J BUSH

There Are No Rules

I was meeting with a high-level producer in December. We were talking about wealth inequality. He was saying how the 23-year-old inventor of Snapchat had been offered $4 billion for the company — and turned it down — and he couldn’t believe this. I can believe this. I’ve seen all the graphs that show the algebraic curves of audience attention moving to mobile. Snapchat IS more valuable than old world companies. It holds more attention. The producer couldn’t accept that emotionally. It doesn’t make sense according to how the world used to work, even a year ago (but how could Snapchat be more valuable than Instagram?).

The world doesn’t change linearly. It changes slow then fast.

I interrupted him as all this clicked together in my head — “There are no rules,” I said. “You know that from the way this town works.”

The idea that a company that makes nothing could be valued higher than companies that have actually made stuff and sold it for a hundred years is almost unimaginable. But it makes sense. Because we don’t value stuff anymore. We no longer value intellectual property. What we value is attention. Whoever marshals, aligns, focuses that attention – those people control value.

Rules informally and retroactively (and usually unspokenly) come to be understood by those who have come to dominate a given marketplace for their own benefit – so they may perpetuate the good thing they’ve got going. If you examine any set of unspoken rules that a community informally adheres to, you’ll find it helps keep dominant groups dominant and non-dominant groups out. In my own community, this looks like rules about what a director looks and sounds like – what a screenwriter is supposed to look and sound like and what they’re supposed to talk about (hint: pretty much the opposite of me – should be less female (and yes, I’ve gotten this note) should be less angry, less pointed, less sharp, less full of rage, less sad, less confused, less honest, you need to watch that edge Julie, less dwelling on thoughts of killing.

The point is – any group enjoying the benefits of the rules don’t want you to suddenly realize there are no rules – the panopticon doesn’t exist – the prison bars are in your mind – you were trained since birth to only go as far as your tether and now you never venture further. They don’t have a fucking tether and they like that you do. They enjoy countless benefits from that. Mental freedom. Emotional freedom. In a town like Hollywood – where the most ruthless and sociopathic, and less dramatically, those most willing to take risks and try new things and just ask for what they want and forge relationships with the cool people (white men) and keep testing and testing and finding some way outside-the-rules thing that just might work – those who recognize there are no rules fastest win. Rules are for white men and all others who enjoy the benefits of unconscious cognitive biases – the beautiful, the wealthy, the physically perfect. Everyone else needs to step outside that pack racing to the middle as fast as possible and instead race out to the far reaches and establish an entrenched position. And hold it with fire.

When I was home in Georgia for Christmas, I visited a 26-year-old woman in prison. She started having kids as a teenager. By her mid-twenties she had three children, received no help from their father and was basically homeless. She appealed to every social service agency for help and was denied for one reason or another. (The agency for homelessness said they didn’t see her being stable in three months so she wasn’t worth helping.) She found a job delivering sandwiches for a local sandwich shop – which is where she met her new boyfriend. When she got denied every other form of assistance – and against her own better judgment – she and her kids moved in with him. Her baby died shortly thereafter. There are conflicting autopsy reports – one says blunt force trauma to the head, the other says asphyxiation. The jury never thought she actually killed her baby – but they convicted her of failing to prevent her baby from being killed. She is now serving multiple life sentences in state prison. Her other kids have been taken away and adopted by strangers. The baby is dead. She’ll spend the rest of her life in prison – at the age of 26.

Do you think she believes there are rules? Would she have been better off with a larger perspective on the way things really work – the way rules cut in favor of dominant groups and against people like her – appearing to punish the guilty and reward the virtuous while in reality all these rules do is keep everyone in their place – the Dickensian impoverished mother of three punished for her poverty and the wealthy never ever punished for their crimes no matter what they do cuz that feels icky to us, as if we’re shitting on the American dream.

There are no rules. Nothing makes sense. Question what the world tells you – explicitly and implicitly. Jump outside the pack. Question everything.

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This should go without saying but — there are no rules in screenwriting either. Great storytelling is all that matters.

  • Hecky

    Thanks for sharing Julie. Just a few quick comments, possibly off-course from what you’re saying. The sorts of rules you have in mind — i.e. the ones devised for the social world — clearly function just as you describe, if not worse: e.g. the unlegislated Darwinian economic rule that failing enterprises ought to be left to the mercy of the markets was of course utterly and spectacularly ignored in 2008, just as the US Supreme Court’s limitation of its ruling in Bush v. Gore appeared to be an attempt to ignore or outright defy the common-law principle of precedent (whether successful or not). As you say, the application of most social rules simply falls by the wayside when they run afoul of dominant interests.

    While I do sympathize with this point, surely it is too strong to say that “There are no rules” (full stop?) or that “Nothing makes sense” without adding something about the scope of these claims. These claims tread in this context on wide-open philosophical issues, and while such considerations would divert attention from the conclusion you want to emphasize — that people ought to make themselves aware of the dogmas to which they conform, and continue to conform to them at their own peril (or gain) — it is important to say that even if this conclusion is sound, it doesn’t show that rules are inherently bad, oppressive, etc. Not only does it appear that there is sense to be made about the world and how it works (why bother investigating or studying reality if it is fundamentally unintelligible?), it is also the case that some rules do make good sense. It makes good sense for people to agree on a rule that prohibits murder, since not doing so is tantamount to suicide.

    I’m not suggesting there must be rules, or that they always function well, only that most rules are settled upon for good reason. Rules are tools, and as such they don’t function as intended all of the time because they are subject to unforeseeable manifestations of circumstance (e.g. a self-defence exception to the “no murder” rule). They should be constantly monitored, assessed, and revised if necessary, but on balance it seems better to have them than not.

    Also, I do agree that people ought not be beholden to social dogmas. But when those dogmas are tacit or implicit, the challenge is first of all to recognize them, which is no easy task.

  • Neni

    and then you have the GroupOn example. He turned down an offer much like SnapChat’s CEO – only to see his userbase plumment a couple months after that. Overinflating value is much more prevalent in Silicon Valley than Hollywood, and for once – that’s a good thing…

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