yields in Hollywood, doesn’t come without a struggle.