Deconstructing Pop Culture: 10 Tips for the Hollywood Executive
COLUMN: Busy savoring that new, close-in parking spot? Well you'd better read this if you want to hang on to it. Hollywood long has been known for its cunning business tactics, callous ruthlessness, cutthroat entrepreneurialism and all-around gleeful back-stabbing. OK, Sammy Glick gained the world but lost his soul, so what else is new? No need to scamper off and cry over your latte, it's a truism that the less is at stake the more they'll fight over it.
That being the case there are some peculiar features of modern-day Hollywood that exacerbate this tendency, including such favorites as the indeterminacy of aesthetic preference, our pervasive influence on modern pop culture and the conglomeratization of the media with its attendant pressures for quick fixes and short-term results. How to survive in such a milieu, so antithetical to nurturing and mollycoddling your creative spirit? Here are a few suggestions, in no particular order, from a long-time denizen of the forward trenches.
1. Like Nancy Reagan taught us, â€œjust say no,â€ only in this case, to accountants, lawyers, strategic planners, management consultants, personnel assigned to your group from corporate (like â€œcorporate marketersâ€ â€“ what a hilarious locution!) and all others of similar ilk. â€œWe're from headquarters and we're here to help youâ€ should be all you need to deploy as many facile counter-measures as you can envision. This isn't just a case of â€œwhat have the Romans done for us lately.â€ Rather it is to the corporate group that we owe such wonderful inventions as earnings management through reserve manipulation, accelerated (or deferred) amortization and notional interest. That's right, corporate doesn't â€œinvestâ€ in what you're doing; rather they're more like a big bank in the sky and charge each division for the privilege of using â€œtheirâ€ money. Just remember nothing that comes from corporate has anything to do with the fundamental reality of your particular business â€“ its nuances, its quirks, the body of knowledge about how to do it successfully that you've built up over your career. Their attitude, orientation and outlook are completely different â€“ most often, towards minimizing risk. Great, so why don't the shareholders just put their money in treasury bills and forget about it?
2. Return on time is more important than ROS, ROI; ROA; PTOI; EBITDA and the like. What, you ask, is return on time (let's just simply call it â€œROTâ€)? ROT is the measure of how much money you'd be making if you were doing something other than what you're doing. In other words every business decision carries with it real-world consequences â€“ not only in terms of the direct causal effects from having taken that decision but also because it precludes you from doing other things that, had you chosen them instead, might be even more rewarding or lucrative. The quick-witted amongst you will notice how this quickly could result in a debilitating logic loop. For example instead of reading this article you could be walking your dog. Or instead of thinking about what else you could be doing you actually could be doing it. So don't drive yourself crazy with this â€“ it's an abstract (albeit provocative) question and a single iteration works best.
3. Don't chase too many rabbits. How many times have you been in a negotiation that's going great so somebody suggests â€œexpandingâ€ the business relationship to include other aspects, or add more ingredients, or extend its scope? Rebuke this forthwith â€˜cause the more moving parts it's got the less likely it is to get off the ground. Better to start with something small and manageable, make it a success and then use it as the foundation for continued future collaboration.
4. There is no synergy. When I was working for a large international multi-media conglomerate we frequently were encouraged to develop on-going business relationships with our colleagues in other divisions. â€œThis leads to synergyâ€ we were told, a precious commodity somewhat akin to latter-day alchemy. But once you started to strip away the layers of this onion you quickly discovered it was easier to do deals even with your direct competitors rather than within your own company. Two reasons why. First, each division was graded on its own profitability, not the profitability of the group as a whole. Thus, no division had any economic incentive to discount its own internal rates below market in order to beguile an increased volume of transactions from another internal division. A comical side effect of this was that if a counterpart internal division actually succeeded in formulating a viable proposal your first question had to be, â€œso where's it coming from?â€ Second, even if the proposal was economically credible it invariably put the creative participants at some kind of financial disadvantage. In the vast majority of cases things pretty much cost what they cost; there is no â€œfreeâ€ margin unaccompanied by counterpart costs to generate it. The only â€œsoftâ€ expense categories are those such as royalties, participations, contingent compensation etc. So the simplest way to come up with the requisite margin relief simply is to slice into the artist's/performer's share. â€œSynergyâ€ invariably is another word for â€œthe creative talent gets screwed.â€
5. There is no strategy. Most businesses like to characterize themselves as â€œstrategic.â€ Come to think of it that does have a nice sound to it. It makes it seem like you're planning ahead, trying to envision the future, a time when things just might be different than they are today. Don't believe it for a moment! Just about every business, especially those that morph art into commerce, are locked into a web of relationships, conventions, protocols and precedents. The purpose of these constructs is to maximize the likelihood that creative endeavors, which inherently are unproductive and have no worth, will make money. Let's face it, when there really are no standards or criteria, and anything can come out of left field and be a hit, it's impossible to know what to do in advance. You're all familiar with the adage that opinions about movies (records, theater, books, you name it) are like a certain part of one's anatomy, in the sense that everybody's got one. For all of your market research, all of your planning, you really don't know where it's going to come from in advance. You can invest in big stars, only to discover that they're past their prime â€“ what I like to call the â€œfading diva syndrome.â€ Reciprocally you can spend so little money that you almost feel guilty, only to have the property blow up and become the greatest thing since sliced bread. Because there is no clarity about this, when viewed prospectively, the most that you really can do is to develop a kind of defense early-warning system, a network of tentacles and NORAD-like radars, that will pick up even the most sensitive vibrations from the marketplace, enable you to reallocate resources, and, like an ember, carefully blow on whatever's happening through some miracle, in order to conflagrate it to other media, markets, territories, or whatever. In other words, in an environment of limited resources (because even if you wanted to, you can't pursue everything), the only strategy that works is triage. This, of course, is a reactive strategy, which is the precise antithesis of creative, forward-looking thinking.
