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WHEN THE NEW YORK Times reviewed my 1999 memoir, Where Did I Go Right?: You�re No One in Hollywood Unless Someone Wants You Dead, the book was described as �unmistakably Brillstein: loud, astute, crude, alternately self-aggrandizing and self- deprecating, and full of stories.�
And, by the way, they loved it.
Much has been said about me since I started in the mail- room at the William Morris Agency in New York fifty years ago and worked my way up and out as an agent, consultant, TV packager, movie and television producer, motion picture studio head, and talent manager. Some of it is even true. But I think producer Lynda Obst, writing in the Los Angeles Times, got to the heart of me when she declared, �Bernie Brillstein is a way of being in work. It is rapture in work.�
We�ve all got to make a living. What�s the point if you don�t love your work?
Because I love what I do, I�ve tried to be smart about it. I�ve paid attention to the lessons of tradition and kept my eyes on the new. I�ve celebrated my victories and made the best of my mistakes. I�ve solved problems with common sense instead of fancy theories.
I guess I did all right. I�ve personally guided the careers of Jim Henson; John Belushi; Gilda Radner; Dan Aykroyd; Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels; John Larroquette; Martin Short; Rob Lowe; Wayne Brady; my first client, Norm Crosby; writer/producer Alan Zweibel�and many others.
In 1992, I cofounded Brillstein-Grey Entertainment with Brad Grey, who now owns the company and has taken it to new heights. Among the many clients are Brad Pitt, Jennifer Aniston, Adam Sandler, and Nicolas Cage.
The company also produced shows like Just Shoot Me, ALF, NewsRadio, Politically Incorrect, Mr. Show, and the current sensation, The Sopranos.
Along the way, I had the idea for Hee Haw, helped get The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters made (and Dangerous Liaisons, among others, when I ran Lorimar Pictures), got my own star on Hollywood Boulevard�s Walk of Fame, won an Emmy, and got to know Jiminy Glick personally. Go figure.
Not only have I managed to survive and prosper, but I�m happy. My greatest achievement.
But I could never have done any of it�and kept it going�if I hadn�t remembered this: In business as in life, the little stuff matters most.
Outcomes rarely turn on grand gestures, high-flying concepts, or the art of the deal�and more often on whether you�ve sent someone a thank-you note.
It�s the truth.
Success is almost always about the basics. You stay in the game by playing by the right rules. Manners. Smarts. Open eyes. Counterintuitive thinking. A lot of knowledge about what you do. To me, truth comes through life experience. Common sense. The wisdom of trusted friends.
But how do you get that knowledge? I always looked to the past, to people who�d already learned the lessons. I got what I had to know to survive from the street in an era when one still had the luxury of time to absorb and grow. Now everything is too fast-paced, too corporate, and this bedrock of wisdom is being lost. It shouldn�t be.
I try to do my part to perpetuate tradition. For instance, at my company I�m now the guy the kids�and I call everyone �kid,� even if they�re older than I am�come to. My office door is always open, and rarely a day goes by without someone wandering in to ask for advice or to talk about a situation. I�ve lived long enough, watched the wheel of life turn often, and paid attention. I�ve seen the same act again and again, no matter how much it looks like it�s changed. That�s probably why�not because I look like Santa Claus�that people always ask, �What should I do, Bernie?�
That�s fine, as long as no one wants to sit on my lap.
When someone selling a movie script, or themselves as an actor, or their service as an executive producer on a TV show, asks me, �What�s the right price?��a question that you hear no matter what business you�re in�I tell them the right price is whatever they�re willing to pay you, and whatever you�re willing to take. How much do you need the job? How much is your mortgage? How badly do they want you?
