“Never leave a meeting without getting another meeting,” Ben Silverman told a crowd of TV enthusiasts who had gathered at a workshop in Abu Dhabi on Monday.
The renowned writer and producer, who is best known for hit TV shows such as The Office, Ugly Betty, Who Wants to be a Millionaire? and The Biggest Loser, just to name a few, was in Abu Dhabi this week conducting workshops for those who were interested in pursuing a career in television.
Charismatic, charming and with a sea of experience in the field of TV, Silverman was joined by some of Hollywood’s greatest in the business such as Simpsons writer Greg Daniels and former president of National Geographic channels Howard Owens.
The trio — obviously great friends — opened up about their experiences and used personal examples to reiterate their points. Their friendship with each other and others in the business, they said, was no accident and something they encouraged everyone to work on.
“Relationships and friendships in this industry are very important because all the characters in the show have to gel and this is not a solitary procedure,” said Silverman.
Owens left a successful job as an outdoor media entrepreneur to become Silverman’s assistant, which the men joked he at first rejected, “I told him you can’t be my assistant, you are two years older than me,” Silverman said. But eventually he gave in and Owens excelled to become very successful in his field. Nowadays they say they are equals and collaborate together.
Daniels and Silverman work together often, with Silverman highlighting to the crowd that Daniels is known as one of the greatest “show runners” in the business. A writer for The Simpsons and The Office, he said he started out as a child doing comical poems at family gathering. But when he told his mother he wanted to be a writer, she told him “it would never happen”. This drew huge laughs from the audience who listened in anticipation at every story that experts shared.
In an interview afterwards with Silverman (which began in his car), I tell him his attitude of sharing advice is not “typical Hollywood”. He agreed, saying that “Hollywood is painful”.
“I would rather persevere being that person [a good person] than the one who took it all for themselves and lived in a cave,” he said. “I want everyone to succeed and I want to share. I think the more opportunities, the more hope. The more the cycle can continue. It can be glorious.”
Son of a music composer father and a feminist mother (when being a feminist was not so hip, Silverman says) and grandson of a human rights lawyer, he said their values to do something that made a difference in society were instilled in him from a young age.
“They instilled a value system in me that I had to push forward and make my own and I really did see the power of what I did impact people,” he said.
Silverman, who started out as an assistant and worked his way to the top, explained how he always tries to form his shows in such a way that they can have a positive impact on society and make a change.
“Shows like The Biggest Loser I thought you could build a brand and actually build something that could help change behaviour and get our very obese and diabetic culture to maybe shift its behaviour a little bit,” he explains.
He said the same was true of Ugly Betty and The Office. “For me her [Betty’s] ugliness was related much more to being a daughter of an illegal immigrant and being a daughter of a Spanish speaker. Having grown up in a home with a different language than the workplace she lived in, that made her feel ugly.” In The Office, they made a not-so-smart white man the boss, a woman a boss and a very smart black man in the warehouse as their way of tackling some of society’s issues.
“And we hadn’t asked those questions for a long time. I was very proud.”
“I try and install a value system in what I do, I want the good guys to win. I want the world to not be a rigged system, which so many people think it is right now.”
With such immense success, what is next on the cards for him? “I am very happy to be making Apple’s first television show. That’s really exciting and innovative.”
“I am working with new platforms such as Amazon, Netflix, it’s invigorating to be working with these new platforms but I am also internationally oriented right now. It’s invigorating to be in Abu Dhabi.”
So will he be collaborating with TwoFour54 and other Abu Dhabi partners in the future? “I would love to collaborate with my new friends in Abu Dhabi, that I can tell have the same commitment that I do to storytelling and to youth and to opportunity created through content and media.
“I believe there is a great partnership in combining all of our expertise, investing in this market but with a global prospective.”
How has the 45-year-old achieved so much success at such a young age?
He laughed and said, “I am definitely hyper-driven and I give a lot of credit to my family.”
“I work all the time. I am insomniac so I probably get an extra six hours a day. Even when I am watching television or talking to people I have such curiosity that it helps my storytelling and creativity and the kind of business thinking that I try to bring to what I do.”
“A 1000 per cent of hard work and one per cent of luck can help accelerate a career.”
This leads us to talk about what he said in the workshop “I never left a meeting without getting another meeting or interview out of it.” He explained this was a philosophy that he followed and never gave up, even if other people did not believe in him.
“If I knew immediately that I was being rejected, I would seek out an introduction to someone else… that kind of perseverance, ambition, aggression and asking people to really dive in to support your efforts is really hard to do. But I really tried to make myself indispensable to those around me but also made it clear that I was going places and they could either help me or watch me,” he said.
“A lot of people didn’t want to help me so they ended up watching me,” he said with a laugh. He admits that he does bump into those people from time to time but never holds a grudge. “There are also so many people who take credit for other people’s success but I am happy to share it.”