Monday, July 21, 2008

"'Show' and 'Business'"

Pixar makes a ton of money for Disney. So when the Pixar guys want to do a movie about a rodent with a talent for gourmet cooking, or an affable trash compacting machine in a movie with almost no decipherable words uttered during the first half of the picture, Disney says,

“Sounds cool!”

It’s nice to see. Gifted artists, given the freedom – and the backing of a large budget – to follow their creative impulses. I like the concept. The emphasis seems to be in the right place.

Imagine. Gifted individuals blending their prodigious abilities, conjuring up a whole greater than the sum of its breathtakingly original parts, and the outcome could be…

Magic.

There’s no certainty, of course. No guarantee of success. And, since there’s no way to pull off such an undertaking alone – it isn’t Van Gogh, paintbrushes and some flowers – a process is required, some optimal arrangement, allowing them to collaborate at the top of their creative power, hopefully resulting in the timeless masterpiece that is

(PLACE YOUR ALL-TIME FAVORITE MOVIE OR TV SHOW HERE).

Imagine two options to achieve this excruciatingly difficult but highly desirable result:

1 – A team of inspired misfits, whose gifts are so amazing as to defy comparison with anything that ever has been witnessed before.

or

2 – A squadron of neatly dressed development executives overseeing the operation, even though they have never imagined, written or produced anything?

Throughout their existence, movie studios and television networks have leaned heavily towards ‘2.’”

Why?

Now, hold on there, Early P. Don’t knock those executives. They’re the reality check. They’re the grownups. They select the projects. They make the deals. They set the schedules. They structure the budgets. They do all kinds of things. (My ignorance prevents a longer list.)

No question, those contributions are essential. And if the executives confined themselves to those arenas, I wouldn’t be writing this. The problem is they don’t. By ignoring their creative limitations, and by dismissing the instincts of the professionals they hire…

Wait a second. I need to cool down.

Okay, I’m ready. No, wait. Okay, now.

A well-known manager of comedy talent was famously known to pronounce:

“It’s called show business, not show art.”

This proclamation was meant to “wake up” the “creatives” to the reality of the enterprise they were participating in, to open their eyes, and send them, illuminated and chastened, back to their cubbyholes, where they could stop complaining and gratefully create.

And Now, The Rebuttal:

First of all, without “show”, the “business” doesn’t exist. And all the managers would be toiling in less lucrative, and less glamorous, lines of work.

Second, elevating “business” at the expense of “art” – “art” equals “show” – doesn’t make business more important than “show”, as the manager’s pronouncement makes it sound. See: “First of all” above – it isn’t. We’re talking about a special line of work. There are a lot of businesses out there. But only one of them can make people laugh and cry and get scared and go “Awwww.”

What makes them do that?

The “show.”

Finally, let’s imagine, for argument’s sake, that the “business” is more important than the show. Let’s say “show” without “business” is children playing in the sand. “Show” without “business”, is a magnificent talent in front of her bedroom mirror, warbling soulfully into a hairbrush. “Show” without “business” is “the funniest guy you ever met” squandering his comic inspirations on the “candle lighting ceremony” at his daughter’s Bat Mitzvah.

“Business” makes “show” a reality. “Business” fashions that raw material, modulates its development, points it in the right direction, negotiates its deals, and sends it on the road.

“Business” picks the series for the schedules. It “greenlights” the movies. It books the venues. It sells and promotes.

Unfortuantely, somewhere along the way, “business” loses its perspective. The priorities go topsy-turvy, in a manner inconsistent with the facts. There’s a reason “show” gets the attention and “business” needs P.R. professionals to remind people they’re there.

Nobody’s paying to see “business.”

Somewhere, deep inside “business”, that hurts.

This is a theory. Take it for what it’s worth. And remember, sour grapes is always a possibility.

Okay, here goes.

Inside every “business” person in the world of entertainment, there’s this painful awareness that they’re not The Guy. (And, of course, by “The Guy”, I also mean female “The Guy.”)

They may be the most powerful executive in the business. They may actually be responsible for The Guy’s success. But they’re not The Guy. The guy has something special. That’s why they’re The Guy.

Inevitably, the reality sinks in. “There’s ‘show’ and there’s ‘business.’ You’re ‘business.’”

