Fitting In Got Me Nowhere

I think one of the reasons I’m popular again is because I’m wearing a tie. You have to be different. — Tony Bennett

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In the mid-80s, almost everyone wore a tie to work. One of my first mentors in the entertainment business, Roger Rothstein, told me “if you look like you’re here to unload trucks, you will”, prompting my move into button down shirts and sport coats.

As a junior executive for Disney Feature Animation in 1986, I dropped the jeans and added a tie. Monday mornings Peter Schneider and I would leave our warehouse headquarters in Glendale for Jeff Katzenberg’s big executive production meeting on the main studio lot on Buena Vista Street. The live action production people looked like they worked in a TV law firm. This is why writers and directors derisively talk about “suits”. I was dead broke and wore a thrift store jacket and tie. If anything, I stood out as the guy who didn’t know or care how to dress. I was so junior nobody noticed or cared.

When we went back to Glendale, the jackets, and soon the ties, came off. We weren’t wearing jeans and t-shirts the way animators did, but we were soon wearing polo shirts, at first with the company logo, and then not. Soon we wore them to the Monday morning meeting. By the time Little Mermaid became a hit, we were the open collar guys. Casual, informal, confident, and different, like the unexpected hit we were suddenly responsible for. Like the Mac guys, who we idolized.

Several years later in 1991, I transferred from Feature Animation to the Disney live action group, responsible for pictures like “Homeward Bound” (they gave me all the talking dog movies). At the end of my fist week my new boss, a brilliant sociopath I won’t name here, asked me if I was blind. “Take a look around you. How is everyone is dressed? You need to fit in and be a team player.” That weekend my wife helped me pick out two suits and a suite of power ties. It was one of my first missteps in the live action group. I should never have put on that suit. Being different is what I had going for me. I should have told my bullying boss ‘I’m not a suit.’

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The job of a studio executive is inherently insecure.

Everyone said I dressed like the studio exec from central casting, but it didn’t matter. Eighteen months later my putative mentor in live action told me I didn’t get it. When pressed on what “it” is, he would only say “that.” I was not a suit, but when they threw my body off a pier, I was wearing one.

Fortunately, there were several boats nearby. When they dragged me out, nearly dead, I didn’t know who I was anymore. That was a long time ago, but the scar still remembers. Time and success have been my vindication, but there is no justice, and there is no revenge.

There are, however, some very nice suits to be found in thrift stores.

Written by

AR/VR Consultant, Columnist, Author of the AR-enabled books “Metaverse, A Guide to VR & AR” (2018) & “Convergence” (2019). http://forbes.com/sites/charliefink

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