I remember a bright, promising kid who was so focused on what someone else in the office was doing and earning that his own work had suffered. Suddenly, he thought he might get fired. I told him to take a seat on the couch, made sure he had a glass of water, and said: �One big problem with business today is that everyone wants to know what the other guy makes, what he�s up to. You should mind your own business. By �minding� I mean paying attention. You can�t do business if you don�t focus. You can�t make it big if you keep looking over your shoulder at the guy behind you, thinking, �He�s getting awfully close,� or at the guy ahead of you, thinking, �Why don�t I have what he has, do what he does?� Worry about yourself. I don�t mean you should be a selfish ass; I mean that too many people want to be someone else: They want the other guy�s job, his clothes, his car, his girlfriend, his salary. They want to be him. But if you want to be someone else, you can�t be you. And if you�re not you�as scary as that might seem at times�you have no chance.�
So a competitor tried to stab you in the back? Learn not to make drama out of an incident and let your enemy bury himself.
It�s not always about the bottom line, but what�s at the bottom of your heart.
Do something for the thrill of it all, not for the thrill of having it all.
Understand that there�s a difference between hot and good.
Have an opinion�even if it�s wrong.
Remember that winners make the tough calls and deliver bad news quickly.
God helps Himself, but you�ve got to ask (for that raise).
When your time has come, success will find you.
And for goodness� sake, turn off the pager and cell phone once in a while, meet friends face-to-face, don�t talk about work, and laugh as much as possible.
It�s not always strictly business, either. Once someone wrote to me asking: �I recently became well known in movies. I am also single. Suddenly, members of the opposite sex are very interested in me. How can I tell if they actually like me for me, or whether it�s just the money and fame they like?�
My answer: �Who cares? Enjoy it!�
Okay, there was more: �Let me tell you something: You could have no money, and you�d still have no way of knowing if they love you for your body, your face, or just you.
�Take the love you can get as you get it. What do you have to examine it for? If you�re a movie star, and someone wants to go to bed with you and you like them? Fine. If they want to take you to dinner? Fine. If you don�t like them, then don�t go out. How are you going to figure out what someone�s real intentions are when they don�t know what their real intentions are? You have to try it before you buy it.
�Of course, if you�re a big movie star, the likelihood is that everyone will want to say they�ve been with you. So yes�you�re probably going to get more charlatans in the mix. If your last motion picture price was $20 million and a gaffer comes on to you, who knows? Maybe you just turn him on, and he turns you on. What�s wrong with that?�
My advice is based only on what�s worked for me, so of course you�re asking why you should believe it will work for you.
All I can offer as proof is that I�m still around after all these years. I�ve been right more often than wrong, and that�s when people start to think that maybe you actually know something.
That�s why the publisher asked me to write this book.
To be perfectly honest, I hesitated at first. I read biographies, not self-help books. I don�t subscribe to esoteric management theories that not only guarantee to make you rich, powerful, and smarter than anyone else in the room, but throw in a way to lose weight while still eating all you want. Imagine that.
I should probably tell you I wrote this book because I�m a smart guy, and that the publisher made me such a wonderful offer that, being so savvy, I gave myself some very important advice: Don�t be an idiot. Take the dough.
The truth is a little more complicated. They made me such a wonderful offer that I thought, Don�t be an idiot. Take the dough. But make absolutely sure you really believe in what you�re doing.
You wouldn�t listen to my advice if I didn�t follow it myself.
Frankly, I was a little leery of doing this book because I�ve never imagined myself as some business guru. Also, the reaction to my memoir was so fantastic that I figured I should quit while I was ahead. (Another good bit of advice, though I can�t claim to have thought of it first. Whoever did, quit, and hasn�t been heard from since.)
But then I remembered how often my show business contemporaries, mailroom trainees, college students, and others called or wrote to tell me they highlight pages in my first book and refer to it when they need a second opinion. Nice. But that first book is nearly five hundred pages long. Who could carry it around everywhere? It made more sense to put my best big ideas into a small volume, a �Pocket Bernie� if you will, that could easily fit into anyone�s . . . well, pocket or bag. No more heavy lifting.
That sold me.
Who could resist performing a public service?