Unhappy with this arrangement, “business” looks for a way to even the score, and maybe even end up ahead. And it finds the answer.

There’s always one joker up “business’s” sleeve, a decisive move that “business” can always make. Because of the enormous sums required to mount projects, “business” is always in the position to say

“No.”

“I’d like to make this movie.”

“No.”

“I’d like to develop this series.”

“No.”

“I’ve got a great idea for an album.”

“No.”

In the end, “business” always wins, decimating its opponent with “the Power of ‘No.’” Only they don’t say, “No”, they say, “Pass.” It’s less direct, I suppose, but, arguably, more punishing.

“I’m passing you by. I’m leaving you behind. So long, Mr. Big Talent. You’re through. And by the way? I’m going on forever.”

The losers are ultimately the winners. Don’t believe me? Call the real estate agents. Ask them who has the biggest houses?

So what am I saying? It’s Black and White? “Show’s” the exploited Good Guys, and “business” takes the money and gums up the works? It’s not that simple.

Nobody’s perfect. Unhindered by “business”, “show” can still get it wrong. Ishtar. Heaven’s Gate. Mike Myers channeling Peter Sellers. Jim Carrey straying from his strengths. “Show” can misstep. “Show” can overreach. Then, “business” is required to step in.

At its best, show business is a collaboration. (“Man! I read all this way for that?”) No, Bracket Man, there’s more. That collaboration has to be respectful.

In both directions.

“Business” Guy: You can’t do what the “show” guy can do. Accept it with grace. You’ve got a nice suit and a beautiful wife. It’s enough. You’re also in for the ride of your life. Courtesy of the “show” Guy. Do what you’re good at.

And let them do what you hired them to do.

“Show” Guy: I love you with all my heart. But, sometimes, that “Inner Voice” that tells you you’re right? It’s wrong. Take a breath. And when it’s right – even though it’s from “Them”, take a suggestion.

Finally, I want to talk to the actual business people. Not the executives, the shareholders who hire the executives.

Listen up! Respectfully.

If you’re truly in business, meaning you’re obligated to examine every aspect of your operation to determine whether it’s helping or hurting your efforts to maximize your profits, take a look at the process by which television shows and movies are developed and overseen, and if you determine that it’s hurting more than it’s helping, business people,

Do something different!

A rule of thumb worth remembering: In show business, the “show” always comes first.

(By the way, though I liked Wall-E okay, I didn’t love it, like I love Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. Could be, there’s some insulated thinking going on. It may be time to find some “business” guy you can trust, and then, you know, when you’re not a hundred percent certain, hear them out. Just a suggestion, from a guy who used to do shows.)

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just a question is a suit ever just an educated voice of reason
not stifling a creative person just keeping creation in real world? Making budget doable ore even being a true sounding board for ideas?

growingupartists said...

I just finished reading "The Pixar Touch: The making of a company" it seemed to me there was a true blending of business and art, especially because much of the art was mechanics, mathematics, and
systems (of computers).

There seemed to be a dance, understood between the parties, which ones were allowed to go "non-linear" due to the stresses they were under, and those whose job it was to remain in "flow" and just be grateful to be doing something they loved.

Even when someone's position was at stake, or a project was lost, there still existed a faith that another better-suited opportunity was around the corner. Those were just some of my impressions.

And just so Pixar knows, when Bug's Life and Antz came out at nearly the same time, as a mother with kids who love movies,...I was personally annoyed. If you boys think your competitive games don't harm your trusting public, think again. So who deserves credit for that immaturity...the business guys or the art guys?

Diane Kristine said...

I'm sure this is obvious to everyone but me, but I'm confused by the last Bracket Man - is that all one thought? Are you saying Wall-E suffers from too much show? Despite near-unanimous positive reviews and great box office? If so, what does it take to satisfy Bracket Man?

Anonymous said...

Grant Tinker's name was ironic in a way, in that it didn't apply. He didn't tinker with an artist's creative vision to the point of squandering it. (Tartikoff was another guy who respected the "show" part of the equation.)

In this day of micromanaging notes, I wonder if Les Moonves's is ironic in a way that doesn't apply too? In that "Les (tinkering) is more"?