6. Creative and business don't mix. There is nothing more confusing to your counterpart than to be a creative person and then all of a sudden start talking business or vice versa. It's not that you're not brilliant, or creative, or that you can't do it all, probably at once with one hand tied behind your back. Rather, it's because that importing business issues into a creative relationship invariably pollutes the integrity of the latter. And importing creative into business invariably will detract from the focus on making money and, frankly, may cause your counterpart to think you're a lunatic. A simple illustration will illustrate this point. Let's say that you're about to direct (or produce, or write) a film. â€œThose stupid lawyers,â€ you say, â€œthey're just using forms, they don't do anything, they don't add any value, and this seems so easy to do that I might as well do it myself, and there definitely is no point in paying anybody to do it.â€ So go ahead and negotiate that contract, be your bad self! But next time you tell the actor how you want that performance delivered, just watch at them look at you funny.
7. The corollary to this is, always work through a representative. The advantage of having a representative is that person can be your â€œevil twin.â€ As Senior Vice President in Charge of Sitting by the Door, your job is to be the nice guy, dispense largesse and never reach impasse. A representative enables you to do this because they're the ones that have to deliver the bad news, while you're insulated and can focus on important things like whether the set should be painted mauve or fuscia. I hate those phone calls, for example, where somebody suggests, â€œWhy don't we just all get on the telephone and work it out?â€ The reason why you don't, you moron, is because that destroys your plausible deniability. They've got you right where they want you, backed into a corner, having to make a decision â€“ which may be an unpleasant one, or a wrong one. It's not that you couldn't do it, if you wanted to, you're smarter than they are, anyway; besides, all they do is follow your instructions. How much better to be able to shrug your shoulders and commiserate with your talent, stating in all honesty that those stupid (pick one: lawyers, accountants, etc.) made you do it, but that if you had your druthers you'd pay them at least twice as much, maybe three times, because you know in your heart of hearts that they're worth it.
8. â€œThis is the business we chose.â€ I just love it when people start whining about how difficult their boss is, or their negotiating counterpart, or the dynamics, exigencies and vicissitudes of their business. Get over it, already! Would you rather be parking cars? This is what you get paid to do. Thus, for example, people aren't going to want to simply shut up and sign their contracts. Rather, they're going to want to have a little negotiating sÃ©ance, if you will, to sit down and talk about it, to savor it even, like a fine wine. This may be incredibly tedious, seeing as how you've done it a hundred times before. They won't come up with anything new, or anything you haven't thought of, and in fact you probably could do all of this in your sleep. But at least pretend you're interested, â€˜cause it's a big deal to them, OK?
9. Everything is fantastic. People make fun of our Governor because of his insistence that â€œeverything is fantastic,â€ even if it isn't, or even if it's genuinely averse to your own best interests, properly understood. Nonetheless, he has a point, and it isn't his fault that he identified (whether intentionally or inadvertently) what long has been thus. The great thing about working in a creative business is that expectations are malleable and be calibrated, either prospectively or retroactively, in order to facilitate an objective. You can convince somebody that a certain property will become a big hit. You can re-write history and convince somebody that you really were the one who was responsible for that big hit, or, more likely, that you weren't the one who was responsible for that huge stiff. Even the most implausible idea can become the next big thing â€“ and, while it might not be likely, any idea has at least the latent potential to percolate up from anywhere, at any time. That being so, why opt out of the demolition derby at an earlier way-station? You need to stay in the race for the duration, in order to see what makes it, what survives, what accretes enough strange compulsive power and magnetic attraction that it actually looks like something that might happen. If you dismiss it too soon, you forfeit this ability. So, wait at your destination, and, in the meanwhile, come to accept that nothing's really that implausible.
10. Do absolutely nothing. The single greatest mistake you can make in a corporate environment is to think that you were hired to take the initiative and actually do something. What a conceit! Anything that happens will because of your bosses' girlfriend, or boyfriend, or maybe their kids, or more likely their kids' nanny. You might think you have ideas, but let's face it, they're completely idiosyncratic and the pop market for what you think is great is smaller than Missoula, Montana. If you follow your creative instinct, it'll only get you in trouble. Here's an analogy from the world of development. Most development executives make nice salaries. They drive nice cars and live in nice homes. They specialize in assembling hypothetical combinations of actors and directors, or getting that script rewritten, or maybe getting it rewritten again. Coincidentally, this often involves going out to lunch with their small circle of friends. A major studio might have 2,500 properties in development, but only release 20 movies a year! God forbid if yours is one of them, because then do you know what happens? It probably fails! And do you know what happens if it fails? You probably lose your great development job! There is a reason why most movies today are made by committee, not reflecting any particular aesthetic, striving to descend to the lowest common denominator of cultural preference. It's so they can appeal to the most people, stupid! I love it when I hear someone say, â€œOur objective is produce a good [insert media of choice â€“ e.g., movie, record, etc.]. Just ask yourself â€“ whoever started out to make a bad one? That type of utterance is devoid of any cognitive content. You'll never get it right, or hit on the winning formula, at best it's like throwing darts. So just sit back and let it fall into place, nes pas?