By Dom Serafini
It looks like the entertainment industry is moving away from the realm of show business and entering into something akin to the shoe business. At NATPE, after listening to all the reasons why the industry has to scale back, to downsize, to re-tool, to face reality, to cut costs, etc., I’m convinced that this business has now become purely a question of numbers, just like shoes: a 32 small, 42 wide, and so on.
So, if this is indeed the case –– that the industry has been reduced to mere numbers — how did this happen? In effect, the industry has not changed much during recent times. What has changed, though, is management. Years ago, the sector was run by showmen. Today we have MBAs who are proud to say that they’ve been trained to run any company. To them, selling entertainment is just like selling shoes or toasters.
The new business philosophy, based on “cutting,” instead of “making,” reminds me of a studio that, in order to save $10 million annually, absorbed an acquired company and, in the process, caused $30 million per year loss in missing revenues, from what the company was making independently.
If the industry’s corporate leaders want to remove the “show” component from the show-business combination, supposedly in order to improve the bottom line, aren’t they changing the whole nature of the entertainment business?
In order to save money, the corporate suits are taking away extravagant parties to launch new programs. They want to do without the hoopla surrounding personalities connected to programs and eliminate promotional and advertising campaigns at various trade shows. But in the end, what are they getting? A dud, that’s what! Something without life, that one cannot call a “show,” but simply “content:” just like tomato paste in a can.
Plus, how do they expect that this demystified and un-eventified content is going to be sold for real money to advertising agencies, clients and international buyers?
If today’s producers, networks and international distributors are no longer allowed to be excited by their own product, how do they expect the buyers (be they advertisers or international programmers) to be excited?
The reason why American entertainment became popular throughout the world is because Hollywood relied on talent (in front and in back of the cameras and in the sales field) and… excesses! And it was those excesses that brought-in truckloads of money. For years, American distributors could sell ice to the Eskimos, because they made a “show” out of that boring thing that is snow, aka content!
I remember, years ago –– when the big independent companies roamed the television field –– a resourceful advertising and marketing executive named Doug Friedman called me into his West Los Angeles office for some advice. He had a problem to solve. His company, New World (later incorporated into Fox), had just launched a new half-hour show called Grudge Match in U.S. syndication.
The show quickly became popular among local TV station managers and the company looked for ways to monetize it on the international market, as well. Now, the premise of the show was downright silly: two people hitting each other with pillows inside a boxing ring. So, the question was: How can we position a show that is popular in the U.S. but could offend the intelligence of international buyers, let alone try to sell it to them?
The answer was to position it with a showy advertising campaign, as the craziest thing that Americans could come up with (Italians have a word for it: Americanata). And with that, Friedman was able to transform an obstacle into a sales tool, since all international buyers, who are for the most part, intellectuals, like to make fun of Americans, who they think to be simpletons. Friedman proved that, by putting some extra “show” into show business, the business can rule over most difficulties.
The industry began changing not because television took over cinemas, or cable-TV overwhelmed broadcasting, or pay-TV, or home video, or DVDs or the Internet…
The entertainment industry began to change when MBAs entered the sector, which was flush with cash. When these MBAs overtook rich TV broadcasting outlets, they began lobbying (i.e., paying) politicians in order to have relaxed rules and regulations to allow them to buy studios.
But once they did all the work, instead of TV networks buying studios, the latter ended up for the most part buying them, often without having cash, thus loading themselves with debt.
One could say that this state of affair represents the new reality that the industry has to face, but has nothing to do with show business, only with detrimental financial engineering.
In my view, to effectively deal with the problems caused by this financial “reality,” we have to force-feed the “show” back into show business.