Tuesday, 18 May 2010

The sweet smell of success - and why lucre doesn't have to stink either

Often on Cloud 109 (best blog in the universe) I'm reading Peter Richardson's fascinating accounts of the greats of comic art and writing, and the dismal truth dawns that most of these guys were chewed up and spat out to watch their creations soar to the heights while they expired in the gutter, usually with the consolation of a bottle of Jim Beam in a brown paper bag. And then you spend a little time working in videogames or TV or movies and you begin to see a pattern. It isn't just comics. Wherever there is creative talent there's a rip-off waiting to happen.

Jack Ember delivers a passionate speech about this in Winter. It comes close to the end of the book so I won't spoil it here. He seems to be talking more generally, and indeed I guess he is. When creative talent gets chewed up, that's the perfect Platonic embodiment of money oppressing labor, after all. But the wrath, determination and socialist sentiments expressed by Mr Ember come from Leo's and my personal experience. It's a theme David Mamet explores in many of his movies, such as The Spanish Prisoner, above, or The Verdict, below. (Though I should add that Mr Mamet is hardly going to want me lumping him in with us socialists; sorry, sir.)

Anyway, there's never any point in being defeatist. When you talk to people who want to oppress you, if you dig in they will start to talk over you. That kind of person views all talent as unworldly, so they will alternately try to bully or charm you. They are trying to turn you into a victim. This you must resist. It is said that genius is always to be found begging at the gates of wealth, but that is old business thinking - the zero sum game. There are now investors and business partners who have the vision to seek a new model with creatives. They are out there; you must find them. As a creative man or woman, you must learn enough about new business thinking to talk to these worthwhile partners and forge win-win deals. Remain positive and there is nothing apart from the raw quality of your work to prevent you climbing up the ladder to a new and better creative/financial model.

Here, like the stages of Dante's hell, are the thresholds you must cross to get there. Forewarned is forearmed!

1. At this stage, people are not interested in your project. They don't just pass on it, they act as if Derren Brown has put them under a hypnotic compulsion to ignore it. If you give it to friends and they don't give you any feedback, that's actually a good sign. It means that they don't know how to break it to you that they found it too weird. Too weird often (but not always) equates to original, which is what the project needs to have any chance of reaching stage 5.

2. People try to shoot the project down. This means that they feel there is a serious risk of it being successful. Tellingly, they see that as a risk to themselves - in most cases, they're envisaging that it will be a success for someone else. So they tell you all the reasons why you should abandon it. "Science fiction is not testing well with the 8-12 year-old ABC1 female demographic." Again, take heart. If they actually thought it wouldn't get anywhere, they wouldn't bother trying to discourage you. (Also, anybody who thinks that kind of marketing speak has anything to do with creative success is a moron anyway, so do you really care about their opinion?)

3. Now it's getting serious. People will come out of the woodwork telling you why you won't get anywhere without them. I'm not talking here about potentially useful partners like investors or publishers. These are people who you're not even sure exactly what they plan to do for you. They keep everything vague, which favors them because they don't have anything concrete to bring to the deal. You can recognize them in an instant by the lingo: fluent bullshit. Sit it out - they're just the early swarm of parasites that tells you real partnerships and deals are on the horizon.

4. Success is close now. You can smell it. Serious players turn up wanting a slice of your project. The only problem is, they don't want the goose (that's you), they just want the golden egg. Money will be offered. More money than a ditch-digger could make in a whole week, yay. This is the reverse of stage 1, as gradually you'll notice at meetings that people are talking about "our" project. Yeah, they like it now. They want to go home with it, and you're just the old chaperone who's getting in the way. The history of creative endeavor is a bloody battlefield littered with talent left clutching a few dollars while the big boys sit on piles of gold sucking their cigars. They'll do it without a qualm - they don't even think you deserve it. After all, they did all the work, didn't they? Beware of this stage. Having come this far you're probably desperate for a payday, but don't weaken.

