In addition to being Mecca for the film and television industries, L.A. is also home to about a zillion entertainment-related organizations. They're a diverse group that includes unions, academies, film schools, lobbying groups, film festivals and social-networking outfits. All of them figured out long ago that the most effective form of promotion in L.A. is the “event” and the cheapest form of event is a panel discussion. Everybody does them. I’ve sat on many, organized a few and attended plenty. Basically, all you need is a big room, a microphone and some folding chairs and you’re in business. Your panel will need some sort of topic or theme (something catchy like “The Changing Face of Transgendered Asians in the New Media), but no matter what your topic, the success or failure of your event will rest solely on one ingredient: your panelists.
This being Hollywood, celebrity panelists are a big score, but they’re hard to get, so the next step down the food chain is to book panelists who have recently worked in the industry or as I like to call them “People with Parentheses.” Having pretty much anything in “parenthesis” behind your name casts the illusion that you might actually know what you’re talking about. For years my parenthesis read David Dean Bottrell (“Kingdom Come”). Currently, it’s David Dean Bottrell (“Boston Legal”). If you’re wondering what the content of your parenthesis might be, here is the formula: It’s what the headline of your L.A. Times obituary would say if you happen to die on the day of the panel.
I think I became popular on the circuit because I possess two skills highly desirable in a panelist: I'm usually funny and I can make a point in less than two minutes. On various occasions I’ve “paneled” on the writing process, being a produced writer, being a produced writer with spiritual beliefs and being a white writer of African-American entertainment. I’ve also sat on a lot of gay panels where I shared hilarious anecdotes about being a gay writer, a gay actor, a gay director, a gay producer and a gay activist. What can I say? The gays love a good panel. When asked to be on a panel, I almost always say yes, because like everyone else in show business, no matter how busy I am, I never feel like I’m busy enough. And needless to say, if there is any free food or drink involved, I’m there!
I enjoy doing panels. They're fun. No special preparation is needed and the only real requirement is that you speak when spoken to. There are only two parts of the evening I dread. The first is the “Q & A” with the audience. Sometimes the “Q’s” are great. Sometimes not. Occasionally, the audience member at the microphone doesn’t seem to have an actual "Q," and instead winds up delivering a long, strange monologue with only the slightest connection to the subject we've been discussing. This is always a tad awkward and leads to a lot of squinting and nodding on the part of the panelists.
The other dicey part of the evening is what I call “the surge.” The surge occurs when the panel is over and the audience storms the stage to talk to the panelists. This can be a little scary, particularly when I see people coming at me holding headshots or spec scripts. That’s the tough part about paneling - when I find myself face-to-face with individual members of the audience. Most of these people are knocking themselves out, working side jobs or taking classes while trying to get a foothold in the entertainment business. They’ve come to this event hoping to gain some useful information or to maybe forge a professional connection with someone (someone like you). I often meet people at these events that inspire me with their guts and determination and others that worry me a little; people who seem ill prepared for the journey or maybe a little mature to still be chasing this particular dream.
Once, during a particularly dramatic “surge,” a nervous, skittish-looking young woman approached me and asked my advice on her stalled acting career. Pouring her heart out, she told me she felt the problem basically stemmed from having been raised in a highly critical household that had left her suffering from a crippling lack of self-esteem. The girl was a mess. I listened until it became hugely uncomfortable. Finally I broke in, giving her some generic “hang-in-there” advice and ducked guiltily away. I felt bad, but I knew I couldn't say what I honestly wanted to (which was: “Wake the fuck up, Sister! This is your life you’re screwing around with!")
Forgive me while I climb atop my soapbox for a minute. This job is not for everybody. The basic component of all creative work is fantasy and fantasy can be a wonderful anesthetic for our personal pain, but the entertainment industry is not designed for slow-moving people with delicate constitutions. We all like to think of ourselves as exotic flowers, but until proven otherwise, we will be viewed as dandelions at best. It pays to know up front that the big riding mower of show business shows no favoritism and will be cutting off your head on a regular basis. But wait! There’s good news! To stretch that dandelion metaphor a little further -- the ability to grow a new head by the end of the week is the mark of someone who is putting down roots and it’s those roots that will sustain you until someone recognizes your talent and gives you your first decent opportunity. I can guarantee you that most of the people you admire (people with parentheses behind their name) are on their fourteenth or fifteenth head by now. I know I am.
Maybe I'm a dreamer, but I'm hoping that someday soon, I'll be so swamped with extremely high paying work that I won't have time to sit on any more panels. Or maybe one day a big studio talent scout will spot me sipping my Evian behind the panelists' table and it will be Hollywood's version of true love. He will see in me the guy he's been looking for -- the perfect produced writer-director-actor for that white, African-American, activist dramedy with spiritual, yet gay undertones. My ship will have finally come in!
Copyright 2008 Quitcher-Bitchyn Entertainment
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David Dean Bottrell is an actor (“Boston Legal”) and screenwriter (“Kingdom Come”) who writes a weekly blog about being unexpectedly middle-class in Hollywood at www.partsandlabor.tv