Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |

Michael Bettencourt

Moving to the Dark(ish) Side

Innovation Hub is on my short-list of to-be-listened-to radio programs.  Each Saturday morning at 7 AM, I make my coffee and sit at the kitchen table to sip both beverage and insight.  The Marvelous María Beatriz is still snoozing, and the cats are curled up into their own pensiveness.

This show was about “celebrity, the changing nature of,” and it featured a segment with Variety’s Andrew Wallenstein and Tubular Labs’ Allison Stern.  (Tubular Labs “tracks 1.5B videos across 30+ platforms including YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Vine, Twitter, Yahoo, and AOL; as well as analyzes the engagements of 400M+ video viewers.”)

The focus of the discussion was how YouTube and other digital platforms have disrupted the Hollywood process for celebratizing people. Someone sitting at a computer can now become a superstar millionaire.  Case in point: PewDiePie, otherwise known as Felix Kjellberg, is best known for playing video games before a massive audience; according to Forbes, he makes $4 million a year.

Those who name themselves artists may not want to become celebrities, but all artists want to become known for what they do, and they would like that “knownness” to afford them a decent life, no matter how they define that.  I would argue that PewDiePie is living the life every artist would like to have: well-paid for doing what he loves to do and the focal point for millions of people’s attention and, at times, admiration.  The fact he achieves this by playing video games online for an audience is irrelevant: he entertains and pleases, and reaps his reward for doing so.

I am thinking about these topics more seriously of late because, for the second time in 2015, I am out of a job.  The first time happened because my position was eliminated; the second time, because the job and I did not fit together well.  As part of my severance, I have access to “outplacement services” to help me find my next position.

This outplacement process is both disruptive and intriguing, the former because it forces me to nitpick myself to find out what my core really is, the latter because it forces me to nitpick myself to find out what my core really is.  For so many years I have just had jobs that I could do more or less well enough and that were done just “to pay the rent.”  Real life happened outside the job domain.

But now I am engaged in a process where, for the first time in a very long time, not only do I have to dissect and assay my “skills” or “talents,” I also have to make them operate with more vigor for my success. In outplacement lingo, I am my own brand and have to take charge of my brand’s presentation and persistence.

“Brand” lingo has always peeved me because it appears to reduce human complexity to checklists and milestones, substituting spiritual/aesthetic energies with marketing strategies.  But as with any language game (to use Richard Rorty’s term), I can deploy brand lingo in ways not intended by its originators to achieve my own ends.  This is what I intend to do as I move toward my own version of celebrityhood.

I choose to interpret brand lingo as a modern iteration of “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Central to identifying one’s brand is putting one’s “essential nature” into words, similar to the elevator speech or the script pitch (or what my outplacement firm calls the “summary statement” on the résumé). Doing this is reductive in the way a good hypothesis is reductive: it lessens the noise created by complexity in order to home in on the signal of the self, and then test that signal’s strength, focus, and flexibility.

This testing, if done properly, is an abrasive process, both in how it punishes and scours.  Regret is inevitable in this process, for things done and not done (and undone) as well as regret’s close cousin, embarrassment.  (“What was I thinking?” is a recurrent refrain for me.) Pride comes in, too, both for (the few) verifiable accomplishments I can identify and the vanity that made me feel those accomplishments were more important than they were.

These regrets and this pride, however, cannot be the sole outcome of the self-exam.  (Unless, of course, one wants to be the Jewish mother in the joke, “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a lightbulb?”: “Never mind, I’ll just sit in the dark.”)  I need to see them, greet them, then banish them, like a sculptor banishing unneeded stone.

What’s next?  The formulation of the brand, which, for me, is an act of language. Here is my best analogy for it.  I once had a chance to pitch a screenplay in Los Angeles on the third day of a three-day conference.  My hotel was a mile from the convention center, and for the first two days during the fifteen minutes it took me to walk there and then back at day’s end, I practiced my pitch. 

My first attempt was, as expected, terrible - overlong because over-explanatory, two pounds crammed into a one-pound bag. Even though I’d written the script, I didn’t know its story.  As I winnowed the chaff, I also taught myself about what I’d written - more than once I said to myself, “Oh, so that’s why I put that in there.”  When I did my pitch on the third day, I had the script’s “brand” down pat, easily delivered, easily accepted (though not taken up by any production company).

In outplacement parlance, the brand was my summary statement.  If my auditors wanted to hear more, I had more to tell them, increasing the complexity of the telling until they got what they wanted or I ran out of complexities.

So now I am crafting my Michael “brand,” and once crafted, I plan on pitching it into the world using those very platforms Tubular Labs track (or at least a subset of them - after all, there is only so much time in one’s life).  It is the natural second step to the first step of drafting the pitch, because if one has a great pitch but doesn’t launch it, then the light really is hidden under the bushel.  I have to learn how to use the storytelling tools available to me.

Resentment at having to do this?  A little.  It’d be nice to be “discovered,” be the overnight sensation, and have a smoother glide path into some form of success.  It’d be nice at my age not to have to exercise the kind of effort I should have exercised forty years ago (ah, that resentment creeping in - out, out, brief snarling!).

But at the same time I feel the resentment I also feel thankful for life kicking me in the ass hard enough to keep me from being the Michael version of the Jewish mother (which I am quite capable of performing). I have no right to consider myself “above” or “better than” what this outplacement process is going to take me through - “branding” is also about my discovering a useful humility, a balance of self-deprecation and self-love.

All I know about my brand at the moment is this: I write. But this is good because it’s not “I have a good suite of organizational and administrative skills (blah blah blah)” with a little whisper to the side, “And I also write.”  Maybe a day late and a dollar short, but now I have no alternative but to find the brand and pitch it mightily.

(By the way, if any of our dear readers is in need of a good writing advisor, please see my website,

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Michael Bettencourt is a playwright and essayist.
He also writes a monthly column and is
a Senior Writer for Scene4.
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Scene4 Magazine: Perspectives - Audio | Theatre Thoughts  | Michael Bettencourt September 2014 |




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