There Really Is No Business Like Show Business

Where are the showmen of yesteryear, the ones who are in the movie business to sell creativity rather than widgets?

First, I took on the movies. Then, I took on the stars. After releasing all that hostility, I was ready to get into a chill, positive state, catch up on some "Breaking Bad" and enjoy the summer.

But then I read Jerry Weintraub’s memoirs, Ed Limato died and I thought, "Why not just go for the trifecta?"

Show business shouldn’t be run like any other business. GE, Walmart, Goldman Sachs – you know what they do (or you hope you do). There’s a specific product or service that’s being put into the marketplace and it fulfills a need.

Movies or entertainment in general work in reverse. They create a need out of thin air and then go about selling you what you must have in order to fulfill that need. And they convince you that if you don’t fulfill that need, you may die of that need. Or be ostracized by everyone you know, which can be even worse. So if you don’t see that movie or buy that album, you are going to be left far, far behind while everyone else in the universe will be much cooler than you.

There’s also the element of shoving as much as possible at you, in the hopes that lots of it will stick to your money. Like action movies? Well, what about this one, with nudity! And that one, in 3D! See it in the theater! Buy it on Blu-ray! Hell, Nic Cage will even come to your house and watch it with you!

People who gravitated toward Hollywood weren’t the same people who dreamed of being lawyers or accountants. They were drawn to the shady glamour, the legends and myths, the “Wizard of Oz”-ness of it all. They wanted to be the person behind the curtain, who knew the secrets and made it all happen. And those people tend to think differently.

Jerry Weintraub’s stories, of hustling his way through repping musicians like Elvis and Frank Sinatra and learning about the movie business — they made me think about the people who make movies today. Not the directors, the writers, the 1,001 artists who create a film. I mean the people who sit in large offices wearing great suits who worry about whether the films on their slate will get them promoted or fired.

What kind of creative decisions can come from a place of office politics or fear? If we were talking about GE or Walmart, that makes sense. But we’re talking about movies.

No matter how many test screenings you put in front of a Modesto audience, they’re not going to be able to tell you how a movie’s going to hit people. You can’t test it like a new pasta sauce, dolloping it out and asking if they like the oregano or if it’s too much. It’s not a science or even an art, it’s complete and utter guesswork.

It’s the actor and the script and the time of year and whatever mood the country’s in. It’s whether it rained on opening weekend or whether your movie was too similar to another movie that bombed a month before. It’s too lighthearted, too depressing, it’s less than the audience expected or more than they want. It’s everything you didn’t plan for.

When you work in the stock market, you can try to foresee different kind of scenarios by tweaking models. A slight drop here and everyone’s earning 10% less. A small gain there and we’re in the black for years to come.

Yet with all the spreadsheets in the world, the unforeseeable happens. With movies, the unforeseeable is the only possibility.

Weintraub, Robert Evans and others from the old school knew that, but they approached things with awe and flair, with a sense that even though they were operating from behind the curtain, they were just as mesmerized as their audience. They never forgot they were handling commodities of their own creation, but they also didn’t get lost in the numbers of it all.

The same goes for the agents of yesteryear like Ed Limato, who operated by a different code than exists today. How many agents today treat their family like clients, let alone their clients like family? When you read about these men (and the stories are almost always about men), you sense that they felt it was a great privilege to be working in Hollywood and they never forgot that working there should never feel like working in an office in Boise or on an assembly line in Detroit.

We all tend to glorify the past, thinking that everything was purer, simpler, better before. Obviously, that’s crap. There were wars and epidemics then, too. There was also pettiness and greed. Nothing’s really new now, it’s just that now there’s an iPhone App for it.

Wouldn’t it be great if the people who wrote the checks to make the movies that we spend our paychecks on stopped thinking like the MBA graduates they are and started thinking like the old-school showmen they’ve replaced? I’d love to know that the movie I’m watching was a true labor of love and not a sanitized, market-tested product.

If someone’s going to create a need in my life, I’d like it to be a hustler who’s selling for their life.

I know I’m overly simplifying things and ignoring lots of pragmatic and necessary reasons for why the business runs the way it does. But sometimes, it’s because things get too complicated that they lose their meaning.