It took me exactly two meetings to realize I was becoming professionally irrelevant.
The first was in a glass tower in Burbank. When I walked in and shook his hand, I thought, “Whoa, I’ve got a kids older than this punk.” And I could tell by his uneasy smile that he was thinking, “Whoa, why did I agree to hear a pitch from a guy who’s, like, older than my dad?”
A minute of small talk followed; he referenced a movie of mine that he saw in 1993, when he was 5, and I recalled that filmmaking back then was much more pleasant. The exchange was passive-aggressive: he implied that my fellow dinosaurs and I should step aside and let the next generation rule; I implied that he embodied a creative process corrupted by vertically integrated corporate culture. And, then, with a not-very-discreet glance at his watch, he said, “So, what’ve you got?”
As I pitched, he tended to his slacks and smoothed his cashmere V-neck, his mind elsewhere. Afterward, there were no questions. “Let me run it by my colleagues and we’ll be in touch,” he said quickly, without enthusiasm, telegraphing the phone call that came from my agent later that day. “It wasn’t for them,” my agent said. And even he sounded exasperated, like he wanted to say, “You’re a 55-year-old in a young man’s business. Please take a fucking teaching job so I don’t have to keep setting these dead-end meetings.”
Later that week, I met with a fellow dinosaur, an unapologetically gray, newly wrinkled guy I’d known for years. He’d been an executive in the '90s, with a big corner office, then a producer in the '00s, with a couple of legitimate hits. He had recently devolved into an “independent producer,” meaning he still had friends in the executive tower, so they gave him an office in a musty corner of the lot. It was a windowless rectangle that he shared with an unpaid intern.
We parked ourselves in front of stained rental furniture and he reminisced for a full hour about the movies he made (“God, what a stinker! But at least I got my first wife out of it”) and the people he knew (“I saw him at Nate & Al’s. He’s roadkill!”). He recalled the days when pitches were a viable selling tool, when the studios paid for research and travel, when story meetings didn’t include twelve people from four departments. And, of course, he remembered the days when executives returned his calls.
On the way home, I realized that when you spend an entire business meeting reminiscing about the good old days, it’s time to start thinking about chapter two. This descent into the netherworld of professional irrelevancy echoed what my forebears had been through. My father worked at the same company for 45 years, rising through the ranks to become chairman. He retired when he was 65, and then many of the people he had worked with for decades never spoke to him again. “One day I was in, the next day I was out,” he said. Fortunately, he was passionate about art, so he reinvented himself, becoming a landscape painter. My grandfather wasn’t so fortunate. His self-esteem deserted him when he retired. He became an alcoholic, developed liver problems and died.
The companies I felt pushing me onto the ice floe were the companies that had employed me for years, on dozens of different projects. I was a freelancer who had built and maintained a family life in Los Angeles based on relationships at those companies. The idea of reinventing myself outside of that construct was disorienting. I heard the voice of my grandfather, whispering, “It’s over, Sam.” And then I heard the voice of my father, whispering, “It’s all about reinvention, Sam.”
Fortunately, I married someone who also believes in reinvention, so after our youngest son graduated from high school, we moved from Los Angeles to upstate New York. We’re in a farmhouse on 13 acres, fifteen minutes from the nearest town and a world away from that glass tower in Burbank.
Every day, I work on stories I’ve wanted to write but didn’t because I was too busy trying to remain relevant in an unforgiving business. And, yes, I’m looking into teaching at a local college. And every day, I walk my dog down the long, dirt driveway and into the cornfield across the road. There’s a hawk who perches high on a dead tree and watches us. Deer bound into the low bushes beyond the corn. Mud closes over the toes of my boots. I hear nothing but the wind. If this is irrelevance, I’ll take it.