The Business of Fame in Hollywood
Written by A. Selway Ryan
Us Weekly likes to quote a poll stating that a healthy majority of Americans would rather be famous than rich. There are a lot of good reasons why, not the least being that fame tends to breed wealth. But the truth is, it’s more than that.
For over fifty years, smart people have written extensively on the subject of celebrity: how it informs our national consciousness, how it degrades us, how it makes us ridiculous. From cultural critic Theodore Adorno to historian Daniel Boorstin, media theorist Marshall McLuhan to inventor of the TV Philo Farnsworth, people holding nice pens in overstuffed armchairs have made it clear that they don’t like celebrity culture. And it’s safe to say they wouldn’t be too happy about that poll.
Most famously of all, the pop art movement fathered by Andy Warhol zeroed in on fame as the mother and child of all social ills – and, tragically or not, a hell of a lot of fun; even (and especially) if you hate it. “Everyone gets their fifteen minutes of fame,” he declared, with the hip cynicism so definitive of the era.
And yet…not so much. Statistically, fame is still exceedingly rare – rarer still if the level of fame is taken into account. There are hundreds of millions of people in this country, and at most ten or twenty thousand who could be deemed recognizable to a large group.
If we take celebrity to be a pyramid, say with the President at the top and reality show participants at the base, America isn’t Giza; it’s Cairo. It just may not seem that way when you’re in the King’s Chamber.
All hipness and cynicism aside, one of the obvious reasons we all want to be famous is that we aren’t.
* * *
You may or may not have heard of Bo Burnham – he’s a star comedian born in 1990. (And I had just made my peace with the fact that LeBron James is younger than me.) Know how he got famous? He posted a video from his bedroom to YouTube.
"He's definitely the youngest comedian I've worked with – he was getting ready for his SATs when I called – but the quality of his writing is amazing," said super-agent Douglas Edley, who represents stars ranging from Drew Carey to Dave Chappelle. His assistant referred him to Burnham after she saw his video online. His material is mostly dirty novelty songs.
When film comedy patron saint Judd Apatow saw him perform, the set surely reminded him of his protégée Seth Rogen’s energy and vitality. (With Apatow’s support, Rogen starred in his first smash hit at 24, with little prior movie experience – Knocked Up launched both their careers into the stratosphere.) Burnham is now working on a movie that Apatow will produce.
* * *
It’s a different world out there for people who want to be famous, and it’s a strange road for the few who travel very far towards the goal. Lionel Barrymore had to master the medium of theater before he could get a crack at the silver screen; Humphrey Bogart had to climb through the ranks of the studio talent system for decades before he was truly famous.
And that’s if you’re an actor, where obedience and adaptation are the watchwords. For writers and directors, the climb is steep enough that it was nearly impossible to break through to prominence for the first half-century of the medium. That’s why so many early filmmaking icons were all-rounders, like Chaplin or Keaton.
By the time John Cassavettes came along, it became clear that it was possible – albeit very difficult – to get famous(ish) doing it yourself. It got easier, but by the time veteran actor and director Steve Buscemi started contributing to the 90s indie renaissance, the two-tier system was firmly in place. What Rudyard Kipling said about the hemispheres could easily be applied to rival filmmaking methods in America: “East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.”
Buscemi – who is sweeping through the awards season on the strength of a powerful performance on HBO’s Martin Scorsese-produced Boardwalk Empire – doesn’t mind. "I think it's good not to be on top of the world,” he says. “It must be lonely being on top. I'd rather be with everybody else."
* * *
After Burnham signed with Edley, he went on an international tour with a popular one-man show. His SAT’s finished, his college applications abandoned, he traveled the world (mostly college towns) enjoying the adulation of thousands of screaming fans. He knew many more existed, but "I only see numbers on a screen," he says. "I don't interact with people much."
You don’t have to go very far in the history of celebrity to find people who were particularly suited to their fame. Aside from being a once-in-a-generation beauty, Marilyn Monroe was an orphan. She was raised without a loving family around her, and suffered such severe bouts of loneliness and depression as a child that, for a time, she believed she was invisible.
It’s far too easy for the tens of millions of Americans who read Us Weekly, watch E!, and surf TMZ to feel like they’re invisible. Their community does not consider them worthy of healthcare if they’re not working at a good job. Their schools often forget about them. Their voices don’t matter much in the stratified political process. They don’t know too many people, and not too many people know them.