The Little Stuff Matters Most is my collection of in-the-trenches common sense so fundamental that, with all that�s been built atop it, it might seem uncommon. It distills fifty years of accumulated experience, insight, and instinct�in both business and life� into one slim volume of big ideas that�s easy to carry everywhere and to consult anytime you think a dose of clearheaded advice is required. There is no magic here, just unfailing honesty and unflinching directness.
In other words, this book is the closest you can come to having a personal manager on call at all times, without having to part with 15 percent of your paycheck.
Let me put it in classic Hollywood-speak: The Little Stuff Matters Most is like �zesty, bite-sized chunks of Don�t Sweat the Small Stuff, The Sayings of Chairman Mao, Harvey Penick�s Little Red Book on Golf, and The Elements of Style all floating in a bowl of chicken soup for the businessman�s soul.� Okay. It helps to have a sense of humor.
Please don�t look at this as a rule book, but as a collection of suggestions. Guidelines. There are no rules for the rules. Everyone has different rules. Your personality has to go with your rules. There are twenty guys and gals in every business who have made it because they followed their own rules. It�s not that complicated. Only brain surgery is brain surgery.
If you don�t learn anything�though I think you will�at least you�ll get a laugh and be entertained, so it won�t be a total loss.
Now that we�re getting to the end of this preamble, I want to make sure I�ve been absolutely clear about one thing: The Little Stuff Matters Most is not a book of secrets. There�s no Zen, no art of, no formula, no mystical philosophy; there are no three rules, seven habits, or ten steps. There are no tedious worksheets or personal diaries to keep. No daily affirmations. No seminars to attend�yet. You won�t feel worse about yourself if you don�t follow the program exactly because there is no program.
I don�t pull punches though, so a thick skin helps.
There�s also no test at the end of this book. The real test is living day to day. Being happy. The idea is to be able to get through it all and still come out ahead. The only way to do that is by helping yourself. I can point you in the right direction, but in the end you have to rely on your own instincts and wherever they lead you�or you�re screwed.
And best of all, you can still eat all you want.
First, Put Yourself in the Game
IF YOU�RE NOT ON the playing field, you�ll never discover if the game is for you, if you have an instinct for it, or if you�re any good at it. Too many people imagine what they might become but are so afraid of failing�or worse, being caught in something they can�t get out of�that they stay on the sidelines. Everyone who goes for an interview is scared. Get over it. Go in with the idea of testing yourself.
But first you have to get in the game.
Come to the job interview with the basics covered: clean, well-dressed, good manners. You need to know something about the business you want to be in. You probably also need a college degree; in Hollywood these days it takes a sheepskin just to get into a mailroom.
Next you have to communicate how much you want the position. You have to establish an immediate emotional and mental connection in what is admittedly a stressful situation. An actor, for instance, has to brave a cold room, read a script that usually stinks, with a partner who also stinks, for a casting agent and execs who have already heard the material fifty times that day. But if she wants the job, she has to rise above the negativity, get into their guts, work from instinct, create the connection, heat up the room. You do this not only by talking, but by listening. What does the guy who�s hiring want to hear? Follow that lead; he or she will help you along, especially if there�s a rapport. You�ll both know it immediately. Instinctively.
Our new dog used the same technique to get us to take him home. We went to the adoption center and she watched as we checked out the possibilities. When we finally came to her cage she literally did whatever was in her power to make us know she wanted to be ours. She jumped into my lap; she licked me; she jumped up and down and rolled over four times. She couldn�t actually say, �Boy, I�d love to live with you!� but believe me, that�s what I heard.
On the ride home I thought of how, when I was twenty-four, I�d set my sights on a job in the William Morris Agency mailroom. �You�re too old,� the interviewer said.
�I�m not too old,� I countered. �Plus, I�m willing to do anything I have to do to get the job. I really want to be here.�
In other words, I had to make the guy understand that I wanted the job no matter what, without actually jumping into his lap, licking him, or rolling over.
By the time I got home that afternoon there was a message telling me to come to work the next Monday.
Then the real games began.
