Peter Guber preaches the Hollywood gospel: It's all about telling the right story
After more than 40 years in Hollywood, Peter Guber is a great pitchman. He's been in every end of the business – he ran Sony Pictures, produced hit movies like “Rain Man” and even helped found the legendary Casablanca Records, which spawned Donna Summer and Kiss. His current company, Mandalay Entertainment, is involved in films, TV and new media and handles a variety of sports properties, including the NBA's Golden State Warriors, which Guber and a partner bought last summer for $450 million.
But when I had lunch with him the other day to talk about his new book, “Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph with the Hidden Power of Story,” instead of regaling me with stories about himself, Guber launched into a 20-minute lecture about how to further my career. “Think of an interview as a relationship, not as a transaction!” he insisted, reaching out across the table to grab my shoulder. “Relationships are the secret sauce in the business of life.”
Let's just say Guber was so persuasive that when the interview was over, my first instinct was to go ask my editors for a big raise. But what Guber was really doing was something else he's done for four decades--being a motivator and a teacher, something he started in the early 1970s at UCLA, where he's now a full professor at the School of Theater, Film and Television.
“Even when Peter is giving you his rap, what he really wants to do is instruct and educate,” says Dreamworks partner Stacey Snider, who at 25 landed a job as director of development at Guber's production company. “I was really his story editor, but I wanted a more serious title. And even then, Peter told me, 'You want to be a story editor because if you know the difference between compelling ideas and trifling notions, you can put that at the end of your pole and catch a fish. Knowing a good story will be the source of your power.' “
The two sides of Guber's personality--the charming Hollywood hustler and the earnest academic idea guy--are both on display in “Tell to Win,” which has spent much of the past two weeks atop the Amazon best seller list. It's an odd mixture of showbiz memoir, academic tutorial and self-help manual, full of examples of the power of what Guber calls purposeful storytelling. You might say that the book is the ultimate demonstration of the Hollywoodization of our culture, since one of its essential lessons is that every business opportunity can be boiled down to making a great pitch.
It’s especially telling that when Guber enthuses over his new basketball team, he talks a lot more about the Warriors’ “new narrative possibilities” and fans’ “emotional bond” with the team than about winning games.
“We're wired to tell stories--we have two million years of it in our DNA,” says Guber, who at 68 crackles with energy, sprinkles his speech with colorful aphorisms and doesn't have a trace of grey in his swept-back sepia-toned hair. “Facts are great, but what we really want is a narrative. Whatever the creative endeavor, when you want to move people to action, you need a story. It's a way to let people know you're a member of the tribe from the minute you walk into the room.”
In “Tell to Win,” Guber takes us on a dizzying voyage through his showbiz and sports past, dropping names all over the place. When Guber goes on a white water-rafting trip down the Colorado River, during which his guide offers up a fanciful story about a king of Egypt being ferried across the Nile by a crocodile, Guber is accompanied by Pierce Brosnan, Tony Robbins and “Girls Gone Wild's” Joe Francis as well as a host of top film and TV executives.
We're right there with Guber when Michael Jackson feeds a live mouse to a snake, Pat Riley takes the Miami Heat to the 2006 NBA title, Tim Burton gets Jack Nicholson to commit to playing The Joker in “Batman” and Bill Clinton, in desperate need of money during the early days of his presidential campaign, turns to Guber for fundraising assistance. (Ever grateful, Clinton provided Guber with a cover blurb for the book.)
For Guber, stories help us reimagine the world. Or as he puts it in one of his many maxims: “Facts give you perspiration, stories give you inspiration.”
Clinton, when he needed money to keep his campaign afloat, inspired Guber to new heights of fundraising dedication by reminding Guber of the story of the film “High Noon.” It was Clinton, in the role of Gary Cooper, against the world.
Riley tells Guber that the reason the Lakers won the 1979 NBA championship after Kareem Abdul-Jabaar was injured during the league finals was because Magic Johnson, the team's rookie point guard, took charge with a compelling story. “I know what the problem is,” Magic told the team. “All of you guys are afraid because Kareem isn't here. Well, I'll be Kareem.” And with that, Johnson led the Lakers to the title.
This storytelling prowess is clearly contagious. In the book, Guber interviews his friend, New York art maven Arne Glimcher, who not only discovers new artists for his gallery but also studies them as they work to collect stories he can use to sell their pieces to his customers. “I'm not a picture seller,” he tells Guber. “I'm a narrator.”
Of course, by that definition, even Sammy Glick was a narrator. But that's what makes Guber's book such an intriguing read. It's full of ideas that often sound like a hustler's pitch, but also seem genuinely rooted in our craving for connection with one another. Most of the people who populate Guber's book aren't just storytellers, but risk takers. “Peter seeks out people who are like him, the commonality being that they love a challenge,” says Toby Emmerich, president of New Line Cinema. “Peter loves to do things that no one thinks he can pull off, whether it was remaking Sony or buying the Golden State Warriors. It's what gets his blood going.”
Perhaps that's why Guber is so excited about owning a basketball team, even one like the Warriors, who only won 26 games last season. It's a new challenge--with a new narrative.
“And here’s the story,” he says, warming to his pitch. “That team is really owned by the fans. Our job is to make them feel the team is worthy of their emotions. It's a different kind of show business. The players are live characters, actors in a different play every game. And I do with a sports team what I did with a movie. I go--here's the audience, here's the artist and I try to imagine the right story that can connect them.”
Photo: Peter Guber, chairman of the Mandalay Entertainment Group.
Credit: David Carlson/Mandalay Entertainment Group