This is Rob Long with Martini Shot on KCRW.
The chairman of a large movie studio once said that the movie and television business was a crapshoot. You make a bet, you play the (razor thin) odds and then you roll the dice.
He said these words in the magazine section of the Sunday New York Times, so you know, it must be true. But the guy who ran the holding company that ran and owned the studio that the chairman…chaired, whatever that means…didn't like opening his Sunday paper and seeing a profile of his underling and discovering that the company he ran was engaged in something so risky, so unscientific, so irrational as a game of craps, especially after making the case to a lot of institutional investors that his company was different, see, they had a system….
So he called the chairman on the phone – so the story goes; this was before email – and reprimanded him. This is not a crapshoot, he is supposed to have said. This is not gambling. I do not run a casino.
The chairman lasted about another year at the studio. And the guy who ran the holding company that owned and ran that studio didn't last much longer, either, after a brutal merger fight. What he's remembered for, at least by me, is for insisting that his company was not a casino.
Which made me wonder what's so bad about running a casino? Casinos make a lot of money. Casinos, in fact, have a pretty perfect business. People go into a big building, they place their money down on a felt surface, then they perform some kind of weird, superstitious ritual –- they spin something or roll something or pull something or look at something –- and then they usually watch their money being taken away, after which they put some more of their money down on a felt surface.
This is a pretty good business. And, unlike Hollywood, they actually do have a system. If Bill Gates, say, bumped his head or got some kind of brain fever or got totally wasted one day and decided, what the heck, I've got $60-something billion, let me live a little, and he sauntered into the super glamorous, super cool Wynn Resort in Las Vegas – in, like, a pair of fashionable jeans and a wife-beater t-shirt – I'm just setting the scene, here -- and say he tried to put down, I don't know, $5 billion on red. I mean, why not, right? He won't miss it. But even if he somehow could carry that many chips from the cashier, they still wouldn't let him make that bet. Some big guy in a bad suit and an ear-piece would forcible guide the fragile, brittle-boned Bill Gates into a quiet room where he'd be given another drink –- not that he'd need another one; the guy almost put $5 billion down on red! -– and he'd be told that in this and every casino, if you want to wager $5 billion –- and by the way, they do want you to wager $5 billion -– you must do it in smaller, mathematically precise increments. Because the game the casino is playing is volume. The more bets you make, the better it is for them.
Hollywood is different. In Hollywood, the people who run the studios and own the holding companies that run the networks and own the studios, or whatever, are smart enough to have figured out that if they make fewer projects, but spend a lot more money on each one, and really really supervise every single second of the process and every single decision, then, you know, um, maybe that will work.
So, when you get right down to it, that studio chairman, a few years ago, in the Sunday Magazine of the New York Times, was completely wrong, and his cranky, doomed boss was right. Hollywood is not a casino. It's not a game of craps. It's a lot more irrational. A lot riskier. A game of craps you can win.
Well, that's it for this week. Next week we'll check our email. For KCRW, this is Rob Long with Martini Shot.