We wrote this conversational piece for entertainment professionals who raise money for, or pitch finished entertainment properties – whether they are film, television, live performances, or online.
The seminal issue in this article is that we often do it wrong.
You see, it’s all about perspective. The other person’s, not ours.
And when we come to understand this fully and we learn to change the dialog from what we want – to what they need, then our success rate goes up.
Way up. ~ SJK & SNB
self-interest/ˌsɛlfˈɪn tər ɪst, -trɪst, ˈsɛlf-/
1. one's personal interest or advantage
2. the act or an instance of pursuing one's own interest
Sarah Nean Bruce (SNB): Stephen, why did you write an article about Economics and specifically about people acting on their own self-interest – for the entertainment profession?
Stephen J. Kerr (SJK): My undergraduate degree was in Economics, a subject I didn’t personally have much interest in at the time (in my early 20s) and one that I did not think I would use much in life. I thought all that theoretical non-sense about “supply and demand” was for pale little men working in darkened rooms of the corporate machines.
Of course, like many opinions we form in our youth, I was wrong.
SNB: What does economic theory have to do with entertainment?
SJK: As a financial, business and marketing adviser to media companies for these past 35 years, I have drawn on my knowledge of both micro and macro-economics almost every day. One of the greatest lessons we learn in Economics is that humans perform fast economic calculations every time they act and their goal is always to maximize their payout. People will quickly figure out the “payout table” and work to maximize their “economic advantage.”
SNB: What is the practical advice of this theoretical economic ‘payout’ concept?
SJK: When we approach an investor or distributor to back our movie, play or television show, it is good to remember people act in their own self-interest.
The conversation we are having is, “This is a great plot with fabulous actors that we’re going to shoot in Australia for $20 million.” But, what the investor is thinking is, “Wonder if I can double or triple my money, meet Charlize Theron, and get to walk the Red Carpet at the Oscars?” When a US film distributor is pitching our movie to a regional distributor in France, the American distributor is saying, “This is a fantastic action film with Charlize Theron and Ben Affleck, directed by Antoine Fuqua, and should do big numbers in France. Pay me a lot of money for it.” But what the French distributor is thinking is, “I wonder if I can get Charlize Theron to come to Paris if I pick up this chien.”
SNB: So you are saying people don’t act so much on best intentions as they do on self-satisfying motivations?
SJK: It is self-deluding to think that the people we are pitching care about “art” or “great cinema”. It is often more about “How much can we make off of this movie” than it is “How good is this film.” There is nothing wrong with acting in one’s self-interest. Once we understand we are all acting consistently, it is simply a matter of aligning personal interests with someone’s broader objective.
SNB: Are you implying that selflessness and generosity are not genuine or sincere intentions?
SJK: If you want to argue that people sometimes do things out of the goodness of their hearts and for selfless reasons, I would contend that even seemingly altruistic actions stem from a self-serving place: When we give money to charity; when we spend hours helping some young filmmaker; when we speak at conferences pro bono; or when we help some hapless person find their lost dog at the mall – we are all acting in our own self-interest. It makes us sad to see people in distress, so we give money to charity. It gives us personal satisfaction to give a young filmmaker a leg up in the business. It helps our professional development if people see us as a figure of authority at an industry conference. And, it makes us feel important when we reunite a distraught person with their beloved pooch.
You see, self-interest.
SNB: So what is the crux of all this self-interest?
SJK: The modern notions of free enterprise and free markets are based on the premise that we can rely on people to solve the complex math that results in the best economic return toward their own self-interests. The truth is, it is much more reliable to count on people acting toward their own self-interest than it is to expect them to act in the interests of a broader, more abstract, sense of community.
SNB: How does this apply directly to pitching and selling?
SJK: We should remember this (the concept of others’ self-interest) when we write our next Business Plan, Pitch Bible, Marketing Brochure, or Project Grant. What motivates us and what motivates others can be something entirely different. It is essential we consider our audience and focus on their needs when developing a pitch. What is in their self-interest? What would make them excited about backing our project over the 20 others that they are looking at this month?
Film financiers like Megan Ellison (Annapurna Pictures) are generally not as motivated by making more money as they are by creating legacies. Studio execs, like Nick Manzi the head of acquisitions at Lionsgate, are more motivated by keeping their jobs and keeping their studios in the black than they are by acquiring one more picture.
We closely study the culture of the company that we are pitching to insure that our project is going to the right person and satisfying a need that they have right now.
“Men are Moved by two levers only:
fear and self-interest.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte
SNB: What is the #1 self-interest of working in the entertainment medias business?
SJK: One enormous self-interest is not to make a mistake. Betting on the right horses makes us a legend in the entertainment industry, and betting on the wrong ones gets us fired. We need to keep in mind it is just as smart for us to resolve an acquisition person’s concerns about making a big mistake, as it is for us to convince them that acquiring our film, serial, or rights, is in their company’s best interest. The more consumer research that we can do to lower a broadcasters or studios perception of risk, the lower their concern will be on making a risky decision. As a producer, investment banker, distributor, or even director, our job is to make other people look good – and smart.
It is simply acting in our own self-interest.
This is a periodic column called:
The Absolutely True Stories of Indie
STORY-TELLING & STORY-SELLING
A series of conversational articles and brief essays on
The Art & Science of the Entertainment Media Business
Written by Stephen J. Kerr + Sarah Nean Bruce