Category Archives: Career

Quantum Mechanics

Pipe Wrench courtesy of Scott Arch

Despite all of the self-help books preaching the contrary, people have a hard time living outside the moment. So, it’s difficult for them, let alone a whole industry to shake the mindset that the current ecology of the business will continue to be bleak forever. But this sour economy is just a part of a normal business cycle which will pass.


If we’re willing to wait. And survive while we’re waiting.

Will the business be the same? I doubt it. It will be continue to evolve as it always has in the film business. A decade ago, insurance-backed financing was all the rage. Then came sale-lease back deals from the UK, investment from German film funds and most recently, private equity and hedge fund financing. Those were good times. Good times.

However, dramatic, paradigm shifting change – the kind of change required to modify an outmoded, global business model created decades ago and move entrenched players with special interests – requires what Nassim Taleb calls a Black Swan event. Like a rare black swan, nothing less than an impropable sequence of events like limited access to credit, labor unrest, rampant piracy, the rise of the Internet and the collapse of distribution windows and the pre-sales market can bring about meaningful change to this business.

Even so, the fundamentals of the film business remain. People like good movies, especially those with good stories and high production values. And there remain untapped distribution channels in emerging markets and emerging technologies. Where there’s a demand for something, there will always be a business.

Bill Mechanic, a key player in the studio world and now, the independent movie business put it best in his keynote at the IFTA’s annual Producer’s Conference back in September:

The independent world, which should be aiming to do things better and different from the studios, doesn’t have that as a mandate at all. If anything, the only thing that independent distributors and financiers look for is the same. Maybe costing a little less than the majors, but they want what the studios want, or in Fight Club-speak, they want copies of a copy.

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In that way, Hollywood in the broadest sense of the word is much like Detroit. It’s a manufacturer’s mentality that reigns, seemingly indifferent to the consumers it serves. Ignore whether the consumer likes our product as long as they buy it.

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The next 2-3 years will be even worse, not because of the flood of new releases, since that is already abating, but rather due to the effect the over saturation has had combined with the economic downturn. New money is going to be hard, if not impossible to find. Ad sales are down, so TV networks around the world, other than cable, aren’t buying. Add in a confused video market, and it’s going to be tough. To my mind, the next few years will be about survival.

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. . . [A]lot of waste is going to be cleared from the marketplace. Excess product will go away, the people who don’t take the business seriously will go away. Hopefully those who make crummy movies will also go away, but that may just be a personal wish.

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[The film business] is a game for winners. And those who win today will win to an even greater extent than at almost any point in the past. . . . Those who will win will be smart about what they make and how they sell their films. They will hopefully make good films but perhaps even more key they will make unique films that stand out, which means they will not have to compete against the bulk of the films for talent. They won’t look like all the other films so they won’t have to spend as much money marketing them.

It’s not that the buyers aren’t there. Consumers, TV outlets, retailers and, yes, even pirates want what works. Don’t believe me? Ask Summit about Twilight. Ask Searchlight about Slumdog Millionaire. Ask Screen Gems about District 9. Ask Focus about Coraline.

The takeaway? To get through this down period, be good, be different and as Tim Gunn says, make it work!

To read the complete transcript of Bill Mechanic’s keynote speech and some really informative reader comments click here to Nikki Finke’s blog.

Negotiation Culture Redux: Lying Makes Sammy Run

There’s nothing new about lying during negotiations. Almost sixty years ago, Budd Schulberg wrote What Makes Sammy Run, a novel about an agent who lies to get ahead in the movie business. There have been a number of other works published or produced on the subject as well. More recently, I wrote about it here.

Then as now, negotiating is nothing less than a confrontational (and largely, animal instinct-driven) struggle for limited resources. There’s only so much pie to go around and a rep wants the client’s slice to be as big as possible; not just for the deal on the table but to set precedent or the quote for other deals down the road. These precedents greatly influence, if not become the floor to subsequent negotiations, taking into account the project’s budget and vintage of the quote. Agents, managers and sometimes, lawyers have an added incentive since their fees are based on a percentage of what the client makes on a particular project.

It’s only natural then that some reps feel that they have an absolute obligation to their clients (and to their law firms or agencies) to maximize their slice-to-total-pie ratio even if it means lying to the other side about a material term.

I suspect it was that desire that recklessly drove one particular rep to repeatedly lie to me about his client’s quote during negotiations; the first time by more than double the actual quote.

The rep stalled over days when I asked for documentary backup to the quote (a pro forma request usually provided on demand or verbally confirmed by the studio or network business affairs exec who initially put the quoted deal together). And when the days of stalling turned into weeks, I suspected the worst and only pressed harder. He ultimately confessed that he had misquoted the figure and that his client’s quote was really [a number that was about a third more than the actual figure].

I was furious. When I insisted on seeing the prior deal, the rep had the gall to blame me for drawing negotiations out.

The rep’s actions were particularly dumb since a quote is one of the easiest things to verify. When I told the story to R, a manager, former agent and friend, he laughed and said cynically, “he should have only lied to you about things you couldn’t check.”

Ultimately, the debacle left my client with substantially more leverage and the moral high ground to close the deal on more favorable terms.

“So why am I still angry?” I asked.

“Because you caught him lying and had to do something about it.” R said.

This business is based on trusted relationships meticulously built over time. Like deals drafted on a napkin over lunch back in the day, a rep’s integrity and reputation can still go a long way to closing deals faster and on better terms today.

In contrast, lying makes deal making harder; can polarize the parties; and makes the negotiations feel more like protracted litigation. Lying can kill a deal and, even in the best of outcomes, slow things down.

In this instance, we were lucky. The rep’s lies (not to mention the endless delays caused by his stalling) ended up costing our clients only time and money. It cost the rep much, much more.

“You Were Right And I Was Wrong”

Some time ago, a client called me to apologize for not taking my advice on a deal that ultimately went bad for her.

“Alright” she said. “Let’s get this over with. Tell me you told me so.”

“No,” I said. “We discussed the risks, you considered my advice very carefully and then you made your own decision.”

A rep’s judgment should never in itself become a substitute for your own judgment. As between the rep and you, you alone will likely have to live with the consequences.

Most big decisions in this business (and in life) are a crap shoot; there’s rarely a bright line to follow. However, there are a few things you can do to increase the odds in your favor.

1.     Surround yourself with smart people of good will (that’s by far the hardest part). Look up the word “supportive.” It doesn’t mean working with reps who are yes men and it doesn’t mean silencing their dissent. However, it does mean ensuring that your reps are acting in your – not in their or someone else’s – best interests. See e.g., Iago in “Othello” or more apropos, Sammy in “What Makes Sammy Run?”

2.     Actively seek out your reps’ counsel. Don’t assume their silence means that they approve. They might just be inattentive, lazy or misunderstand their role in the decision making process.  If so, go back to step #1. Consider the risks, benefits and alternatives that they provide (as well as your own take).

3.     Then and only then make up your own mind.

And if you screw up against your reps’ best advice, that’s OK. Everyone screws up at some point.  But your reps better still be there for you to help clean up the mess.  That, and their good counsel is what you pay them for.

Of course, if anyone doubts that, just tell them I told you so.