One reason we want to be famous is that we aren’t already. But another reason might be that a lot of us feel pretty alone – and that’s one thing a famous person never has to be.
Marketing matters: from IBM to Kyndryl
Prior to joining Kyndryl as Chief Marketing Officer, Maria had a 25-year career at IBM, most recently as the tech giant’s CMO where she oversaw all marketing professionals and activities across North America, Canada and Latin America. She has held senior global marketing positions in a variety of disciplines and business units across IBM, most notably strategic initiatives in Smarter Cities and Watson Customer Engagement, as well as leading teams in services, business analytics, and mobile and industry solutions. She is known for her work with teams to leverage data, analytics and cloud technologies to build deeper engagements with customers and partners.
With a passion for marketing, business and people, and a recognized expert in data-driven marketing and brand engagement, Maria talks to Business Chief about her new role, her leadership style and what success means to her.
You've recently moved from IBM to Kyndryl, joining as CMO. Tell us about this exciting new role?
I’m Chief Marketing Officer for Kyndryl, the independent company that will be created following the separation from IBM of its Managed Infrastructure Services business, expected to occur by the end of 2021. My role is to plan, develop, and execute Kyndryl's marketing and advertising initiatives. This includes building a company culture and brand identity on which we base our marketing and advertising strategy.
We have an amazing opportunity ahead at Kyndryl to create a company brand that will stand apart in the market by leading with our people first. Once we are an independent company, each Kyndryl employee will advance the vital systems that power human progress. Our people are devoted, restless, empathetic, and anticipatory – key qualities needed as we build on existing customer relationships and cultivate new ones. Our people are at the heart of this business and I am deeply hopeful and excited for our future.
What experiences have helped prepare you for this new opportunity?
I’ve had a very rich and diverse career history at IBM that has lasted 25+ years. I started out in sales but landed explored opportunities at IBM in different roles, business units, geographies, and functions. Marketing and business are my passions and I landed on Marketing because it allowed me to utilize both my left and right brain, bringing together art and science. In college, I was no tonly a business major, but an art major. I love marketing because I can leverage my extensive knowledge of business, while also being able to think openly and creatively.
The opportunities I was given during my time at IBM and my natural curiosity have led me to the path I’m on now and there’s no better next career step than a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to help launch a company. The core of my role at Kyndryl is to create a culture centered on our people and growing up in my career at IBM has allowed me to see first-hand how to prioritize people and ensure they are at the heart of progress in everything Kyndryl will do.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I believe that people aren't your greatest assets, they are your only assets. My platform and background for leadership has always been grounded in authenticity to who I am and centered on diversity and inclusion. I immigrated to the US from Chile when I was 10 years old and so I know the power and beauty that comes from leaning into what makes you different from other people, and that's what I want every person in my marketing organization to feel – the value in bringing their most authentic self to work every day. The way our employees feel when they show up for themselves authentically is how they will also show up for our customers, and strong relationships drive growth.
I think this is especially true in light of a world forever changed by the pandemic. Living through such an unprecedented time has reinforced that we are all humans. We can't lead or care for one another without empathy and I think leaders everywhere have been reminded of this.
What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?
When I was growing up as an immigrant in North Carolina, I often wanted to be just like everyone else. But my mother always told me: Be unique, be memorable – you have an authentic view and experience of the world that no one else will ever have, so don't try to be anyone else but you.
What does success look like to you?
I think the concept of success is multi-faceted. From a career perspective, being in a job where you're respected and appreciated, and where you can see how your contributions are providing value by motivating your teams to be better – that's success! From a personal perspective, there is no greater accomplishment than investing in the next generation. I love mentoring younger professionals – they are the future. I want my legacy as a leader to include providing value in work culture, but also in leaving a personal impact on the lives of professionals who will carry the workforce forward. Finding a position in life with a job and company that offers me a chance at all of that is what success looks like to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self just starting out in the industry?
I've always been a naturally curious person and it's easy for me to over-commit to projects that pique my interest. I've learned over years of practice how to manage that, so to my younger self I’d say… prioritize the things that are most important, and then become amazing at those things.