The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Baseball GMs and movie studio chiefs: Are they really doing the same job?

May 26, 2011 |  2:01 pm

Big picture photo May 2011 002 Going back to the earliest days of the show business, people have had an abiding fascination with the moguls who ran movie studios, from Irving Thalberg — who provided the raw material for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Last Tycoon” — to Louis B. Mayer, Sam Goldwyn and Jack Warner, who ended up being just as famous as the actors who populated their movies.

In today’s sports, especially baseball, the teams’ general managers have achieved a similar kind of rock star status, so much so especially that 2K Sports recently released a general manager video game. Sportswriters have breathlessly followed the exploits of the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman, the Boston Red Sox’s Theo Epstein and — most of all — Billy Beane, the brash GM of the Oakland A’s, who is being played by Brad Pitt in “Moneyball,” an upcoming film about Beane’s innovative use of the art of sabermetrics that helped revive the A’s.

As someone who follows baseball just as closely as the movie business, I’ve come to realize that the jobs of studio boss and baseball GM have an awful lot in common. They both have to build relationships, shrewdly evaluate talent, take calculated risks, carefully spend their money and engage in high-stakes poker-style negotiations with talent agents. So when Arizona Diamondbacks GM Kevin Towers was in town recently to see his team play at Dodger Stadium, I arranged for him to have lunch in the Paramount commissary with Rob Moore, the studio’s vice chairman.

Towers has the craggy charm of a cowboy character from “True Grit” while Moore is a bundle of ebullient energy, but when they talked about their jobs, they were like two peas in pods. By the time we were done, they were finishing each other’s sentences, joking about their best — and worst — deals and sharing war stories about having to survive relentless media scrutiny.

In baseball, as in the movie business, everyone wants to develop younger, cheaper talent. GMs do it either by trading established players for young prospects or through an annual draft that stocks their farm system with players that can be paid far less money than the stars available through free agency. Studios do the same thing, either by restocking their franchises with inexpensive actors — think Chris Pine in the reboot of “Star Trek” or Shia LeBeouf in “Indiana Jones” — or by buying low-budget movies at film festivals.

Paramount launched its own version of a baseball farm system with Insurge Pictures, where the studio has been bankrolling a series of micro-budget films. Moore boasts that Insurge generated the equivalent of a farm-team star in Jon Chu, who made low-budget digital videos for the studio, then its Justin Bieber concert film and is now directing a $100-million-plus “G.I. Joe” sequel.

When Towers was the GM of the small-market San Diego Padres, he couldn’t afford to bulk up on free agents. (He once swapped a pitcher for $75,000 and two treadmills to help refurbish the club’s training facility.) So he traded two pitchers, both now out of baseball, for an unknown first baseman named Adrian Gonzalez, who’s now one of the biggest stars in the game with the Boston Red Sox (and was traded after Towers left the team).

“When you’re running a small-market team, you’re always looking for value,” Towers explained. “I can’t shop in the stores where the Yankees shop. It would be like trying to sign a Tom Cruise or a Will Smith — I couldn’t afford them if their salaries ended up making nearly 50% of my entire payroll.”

“It’s exactly the same with us,” Moore said. “In both our businesses, the big stars are going to get their $20 million. It’s the people who are just breaking out where you can find real value.”

Similarly, studios are always on the hunt for a low-budget film that could be a surprise success. Moore points to “Paranormal Activity,” which the studio acquired for $350,000 and went on to gross $200 million around the world. “That’s the trick — finding the talent no one else sees and not having to pay a high price for it,” Moore said.

Of course, once someone becomes a star, they demand more money, which often puts these executives on a collision course with talent agents like Hollywood’s Ari Emanuel and baseball’s Scott Boras, who has brokered a string of eye-popping contracts for such stars as Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez and Matt Holliday.

Towers says you have to hold your ground when negotiating with a savvy agent. “When you’re dealing with Scott you have to finally say, ‘Scott, this is all that I have to pay. If you don’t want it, go somewhere else.’”

“I’ve had that same exact conversation!” Moore said, cackling with laughter. “I’m always saying to agents, ‘You can stop telling me what other people are going to pay. It’s not relevant.’ The agents always say, ‘But this is what Warners is offering or what Sony is willing to pay,’ and I’ll go, ‘That’s great. But this is our best offer.’ You can’t let what your competitor is offering define your compensation.”

Sometimes there is more to offer than just money. Towers says that when he was in San Diego he would sell the city’s balmy lifestyle. “I’d say maybe [San Francisco Giants GM] Brian Sabean will give you $8 million and I can only give you $6 million, but you can live in Pacific Beach.”

Moore says he often pitches talent with the reminder that his studio has had the highest average box office take, per film, for three straight years. “We can sell that with a deal,” he says. “Maybe we won’t pay you as much up front, but you have a better chance of making more money in the back end.”

There are all sorts of other similarities, including the ever-present media attention. As Moore put it, cocking an eye my way: “We’re both in businesses where some journalist is always evaluating our decisions and deciding whether someone else could be doing our job better.”

But one of their more intriguing areas of agreement was their dismay over the proliferation of new technology. “I think the technology — email and texts — has really hurt relationships,” Towers said. “When I’m trying to make a trade, I need to hear the other GM’s voice to really understand where things stand, to know how enthusiastic he is or to be sure whether a ‘no’ is really a ‘no’ or just a ‘not now.’”

Moore said it was especially difficult to deal with movie talent via electronic means. “With texting or email, you don’t get the nuance. Sometimes you need to hear an actor or filmmaker talk for a while before the real reason for what’s going on comes out.”

Working in businesses where success is so fleeting and mysterious, perhaps it’s no surprise that these men sometimes find themselves turning to similar sorts of good luck charms. After our lunch, Moore headed off to a test screening of “Transformers 3” in Phoenix, the same locale where the studio had held test screenings for the first two films. Since the other films were hits, no one wanted to change the routine.

Towers was driving down to Dodger Stadium for his team’s game. But in a game where the Diamondbacks have the lead in the ninth inning, Towers is nowhere to be found. “I never watch the closer in the ninth inning,” he explained. “Trevor Hoffman had 500 saves in San Diego, and I never saw one of ’em. If we have a lead in the ninth inning, I walk away. I don’t want to see anything bad happen.”

At its core, that’s the real common denominator between the jobs — handling the unusual amount of pressure that goes with making big-stakes gambles on something that is inherently unpredictable. “You’re always feeling the heat,” Moore said. “You put all this work into it, but you never know how it’s going to turn out.”

 --Patrick Goldstein

Photo: Arizona Diamondbacks General Manager Kevin Towers, left, with Paramount Vice Chairman Rob Moore, at Paramount Pictures in Los Angeles. Credit: Patrick Goldstein / Los Angeles Times