Gavin Polone: Producer turned media provocateur
As anyone in Hollywood who’s ever done business with him will attest, Gavin Polone is more than just a good producer. He’s prickly, whip-smart, wickedly funny, fiercely libertarian and never shy about sharing his contrarian views about the entertainment business. Polone is a born opinionator, which is perhaps why he’s doing double duty as a weekly columnist for New York magazine’s Vulture website.
As an opinionator myself, I have to say that Polone, producer of TV’s “Gilmore Girls” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm” along with films like “Panic Room” and “Zombieland,” delivers the goods. He’s outspoken, full of brainy ideas and never boring. More important, he’s not afraid to bite the hand that feeds, taking on many of the sacred cows of showbiz.
Since launching his column last September, Polone, 47, has bashed Hollywood’s sorry track record for embracing black entertainment, ridiculed the Oscars, drilled deep into the excesses of movie star perk packages and even engaged in some bracing soul searching about his gladiatorial excesses as a wolfish young talent agent, describing his old job as being almost as bruising as being an enforcer on a hockey team.
In person, Polone isn’t much of a schmoozer. Outfitted in a Rage Against the Machine T-shirt, he still radiates the tightly coiled intensity of a guy who, at age 22, bored with life as an assistant at ICM, tried to join the CIA. (They turned him down.) There’s a good reason why his production company is called Pariah—his stints as an agent at ICM and UTA ended in bitter recriminations and lawsuits, even though after years at WME he is now repped by UTA.
Even though he begrudgingly admits that the ABC Family network, where he currently produces the show “Jane by Design,” is a incredibly well-run business, he can’t stop himself from complaining about the grind of churning out a show every week. “If I could buy stock in an individual cable network, I’d buy their stock, because they really know their audience. But doing a show there is like being one of the guys working in Apple’s fire-trap Chinese factory.”
Polone says that when Vulture called and asked him to start writing a column, he was eager to give it a shot, since he was frustrated by the group-think process of producing TV and film. The desire to have less intrusion in his work is why he spends most of his free time playing poker at the fabled Bicycle Casino in Bell Gardens. “With poker, it’s me, my decisions and pure luck, which is a lot better than what you’re up against as a producer. That’s what I like about writing too. It’s just what I have to say.”
His work hasn’t gone unrecognized. He says that whenever he shows up in some executive’s office for a meeting, “the assistants always say, ‘Hey, I just read your new piece.’" He’s also a finalist for a Mirror Award from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.
As a loyal reader, I’ve noticed that his columns return to specific subjects, a key one being the hypocrisy involved when Hollywood hiring practices don’t live up to the progressive ideals held by most showbiz insiders. Polone is a Republican, but one with a libertarian bent. But even though he thinks Barack Obama is “often a phony,” he could never vote for Mitt Romney for president, finding his religion “too weird.” Also, as an animal rights activist, Polone is still upset with Romney for strapping his dog to the roof of his car during a family vacation trip.
To him, showbiz liberals rarely practice what they preach. “The people who run studios and networks are making decisions that are supposed to reflect the marketplace, yet their lives are entirely removed from the mainstream. We live in a very religious, Christian country. Yet I’ve never met anyone in show business who says they go to church on Sunday or Bible study on Wednesday.”
Polone starts wagging his head as he warms to the topic. “I’m a big time atheist myself, but if you look at the industry’s top decision makers, what do you see? They’re all upper middle class, all with the same upbringing, all from the same good schools. It’s like royalty in late 19th century Europe—everyone is interrelated. They all have the same cultural references. Even [Fox entertainment chief] Kevin Reilly uses Yiddish references, because he’s been around our culture his whole life.”
Polone argues that liberalism, especially as espoused by Obama and the pooh-bahs of the Democratic Party, is based on a populist vision of fairness and diversity. But that vision isn’t apparent in Hollywood. “In my entire career, I’ve never lobbied for a project with an executive who is of color,” he says. “In almost every sector of corporate America, there are black people in charge, yet Hollywood is still dominated by white, upper-class, mostly Jewish executives. ... The people on TV are rich and white because it reflects the lives of the executives who decide what we see on TV.”
Polone is also offended by showbiz languor and inefficiency. “My life is unbelievable—living in Hollywood is like being a citizen of Qatar,” he says. “But we need an 'Arab Spring' in the movie business. Given the state of the world today, isn’t it nauseating to see a movie business industry polluted by such garish, status-oriented behavior?”
Polone pines for a Steve Jobs-like figure who would revolutionize the stodgy ways of doing business in Hollywood. “He looked at the things in the computer business that didn’t work and basically said, ‘This design and execution is bad and I’m going to make it good.’ But no one’s doing that in the entertainment industry. They all embrace the status quo.”
You’d think this kind of talk might get Polone in trouble with the powerful gatekeepers of showbiz. If so, he doesn’t seem worried. “I have no dependents and I don’t have to work again, so it’s hard to restrain me,” he says, flashing a sliver of a smile. “It’s good to be able to say what you feel like saying.”
And with that, he was at it again, complaining about the lack of imagination at today’s broadcast networks. Polone often sounds like a man tilting at windmills, which I mean as a compliment, because it’s what you expect from a good columnist.
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-- Patrick Goldstein
Photo: Gavin Polone with "Jane by Design" cast members Andie MacDowell, middle, and Erica Dasher at the show's panel during the Disney/ABC Television Group portion of the 2012 Winter TCA Tour at the Langham Huntington Hotel and Spa in January in Pasadena. Credit: Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images