The 8th Annual Harvard Business School Hollywood Trek took place in Los Angeles, from January 9th to 11th, 2008, sponsored by the Harvard Business School’s Entertainment & Media Club. During the career trek, Harvard Business School students gained exposure to major functions of the entertainment and media industry, visiting some of the most powerful and influential companies in the industry, ranging from Paramount Pictures to Dreamworks to Creative Artists Agency.
Additionally, the students participated in evening social events such as the Media Moguls Party at the exclusive House of Blues’ Foundation Room.
Many aspiring entertainment executives enter the industry because they appreciate the grammar of Hollywood and wish to be involved with the stars. For those interested in learning about the entertainment industry, following are ten lessons learned from the 8th Annual Harvard Business School Hollywood Trek:
1. Value of apprenticeship
Unfortunately, it is very difficult for those who hold Harvard MBAs to start where everyone in the entertainment industry wishes for them to start. Hollywood values apprenticeships. According to Casey Bloys, VP of Comedy for Original Programming at HBO, serving as an “Assistant” (i.e. answering phone and preparing coffee) serves as a crucial step in the learning experience. An “Assistant” typically works for two to five years before graduating to a higher position such as “Creative Executive”. According to Doug Lucterhand, a talent agent from Endeavor, the mailroom of the talent agency serves as the central nervous system of the entertainment industry. The experience one secures at agency parallels a liberal arts college degree. It is a test of ego sublimation. Billy Hawkins of CAA emphasizes that Entourage is a caricature of reality. The reality is that the industry is more professional. He adds that “CAA is at the epi-center of everything, of any creative expression.” Many key Hollywood executives such as Kevin Misher (The Interpreter starring Nicole Kidman) have graduated from the mailroom. “Everyone thinks they want to enter the entertainment industry until it gets a little difficult. The industry weeds out those who really hold a passion for the business,” remarks Mark Badagliacca, Executive VP and CFO of Paramount Pictures. Badagliacca emphasized the importance of genuinely matching one’s career with one’s true self: “Do not try to jam a square peg into a round hole.” Once one has discovered this match, then he will be truly successful.
2. The entertainment industry is not for the faint of heart.
Sadly, the entertainment industry does not always seem pretty out there. According to Mark Gill, CEO of the Film Department and former president of Warner Independent Pictures, it is a very tough time to be finding a job in the movie business, let alone hanging on to the movie business. There are so many people here in Hollywood who hold enormous capabilities who have recently lost jobs. According to Mark Pinkerton, SVP Finance of Paramount, “Entertainment is not for the faint of heart.” Transitioning from his career at Wall Street to his first job at in entertainment was very difficult for Pinkerton, as he underwent grueling interviews in the beginning.
3. HBO is creatively and financially healthier than the other networks.
HBO’s films frequently win the Emmy Awards. According to Casey Bloys, VP of Comedy for Original Programming at HBO, “From a creative standpoint, not having to work with advertising is very freeing.” He further ads that executives at HBO do not create with money in mind and rarely compromises aspects of the show for money. HBO prides itself on holding a huge spirit of innovation and great creative freedom within a relaxed atmosphere. Since the subscribers are older, the company stays away from producing teenage material, thus, producing content from Elizabeth to boxing to The Sopranos to Sex in the City to Entourage. Although, the company is not 100% free due to its corporate responsibility to Time Warner, HBO’s parent company. Unlike many other entertainment companies, there is a very small churn in employment at HBO. It is thus very difficult to secure employment at the company.
4. The language of Hollywood is intellectually challenging.
According to Mordecai Wiczy (MBA’99), executive of Media Rights Capital, one of the largest independent film studios, Hollywood is a one-hundred-year-old business that is heavily regulated and intellectually challenging. When Wiczy initially entered the industry, he soon discovered that producers are not entrepreneurs and that agents are not entrepreneurs. Agents, in fact, are salespersons. One of most important words of advice given by Wiczy was that the Hollywood ecosystem is one that has crushed some of the most sophisticated entrepreneurs because in order to succeed in the industry, one must be willing check his ego at the door. It is important to understand the culture of Hollywood. The following are daily homework and must-reads for aspiring entertainment executives: (a) The Trades: The Hollywood Reporter & Variety (b) The Newspapers: New York Times & Los Angeles Times (c) The Blogs: Deadlinehollywood.com
5. One cannot work in a vacuum.
The culture of talent agency, Endeavor, is extremely team oriented. It is impossible to work in the entertainment industry in a vacuum. Help is needed from everyone. Relationships in Hollywood are play a paramount importance. The endeavor of producing a film production involves a synergistic relationship with talent from all spectrums, ranging from the worlds of finance to marketing to entertainment law. Additionally, according to Larry Wasserman (MBA’04), SVP of Finance and Operations for DreamWorks Studios, movies make money through four general areas: Domestic and international theatrical rentals, home entertainment (DVD/PPV/VOD), television (pay cable, network, and syndication), and non-theatrical (airlines, army bases, etc.).
6. The competitive advantage: Learn how to spell and do math at the same time.
Unfortunately, most people in Hollywood are either extremely good at the creative or extremely good at the analytical. Working on both sides of the film industry, the creative side and the business side, is very advantageous. The two communities are in constant conflict with each other. The creative community includes the directors, writers, and the actors, while the business community includes the studios executives, the producers, and the agents. According to David Beaubaire, a Creative Executive at Dreamworks, “The great thing about this industry is that you have to be a master-of-all-traits.”
7. If you wish to enter the entertainment industry more comfortably, enter the video game division.
Activision, a leading worldwide developer, publisher and distributor of video games, was one of the few companies in Los Angeles not affected by the WGA strike. Activision offers the best shareholder return in the industry and only works with games that are massive endeavors. Thus, one can secure excellent brand management experience while working for the company, since the company is unique in Hollywood in the fact that it genuinely values the MBA degree.
8. Studio challenges
According to Gill, studio heads have a reputation for being litigation assholes until a celebrity shows up. The reason why the WGA was so difficult was because the complaints were legitimate. Additionally, quality control issues arise in the studio setting, where movies are pumped out like uncontrollably.
9. On the work-life balance and business in Hollywood:
According to Wiczy, Hollywood entrepreneurs do not get to date the actors! It is also very difficult to maintain a work-life balance in Hollywood. According to several executives, when starting out in the industry, it is much easier to excel in the industry if one does not have yet have a family.
10. New Hollywood: Making movies for the soul
According to Gill, if one offers a higher quality movie script, then all parties will be willing to work for less: “There’s a perfect storm of favorable conditions for our new business: strong international demand for star-driven, lower-cost, high-quality films; a decrease in North American studio in-house production combined with a substantial increase in distribution capacity; and greater star willingness than ever before to make independent films.” According to Gill, the only way to cut the movie budget to $10-$35 million and cutting the salaries of stars is by passionately producing films from high-quality script, films worthy of Oscar Nominations. By producing a movie for love, you will naturally attract actors and producers that will behave better. Hollywood is different today: “Given the collapse of the mid-budget studio film market, there are not enough payday movies getting made to keep all of the significant actors working for full fees at any given time. This makes many more actors a great deal more willing and available to perform in independent film.”