Tiger Mom’s regime won’t get her kids very far in Hollywood

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It’s hard to go anywhere these days, especially if you’re a parent with young kids, where the conversation doesn’t eventually turn to Amy Chua’s red-hot childrearing memoir, “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.” It offers a provocative depiction of Chinese-style extreme parenting -- her daughters are not allowed to watch TV, have playdates or get any grade below an A, all as preparation for success in life, beginning with getting into an Ivy League school, like their Tiger Mom, who went to Harvard and now teaches at Yale Law School.

But of all the heated reaction to Chua’s parenting strategy, none was as compelling as what former Harvard president Larry Summers had to say when he discussed parenting with Chua at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Summers made a striking point, arguing that the two Harvard students who’d had the most transformative impact on the world in the past 25 years were Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, yet neither had, ahem, graduated from college. If they had been brought up by a Tiger Mom, Summers imagined, she would’ve been bitterly disappointed.


I have no beef with Chua’s parenting code, which hardly seems any more extreme than the neurotic ambitions of mothers and fathers I’m exposed to living on the Westside of Los Angeles. But if Chua wants a radically different perspective on the relationship between higher education and career achievement, she should spend some time in Hollywood, a place that’s been run for nearly a century by men who never made it through or even to college. The original moguls were famously uneducated, often having started as peddlers and furriers before finding their perches atop the studio dream factories. But even today, the industry is still dominated by titanic figures, both on the creative and on the business side, who never got anywhere near Harvard Yard.

A short list of the industry leaders who never finished or even attended college would include Steve Jobs, David Geffen, Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg, James Cameron, Clint Eastwood, Barry Diller, Ron Meyer, Peter Jackson, Harvey Weinstein, Scott Rudin and Quentin Tarantino. Some of this is clearly a generational thing, since everyone on that list is over 40. On the other hand, the younger new media icons seem as likely to be degree free as their Hollywood brethren, whether it’s Zuckerberg or the founders of Twitter, who didn’t graduate from college either. (Though it’s true that Zuckerberg might not have even thought of Facebook if he hadn’t been in the sexually charged freshman swirl at Harvard.)

But in showbiz, you learn by doing. If there is a common denominator to all of those success stories, it’s that they were all men in a hurry, impatient with book learning, which could only take them so far in the rough ‘n tumble world of Hollywood. Ron Meyer, a founder of Creative Artists Agency and now president of Universal Studios, dropped out of high school, served in the Marines and proudly notes on his resume that his first job was as a messenger boy for the Paul Kohner Agency.

“The truth is that if you have a particular talent and the will to succeed, you don’t really need a great education,” Meyer told me this week. “In showbiz, your real college experience is working in a talent agency mailroom. That’s the one place where you can get the most complete understanding of the arena you’re playing in and how to deal with the complicated situations you’ll come across in your career.”

There are plenty of successful lawyers and MBAs in Hollywood, but the raw spirit of can-do invention and inspiration will take people farther than the ability to read a complex profit and loss statement. Years ago, David Geffen, who dropped out of night school at Brooklyn College before eventually landing a job in the William Morris mailroom, once told me that his early success was rooted in the ability to develop relationships. “It’s not about where you went to college or how good-looking you are or whether you could play football--it’s about whether you can create a relationship.”

To produce a film or create a TV show or found a company requires the same kind of raw entrepreneurial zeal that it must have taken the ‘49ers who came West in search of gold. “You often feel like you’re surrounded by a do-it-yourself ethic, almost a pioneer spirit,” says Michael De Luca, producer of “The Social Network,” who dropped out of NYU four credits short of graduation to take a job at New Line Cinema, where he rose to become head of production. “All those successful guys you’re talking about--they had an intense desire to create something big, new and different. They didn’t need to wait around for the instruction manual.”

In David Rensin’s wonderful oral history, “The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up,” survivors of the Mike Ovitz-era CAA experience tell war stories about how, as mailroom flunkies, they had to replenish Ovitz’s candy dishes, stock his jars with raw cashews and fill his water jar with Evian. It seemed like hellish drudgery, but as the agents recalled, it prepared you for all the craziness of later Hollywood life, where multi-million dollar movie star deals could fall apart if someone’s excercise trainer or make-up specialist wasn’t provided for.

Even today, people in Hollywood are far more impressed by, say, your knack for finding new talent, than by what your grades were like. “Show business is all about instinct and intuition,” says Sam Gores, head of the Paradigm Agency, who went to acting school, but never to college, having joined a meat-cutter’s union by the time he was 18. “To succeed, you need to have a strong point of view and a lot of confidence. Sometimes being the most well-informed person in your circle can almost get in your way.”

In show business, charm, hustle and guile are the aces in the deck. When New York Times columnist David Brooks was dissecting Chua’s book recently, he argued that “managing status rivalries, negotiating group dynamics, understanding social norms, navigating the distinction between self and group” imposed the kind of cognitive demands that far exceed what’s required of students in a class at Yale. He probably picked that up reading a fancy sociology text, but it was a letter-perfect description of the skill set for a gifted filmmaker, agent or producer.

In Hollywood, whether you were a C student or Summa Cum Laude, it’s a level playing field. “When you’re working on a movie set, you’ve got 50 film professors to learn from, from the sound man to the cinematographer,” says producer David Permut, who dropped out of UCLA to work for Roger Corman. “I’ve never needed a resume in my whole career. All you need is a 110-page script that someone is dying to make and you’re in business.”

--Patrick Goldstein