5. Real success is when you find partners - publishers, studios, investors - who both have something real to contribute and see you as more than an upstart who found a treasure map in the attic. They know that you are the best champion the project will ever have. They figure that having created it, you might just come up with even more good stuff next week. As this type of deal is a genuine win-win, each partner may have smaller percentages but of a much bigger pie. I should add that few creatives ever get this far - most sold it at stage 4 or earlier to pay the rent. But if you have a good project, believe in it. The only thing that stops you reaching stage 5 is all the frogs you need to get through to find a prince.


  1. Absolutely brilliant and incisive analysis Dave and on a personal level, what I needed to read today just to keep everything in focus.

    Many thanks for sharing these thoughts, they should be carved out of granite, each letter encrusted with gold, occupying a permanent place in cyberspace as a guiding beacon to all creatives.

  2. P.S. Many thanks for your words of praise, undeserving mortal that I am.

    I'll be serving up some "Food For Thought" shortly.

  3. Peter, I strongly believe that business has been given a bad name by the people who *talk* about win-win, but in reality can only believe they are winning if they see the other guy is losing. There are lots of those people in the TV, games, book and movie industries and they are just as much of a liability to their own companies as to the downtrodden creatives they are trying to screw.

    Business guru Charles Handy talks about this syndrome. A guy does a deal and he sees the other guy walk off smiling, and instantly he feels he lost out. He would have been happy only if the other guy was unhappy. Somebody who thinks that way is a moron. Unfortunately, it's often the standard mindset for somebody who has pushed and bluffed and cheated their way to the top while having no actual talent.

    Business today shouldn't be conducted that way. We need more Barack Obamas and Nelson Mandelas of business, fewer Margaret Thatchers.

    The fact is, win-win isn't some hippy, hug-a-tree kind of concept. It's not sappy or about conceding everything. It's actually the fundamental principle behind human civilization: *we can be stronger together*. When you get people who are willing to do business on that basis, the sky's the limit for both sides.

  4. You've got to realize that most of these execs in the broadcasters and studios are just concerned with covering their asses. These companies are so big nowadays that they are dominated by internal politics. And because there's no way to measure how a deal might have worked out, the best way an exec can prove they got a great deal for the company is at he expense of the talent. You're only going to get win/win deals with people who are high enough up that they don't have to justify their jobs all the time.

  5. Ceri, that's a good point - but y'know, ant and bee colonies are *more* intelligent than the individual insects. If you're saying that a human institution is set up in such a way that it behaves *dumber* than a single human being would, that's a big organizational problem right there.

  6. I have found that the fewer people in the decision-making loop, the better off you are. It is much easier to get a smaller group of people to all get behind something and move it forward than it is to get a larger bunch of people to agree - and Ceri is right in the fact that more people = more politics.

    I am experiencing that right now in the games industry, where nearly all the people involved in our project at the publisher level got switched to other projects halfway through. The new team just can't seem to get on board, and are not anywhere near as invested in the project as the original team. Despite all our best efforts I predict the project will get canned in the near future as a result.

    I know it is all a part of the process, and only a small percentage of game projects ever see the light of day, but it still feels like a kick in the gut every time.

  7. Sandy, I certainly think you've got a better chance of doing something original if there are only a few people involved in the creative process. They have to be the right people, of course. I have met some one-man-band type companies where you only have a few people in the loop but they are all blithering idiots. See today's Fabled Lands blog post re Fangleworth's for a dramatized example!

    Good business practice comes from having smart individuals in the company - but it can't afford to just be run by individual whim. The need is to set up systems (I see companies as kind of AIs) that ensure projects are not scuppered by politics, ass-covering, perverse incentives, zero-sum thinking and other kinds of other bad business practice.

    Often times, the execs at a network or games publisher forget that after all the negotiation and committee meetings are done, a team of actual working stiffs have to put in the real work of making that TV show, game or book. It's agonizing to wait as they fiddle away, apparently unaware that Rome is burning faster than they are negotiating up their percentage of the ashes. And we, the workers, are anxious all the while to put the fire out but they won't let us. I am of course not the first person to indicate that bosses are too often part of the problem. This has to change.