25th February 2012: Mailroom Jobs & Superstar Economics

The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys and Sells the New Hollywood (2000)

 

For the past week I’ve been writing about academic entrepreneurs and superstar economics. Now, NPR’s Adam Davidson has a great New York Times article on why many careers are becoming lotteries in which a small group has a ‘winner-takes-all’ or ‘success to the successful‘ dynamic and others can miss out. Davidson’s key insight:

 

Hollywood is, in some ways, the model lottery industry. For most companies in the business, it doesn’t make economic sense to, as Google does, put promising young applicants through a series of tests and then hire only the small number who pass. Instead, it’s cheaper for talent agencies and studios to hire a lot of young workers and run them through a few years of low-paying drudgery. (Actors are another story altogether. Many never get steady jobs in the first place.) This occupational centrifuge allows workers to effectively sort themselves out based on skill and drive. Over time, some will lose their commitment; others will realize that they don’t have the right talent set; others will find that they’re better at something else. [emphasis added]

 

Davidson’s thesis is that this “economic lottery system” pushes talent to the top. He cites Hollywood actors and directors, and Big Four accountants who survive the ‘up or out’ system to make partner (William D. Cohan has interviewed the Wall Street losers). Davidson connects tournament theory — the study of individuals who have relative advantages in salary and wage negotiations — to disruptive innovation (PDF), globalisation, technology and other mega-trends that are creating a ‘race to the bottom’ dynamic. How can individuals cope with these changes? “In a lottery-based economy, you need some luck, too; now, perhaps, more than ever,” Davidson advises. “People should be prepared to enter a few different lotteries, because the new Plan B is just going to be another long shot in a different field.”

 

For Davidson the “economic lottery system” model is the New Hollywood. The reality is a little more complex. Classical Hollywood’s studio production system flourished from the 1930s until the ‘go go’ Sixties when the modern conglomerates collapsed. For a brief period from 1968-73, independent producers flourished before the studios fought back with the blockbuster film, new marketing, distribution, and control of ancillary revenue streams. A similar pattern occurred in the 1995-2000 dotcom period (PDF) in Los Angeles, New York, Austin, and London. Ben Eltham and I found in a 2010 academic paper that Australia’s film industry fluctuated depending on a mixture of Australian Government intervention, available labour, and international tax arbitrage. Eltham and I both read Nikki Finke’s influential blog Deadline Hollywood.

 

History also differs on the New Hollywood exemplars that Davidson selects. “Barry Diller and David Geffen each started his career in the William Morris mailroom,” Davidson observes. Tom King’s biography The Operator: David Geffen Builds, Buys, and Sells the New Hollywood (New York: Random House, 2000) details what actually happened over this six month period in late 1964-early 1965 before Geffen became secretary to television agent Ben Griefer (pp. 46-52). Geffen lied to WM’s Howard Portnoy that he was Phil Spector’s cousin. Geffen lied about having a college education and persuaded his brother Mitchell to write a letter and cover this up. When they met, Diller “thought Geffen was a rather odd duck for using his vacation time to work in the company’s other office” (p. 50). Geffen networked with agent Herb Gart, “stalked” New York office head Nat Lefkowitz, and got his break from Scott Shukat. Geffen relied on chutzpah, hard work, networking, and having a career goal: “signing actors.” No wonder that Geffen hated King’s biography.

 

These qualities are essential to Davidson’s “occupational centrifuge.” When academics ask me about their Dean’s budget and resource allocative controls, and why universities are now like Davidson’s “economic lottery system”, I suggest they invest time in watching the film Moneyball (a film in part about tournament theory), and understanding the performance and value creation goals of private equity firms (the mental model of consultants who possibly advise the Dean).

 

I haven’t finished the academic journal articles on those ideas yet . . .