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This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
Not long ago, a newly-minted movie studio chairman flew to Tokyo for his first meeting with the owners of his company. It was one of those corporate kabuki performances, a highly orchestrated and utterly meaningless display of PowerPoint pageantry that unwieldy behemoths prefer to, well, actually talking and deciding things.
There was a tea ceremony, apparently, and some stiff toasts. The studio head made a suitably vague and eye-wateringly boring presentation -- as is traditional -- and was greeted -- as is traditional -- by silent, nodding heads.
But at some point during the meeting, someone on the Japanese side made a tactical error. He asked the new studio chief what his plan was the upcoming fiscal year. And then the studio chief compounded the blunder by telling him.
"We'll make about fourteen movies this year, I'm thinking," he said. "Six of them will do okay, maybe break even; two or three will do a bit better, and have franchise possibilities; two will be solid hits; one will be a monster hit; and at least three will be total losses, total bombs."
Silence in the cherry-wood paneled boardroom. The worst kind of social embarrassment -- Japanese social embarrassment -- tensed up the atmosphere. And then, one of the executives coughed timidly.
"Tell me, please, Studio Chief-san," I think he said, "Why do you insist on making the bombs?"
Deep down, I think every business is really a version of the entertainment business. This is partially because I only know about the entertainment business, and when you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.
The recent news from the financial markets has seemed pretty familiar. It's hard to hear phrases like "huge losses," "cash hemorrhage," and "colossal mismanagement" alongside "enormous executive pay packages," "whopping year-end bonuses," and "platinum parachutes," and not think, hey! Rewarding failure! That's just like in show business!
It's been interesting -- and a little alarming -- to read the accounts of big bank failures, hedge funds collapsing, and plummeting financial shares for the past week. Almost every chief executive of the recent failed financial institutions has also said, It's not our fault. We thought we had a sure thing. No one expected this to happen.
Which is pretty much word-for-word what the producers of every big movie flop of the past twenty years has said -- something like: Don't blame me. We mitigated the risk by hiring an expensive director and a huge movie star! No one could have predicted that all of that high-priced talent would produce such a turkey.
It should worry everyone -- it certainly worries me -- that the people who keep the world's financial pistons oiled and pumping are about as smart (and maybe just a touch slower, frankly) than the average dude who runs the average studio.
No one will ever know, of course, how to tell which project is going to be a hit and which one is going to be a flop. There's no way to reverse-engineer a successful movie or television show, just as there was no way, in the subprime housing bubble to engineer out -- with complex derivatives and debt swaps and insurance instruments -- the uncertainty and risk in the marketplace.
But that was a truth that the studio chief's paymasters in Tokyo didn't want to hear -- he was replaced the next year by a much smoother and more diplomatic fellow, who, when asked for his plan for the fiscal year, replied cheerily that he was going to release a slate of films absolutely guaranteed to succeed.
There was applause in the cherry-wood paneled boardroom. I'm sure the new studio chief made a deep and respectful bow, raised a glass in a toast, and then caught the company jet back to Los Angeles, where he presided over a slate of fourteen movies: six of which did okay, two or three of which did a little better, two of which performed solidly, one of which was an outright blockbuster, and three of which were total losses, outright bombs.
That's it for this week. Next week, we'll take our meds. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.