Know the Difference
Between Hot and Good
ONE HIT IS HOT. A career is good.
Hot can be the beginning of good, but in the end it�s what you do with what you have. Longevity means staying in the game. How? Playing by the right rules. Manners. A little smarts. A lot of knowledge about what you do. A desire simply to do good work. If you think you wrote the book on anything, you�re wrong.
Unfortunately, the game these days is built on hot. Hot jocks. Hot actors. Hot agents. Hot trends. Hot shows. The cover of Vanity Fair is incestuously hot. That�s great; heat sells. But six months later, who cares? Look at a top-ten list of the most powerful people in Hollywood from ten years ago. Make it five years ago. How many are around today? Quick, who was last year�s hot supermodel?
There�s nothing wrong with being hot as long as you have some perspective. Every day�hot or not�I wake up asking myself, �How can I stay myself?� Meaning, how can I not buy into my own heat, or at least not worry about whether or not I�m hot. How can I just do what I do, what I�ve always done, ignore the noise, and stay humble? Okay, not humble; how about not too full of myself?
That�s part of the job description whether you�re a star, a chef, a fireman, or a hooker. Someone can be hot for many reasons, most of them having nothing to do with that person. She might be with a hot company. The whole industry may be hot. She might have landed in a hot film. Her team may be hot. One has to look at the big picture. Take the writers on a hit sitcom. Seinfeld is a great example. The show couldn�t have been hotter and the networks naturally wanted more of the same. So in their finite wisdom the powers that be at NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX said, �Get some of those writers from Seinfeld.�
When the season wound down they�d hire away a writer or writing team (who, if they�d been with the show a few seasons, now had producer titles), and say, �Look who we got!� They�d sign these writers for three years at two million dollars a year. And for what? The hope that they�d come up with some good ideas and create big hits.
Are the writers hot? It only seems that way. There were many writers on that show, but the bottom line is that Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld really came up with most everything, and the writers collaborated on the rest.
Three years later many of the hot writers with the big deals still haven�t sold a script or had a pilot picked up, and when their contracts expired they couldn�t get a job. With all that money, they can play a lot of golf.
Circumstances made them hot.
Look at the actors on Seinfeld. All are good actors who do quite well�and continue to. But the networks thought the Seinfeld magic would continue if each actor had his own show. What happened? Failed show. Failed show. Failed show. Meanwhile, only Larry David, who writes a show for himself on HBO, has a hit. I�m not knocking any of these people, but they were just on the right show, with the right chemistry, written by two geniuses, at the right time. Too bad they didn�t have geniuses writing their next shows. And by the way, I�m not blaming them for doing those shows. I�d take the money and keep working, too. It�s the networks expectations that were way off, and their overhyped belief that the public would automatically buy it. When big expectations crash, the sound of failure is louder. When will they learn?
Probably not soon enough.
The irony is that the more you worry about staying hot, the more likely you are to get cold. The trick is to keep doing exactly what you did before success arrived instead of trying to protect your accomplishments. Or copy them.
There�s a big market for hot because, beyond the heat, the hope is that hot will become good. It happens, mostly to people with talent and a good attitude. How do you tell? Ask these questions: Do they think they�re hot? Are they full of themselves? If so, chances are they�re not paying attention to the work and they�ll never get good.
My desires have always been straightforward: Do good work and try to not get killed. I just want to continually expand my horizons and ignore the distractions.
But sometimes you need a little wake-up call. Mine was a classic.
Years ago, for a time, I couldn�t have been hotter. I was so hot that maybe I had a little heat stroke. My wife and I got invited to the Golden Globes because someone I represented was nominated. We pulled up in the limo. Outside were hundreds of reporters and photographers. We got out of the car and stepped onto the red carpet. I straightened my tuxedo and looked up. Instead of flashbulbs popping and the press yelling my name, all I heard was one voice say, �Ah . . . it�s no one.�
I�m still around, though. I represent people who are good, not just hot. Longevity is the difference between the two, and learning how to tell the difference ensures it.