Chutzpah is a Yiddish term that comes from the Hebrew word ḥutspâ, which means ‘insolence’, ‘cheek’ or ‘audacity’. The modern English usage of the word has taken on a broader meaning, having been popularised through the vernacular used in film, literature and television. The word is sometimes interpreted – particularly in business parlance – to mean the amount of courage, mettle or ardour an individual has. The Hebrew use of the term may have negative connotations, but in this context the word means ballsy.
Chutzpah is something each and every one of us in the film business needs.
The word is bandied about like bagels in Hollywood. The film industry seems to thrive on it, and its usage has gained momentum and power. You will often hear stories where projects nearly fell through, or where the cast wasn’t right for the project, yet the director, producer or writer managed to pull through due to their resilience, believability and chutzpah. Learning to put it into practice is how so many producers in Hollywood have been able to cut the mustard. The filmmaker needs to embrace this word as much as any of the heavy weights out there, and to embrace it for what it is. It is more than just a word. It is an attitude; a confidence you can muster whenever you need to say or do something that may seem shocking to others at the time but will ultimately stand you in good stead.
Here are a couple of examples of Chutzpah in the works:
Peter Guber a longtime Hollywood producer was working on a project in the 80’s called Gorillas in the Mist. Guber had already invested three years into developing this true drama but the budget they’d delivered to Warner Bros. called for more than they originally budgeted for.
He was preparing to go into Terry Semel’s office who was at the time the CEO of Warners’ and had to get himself into state which meant ramping up his energy, dialling down any anxieties he had and acquiring a sudden case of attitudinal dyslexia i.e. Chutzpah that would read Terry’s ‘no’ as ‘on.’
Upon entering his office Guber attempted to capture Semel’s attention by saying someone is killing his relatives, referring to the species of the silverback Gorillas who are only two clicks away from our gene pool and are being hunted for their hands and feet as trophies.
After an exhaustive to and fro of further explanation on why the film has to be made and aiming to bring Terry on to his side, Terry ushered Guber towards the door and told him he’ll think about it since he has another meeting. But the clock was against Guber and he knew he couldn’t leave without an answer. It was time for him to drop the script, improvise and show some Chutzpah.
As Semel announced for his secretary to send in the next visitor Guber lay down on the floor with his arms outstretched saying that he’s a wounded gorilla and if Semel was going to say no it’s to the gorillas not to him. Here and now.
Guber was applying the Chutzpah card yet he knew this was risky business looking foolish and vulnerable. But as over the top as this move seemed it also demonstrated how much he was willing to put on the line to achieve his goal.
Semel’s new guest came in and sat staring down at Guber. Semel began talking as if Guber wasn’t there, but finally the guest interrupted and pointed at Guber ‘what’s his problem?’ ‘He’s a gorilla’ Semel said as he tried to keep a straight face but burst out laughing. ‘He wants me to save him.’ Then the guest started laughing and Semel said ‘OK, we’ll make the picture.’
The film went on to be nominated for five Academy Awards and it became a long term creative and financial success.
Another example is Jerry Weintraub who started out as a talent agent and then moving on to managing singers and actors and finally to producing films including the remakes of Karate Kid and Ocean’s Eleven. Once in his earlier days of management he was in bed and dreamt that he saw Madison Square Gardens fronted by a huge marquee on which big letters read: “Jerry Weintraub presents Elvis Presley.” He then knew he was going to promote Elvis Presley. His wife Jane thought he was crazy since he didn’t even know Elvis but he replied ‘Not yet.’
The next morning Weintraub dug up a number for Colonel Tom Parker who had managed Elvis for years and got him on the phone. He said ‘Colonel Parker, this is Jerry Weintraub. I would like to take Elvis Presley on the road.’ The Colonel asked ‘Who are you, son?’ ‘This is Jerry Weintraub and I have a strategy in mind, a way to take Elvis on the road that will mean a lot of money.’
The Colonel told him that Elvis isn’t doing any tours and he hasn’t done for years since he now does movies and besides he’s got guys lined up for the job, people that he would need to take care of. End of conversation.
But Weintraub isn’t one to give up that easily. His take was when someone says no pretend you can’t hear them. Show some Chutzpah and persist. To keep hitting that door until you bust it down. He called the Colonel again the next morning. “hello Colonel, this is Jerry Weintraub. I want to take Elvis out on the road.’ ‘You don’t give up, do you boy?’ The Colonel said. ’No Colonel, not when I know I’m right’ Weintraub replied.
Weintraub called every day for months and months. He planted his name so deep in the Colonel’s brain that he would never forget it. So that whenever he would think of taking Elvis on tour he would think of Jerry Weintraub.
One morning, about a year after he had the dream, the Colonel called him up. ‘Do you still want to take my boy out on the road?’ ‘Yes, Colonel’ said Weintraub. ’Well, I’ll be at the roulette table at the Hilton Hotel in Vegas tomorrow at nine a.m. You meet me there with a cheque for a million dollars, and he’s yours’ said the Colonel.
Great. Wonderful. Terrific. Fantastic. Weintraub’s dream has come true but how the hell would he raise such a large sum of money in such a short space of time? Again, Chutzpah had to come into the equation. He spent the whole day and night making calls to people he knew and didn’t know asking for them to give hime the money and getting turned down again and again until he finally had a lead from an old friend who told him about a guy in Seattle who owned radio stations and was a big Elvis fan.
Weintraub called up the guy and made the pitch. Of course the guy wanted to see proposals, papers and so on but since time was of the essence Weintraub had to get the cheque over to the Colonel in a few hours or else he’d lose the deal. The guy was going to have to trust Weintraub on this. Managing to get a yes Weintraub rushed to the airport to catch a plane to Vegas. At the bank he waited for the million dollars to be wire transferred and then have a cashier’s cheque for the same amount. The bank teller looked at him like he was nutty, maybe even a robber but Chutzpah didn’t stop him on his course. After a couple of hours he was escorted into the president of the bank’s office and had the cheque made out to Elvis Presley for a million dollars.
Rushing off to the Hilton Weintraub saw the Colonel at a gambling table who looked at him skeptically and asked him if he’d got the money. He then led him up to his suite where he had a little office and Weintraub handed him the cheque. The Colonel then asked ‘Okay, Jerry, what do you want to do with my boy?’ ‘Take him out on the road’ Weintraub said.
’Good! Let’s do it’ replied the Colonel.
And the rest as they say is history.
Yes, you could argue that these two examples mainly deal with showing resilience and a spirit of tenacity, to not give in when things don’t go as planned but I also believe that Chutzpah is very much an essential ingredient when it comes to the tenacity that one needs to plough ahead on their course to achieving what they’re after while at the same time not giving a damn of what others think.
Let’s go forth and Chutzpah shall we?