Rachel McAdams on the set of True Detective in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Charlotte Österdal
Rachel McAdams on the set of True Detective in Los Angeles, California. Photo: Charlotte Österdal


How to succeed in Hollywood - be nice!

TV producer Rowan Riley knows how to succeed in Hollywood. It’s a tough business, and you need all the friends you can get, she says. So her strategy is simple - be nice.

TV shows set in Los Angeles

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In Los Angeles, everybody’s in show business. Either they have a script to sell or they’re looking for the next big hit. It’s not always pretty.

At ground level, the geography changes from ocean boardwalks and urban sprawl to canyons and rocky hills. However, the toughest territory to navigate in this neon-bright city of opportunities is the vertiginous heights (and unexpected pitfalls) of the entertainment capital of the world.

“The number one aphorism I subscribe to is ‘Be nice to people on your way up, because you’ll meet them again on your way down,’” says Rowan Riley, a producer at independent production company Burn Later. “Hollywood isn’t an overnight success story – it’s a long slog, an endurance battle. Sometimes people who get success early fare the worst.”

TV producer Rowan Riley knows the ­secrets of the ­Hollywood business. Photo: Charlotte Österdal

Riley is fresh from a three-year stint at Anonymous Content, the company behind such groundbreaking TV shows as True Detective and Mr. Robot, as well as critic­-approved indie films like the recently ­released The End of the Tour, the story of a five-day-long Rolling Stone interview with author David Foster Wallace that took place after the publication of the ­novel Infinite Jest.

“In the film industry, you’re a buyer or a seller,” Riley explains. “As an independent producer, one of the things you don’t do is put your own money into a movie, that’s the rule. At Burn Later, they’re big financiers, so I have what you’d call in the industry ‘incoming calls’ – instead of hustling the whole time and trying to get people to look at scripts. It’s fun to be on the other side.”

‘As a producer, it’s wise to have as many friends as possible, in all places’

Riley says “being nice” can cover a range of situations, from being polite and script-pitching Uber drivers (a common occupational hazard) to creating allies at other agencies.

“As a producer, it’s wise to have as many friends as possible, in all places. I try to honestly connect with people – and it’s usually the smartest, not necessarily the nicest or most obviously important people, but those who are going to be in the industry for the longest, and whom I can trust. You have to protect your relationships to get things done, survive, and move on. Sometimes it’s like Entourage, but I see it mostly like Game of Thrones.”

Starting out at one of the big agencies is the best move for newcomers if they want to produce, write, or be involved in making movies or TV.

“You’re going to get treated like shit there, and if you can get through that and leave knowing people and better off than you arrived, then you’ll probably be OK,” she says.

For the aspiring mogul, this can make a qualitative difference. It teaches people about the power of the omnipresent phone, for example.

“I never stay on a call for longer than two minutes if I’m pitching something or don’t know the person well,” Riley says. “Just outline the project, say the right names, and set up a lunch. Letting a call run on is a big mistake people make. There’s only so much time in a day.”

Phones and other devices also play a key role in Hollywood intelligence gathering. For example, there are the conference callers who only pretend to hang up so they can continue to follow the conversation in their supposed absence. One famous producer regularly “forgets” his iPad when he exits a meeting in order to record the subsequent candid discussion of his project.

Actors Rami Malek and Christian Slater at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. Photo: GettyimagesRiley’s other pro tip, however, doesn’t involve such behind-the-scenes machinations. It’s simply to make the most of being in Los Angeles, its dynamic culinary, art, and music scenes, and its varied neighborhoods.

Studios can often be subject to industry myopia, she says, making films based on other films that performed well at the box office, seemingly forgetting that telling compelling stories is what the business is all about.

“I’m not so interested in making a movie about cancer because another movie about cancer happened to do well. You have to almost be a precog, so don’t only hang out with other industry people. Cozy up to people at restaurants or in the music business, because at the end of the day, life is bigger than the industry, and you’re not making films about the industry.”

If you can get a seat at the right restaurant, it doesn’t just make you look good, but once there you might discover your next project.

“Now you know about wine and food, and you’re hanging out with people who can talk about something other than the industry,” she says.

“You never know if your waiter is the next Eric Roth or something. Mostly they’re not, but you also don’t want to get your food spat on. And maybe you will stumble onto a great script about a chef. So I try to take advantage of everything else that’s in LA and is great.”


By Sam Eichblatt

Last edited: May 20, 2017

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