In the summer of 2006 I was summoned to a conference room in Burbank to participate in a grand old Hollywood tradition: Getting chewed out by the head of the studio.
"Don't talk," a veteran producer warned me. "It goes quicker if you don't defend yourself."
Dressed in old jeans and filthy sneakers, I had the worn, frazzled look of a man who'd been forced to evacuate his home in a hurry - and hadn't been back since. For almost a year, I'd worked in windowless writing offices and drafty shooting stages - putting in 18-hour days, seven days a week - trying to make Justice
, a television show about lawyers, airing on the Fox network.
It wasn't going well. As I was the show's creator and show runner, blame - by custom and the law of agency - fell squarely on my shoulders.
A coven of studio executives swept into the room and took their seats on the other side of the table. Most avoided eye contact with me, the way jurors won't look at a guilty man. The exception, a lawyer in the studio's general counsel's office, smiled at me, then made a low whistle through his teeth - like the sound of a bomb falling from an airplane - ending with a low, growling boom.
Then the head of the studio arrived. The temperature in the room seemed to fall to freezing. Every previous meeting with this man had been full of smiles, hugs, compliments about my talent as a writer, praise for my vision, and excitement at the show's endless potential. But now he stared at me with the dead black orbs of a hired killer.
"You're over budget," he said with disgust, as if he couldn't get the words out of his mouth fast enough. He then rattled off numbers - our budget per episode versus our actual costs, our hours of overtime due to shooting delays, our overruns caused by having to recast several roles. His voice steadily rose in white-hot rage.
None of it was true. Or, all of it was true. Who can really say? In this world, there are real numbers, cardinal numbers, and Hollywood numbers - the latter being any value assigned to any number that is in the best interest of the studio paying the bills, or trying to hide the profits.
On and on he went. Every fiber in my body as a lawyer wanted to respond: Our budget was inadequate. Our production costs were actually well below that of any other show of our size or scope. The delays in shooting were the result of studio policies (including their
decision to recast the roles) and equipment we were forced to rent from the studio itself at a higher cost than available elsewhere.
The trial lawyer in me wanted to counterattack, to point out what everyone in the room knew but would not say. Namely, that the studio's big gamble that season, a show they had staked tons of money and prestige on, was a gold-plated stinker - and much more over budget than our little show. It was bleeding the studio dry. If the head of the studio was so incensed, it should have been with the other guy - the critical darling, the superstar creator and show runner who had struck out on his
show - not me.
But, as advised, I kept my mouth shut. For a full hour I didn't so much as cough. When the tirade was over, the head of the studio swept out, followed by his minions and the studio executives.
"Thank God I never became a writer," one of the executives said on his way out, the one who had smiled and whistled at me, the lawyer from the general counsel's office.
For the first time in my life, I understood the appeal of being an in-house attorney. It may not be flashy or fun, but from where I sat that day, it looked like a much happier, safer place to be. Still, show business is a seductive drug. I went back to work on my dream of writing a hit, and Justice
turned out to be a great show. Nevertheless, our reward was getting canceled after 13 episodes. That the gold-plated stinker didn't last any longer wasn't much consolation.
Writer and producer Jonathan Shapiro, of counsel in the Los Angeles office of Kirkland & Ellis, is the author of
Lawyers, Liars and Other Storytellers, due out this month from ABA Publishing.