The Big Short: A Remarkable Winner

The Big Short

The Big Short won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. That’s tremendously cool, and a well-earned honor for screenwriters Adam McKay and Charles Randolph. This film almost deserves a special Oscar for the studio executives who green-lit the production. Imagine the pitch:

“Okay, we’ve got a 300-page ultra-detailed nonfiction book that explains number for number what caused the Great Recession brought on by the real estate mortgage crisis that temporarily wiped out about half the value of equity in American homes and half the value of global stock trading in practically every segment of the market.

“Wait, wait, now it gets good! The protagoniststhe guys who winare quirky, real-life speculators who make an outrageous fortune betting against the economy of their own nation, and when they are proven right and the market collapses, they make an unconscionable amount of money when 99.5% of the population gets financially wiped out!

“Wait, waitand they’re heroes because they saw it coming and no one would listen to them when they tried to tell a few important people that the collapse was inevitable, but since none of the important people would listen to them, after the crash they all go on to be celebrities who receive honorary degrees and big consulting fees from anyone who can get them to answer their phones.

“No, no, waitand because this movie is an absolute downer and cannot possibly be construed as commercial in any mainstream way, let’s double down on the budget and get the biggest movie stars we can to play the quirky few who saw it coming and their equally surreal foils, I mean, really, really, really big names like Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Marisa Tomei, Melissa Leo, Margot Robbie, and Selena Gomez. And I’m not saying get one of them or a few of themGET ALL OF THEM! Hell, if we’re going out in style, let’s go crazy nuts wild freaky insanethis can be a way bigger disaster than Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, The Lone Ranger, or John Carter. If it fails it’ll be a legendary bomb!”

And you know what? The darn thing worked. It worked on every level. Gutsy, imaginative, informative, authentic, honest, funny, creepy, haunting, accusatory, indictinga perfect motion picture for our time for the movie lovers who maybe have had enough Marvel superheroes for a while yet can’t quite push themselves to go to the theater and read translated subtitles.

The Big Short is a mainstream movie of immense intelligence, integrity, and craftsmanship. It’s the kind of movie like All The President’s Men and Silkwood that we just don’t see anymore. How about that? They put something thought-provoking with movie stars on the screen and we paid the price of admission! Maybe we were desperate for good dialogue, maybe we were desperate for an explanation of what happened, or maybe there still is a market for smart flicks that educate while they entertain without being preachy, polemic, or polarizing.

Credit the immense genius of Michael Lewis, forever one of my literary heroes, who wrote the brilliant book upon which the screenplay is based. Lewis has been knocking out spectacular investigative nonfiction in the style of narrative fiction since his debut almost three decades ago with Liar’s Poker. I don’t think Lewis is capable of writing a bad book. He’s that good! Maybe the studio execs rolled the dice because of the monster success of Lewis’s Moneyball and The Blind Side, two more incredibly unlikely adaptations for the screen that brought big ideas into the hearts and minds of popcorn lovers everywhere. We like to say all great drama begins on the page. Lewis proves it empirically, one platform removed, again and again and again.

Lewis teaches, Lewis engages, Lewis forces us to think while never threatening us, embarrassing us, or chastising us. He sees real-life people as characters whose stories are on par with fiction because of the layering in their motivations. We see arcs in the lives of people we come to know for their strengths, weaknesses, curiosities, and aspirations. We grow as they grow. We fail as they fail. We are redeemed as they are redeemed. That is great storytelling in any form of media. In The Big Short, we celebrate the art of illuminationseeing what we all should have seen but only a few of us actually did. Now in hindsight we see it together, and with any luck we bond together to prevent the evil from returning.

The very act of successfully adapting this literary work to a visual medium is worthy of celebrationbut wait, there’s more! We are also fond of saying “the eyes are the window to the soul.” When you watch The Big Short on the big screen for two or so hours, you see an unending array of eyes but almost no souls of any kind. That is very, very hard to do. We watch our speculators conniving in complex equations that will expose our undoing, and yet no matter how many times the camera grabs a close-up, all we see are lust, greed, ego, and hubris. How are actors capable of pulling off that detachment in shot after abstract shot, initially unedited, created out-of-order, and only theoretically connected by singular motivation to be correct? They are human, but beyond the bounds of humanity, except in knowing they haven’t done anything badthey’ve simply take the spoils of opportunism, milking something bad. That’s unique to film, seeing the eyes over and over again but not penetrating what isn’t there, until the ultimate redemption, when reality unlocks public pain in one full swing of the broadsword. Gasp.

Are we strong enough and knowledgable enough to take action from a cautionary tale? Lewis thinks we are. I think so too. I’m guessing a lot of moviegoers would agree, transformed as they were from the dark to the light, from confusion to enlightenment when the house lights came up and the real world welcomed their demand for reform.

Bravo, Mr. Lewis. Bravo, studio executives. Encore! Please, encore!

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Photo: Paramount Pictures.

Chance Meetings and Their Power to Change Your Life

Imagine if you just said hello.

I was sitting on a flight recently, observing the informal “Golden Rule” among business people who frequently travel: You don’t bother me, I won’t bother you. By bother, we mean talk. Business people can actually sit next to each other for a full Trans-Atlantic flight never saying more than “excuse me” when we need to step over each other to get to the aisle. Strange as it may seem, we consider this polite. We are terrified of the notion of losing an hour or two of work time, reading time, movie time, or sleep time, to idle conversation time—or worse, opening the door to being asked for a favor. We like silence in our air travel. Silence is safe.

Silence is also a lost opportunity.

About twenty minutes before this flight landed the person in the seat next to me braved the opening of a conversation. He asked me if I was headed home or away. He told me he was headed home after playing a music gig in Seattle. Turns out he was a studio session guitarist who has been surviving as a professional musician for fifty years. I told him I used to play, but now was just a devoted fan. He asked me which musicians I admired and suddenly we found overlap in artists whom he had backed. He had played behind Don Henley onstage. He had played on an album with Frank Sinatra. I told him I had just seen Jackson Browne at The Greek Theatre in Los Angeles and he said he always wanted to play with Jackson Browne, that was on his bucket list. We agreed The Greek was the best live venue currently in the L.A. area, and he said the next time he played there he would try to invite me if he could get extra tickets. We exchanged cards. He asked me for nothing.

It was a great twenty minutes. I don’t know if I will ever see him again, but it made me think hard about that unwritten rule of bothering the strangers around you. How many amazing opportunities get away from us because we are too wrapped up in ourselves to reach out, or too exhausted from today’s turmoil to see tomorrow’s opportunity? We’ll stare into a tiny LED screen and page through infinite tidbits in a news feed, but we’ll hide from the tangible stranger who is less than a foot from our elbow. It’s a weird way to partake in humanity, and it’s probably costing us an unseen miracle or two over the course of a lifetime.

We all know well the image of the “Meet Cute” that plays out in romantic comedies. Two unlikely strangers bump into each other in the supermarket parking lot and knock their groceries to the asphalt. Eggs break, toilet bowl cleaner ruins their leather shoes. Ninety minutes of screen time later—after at least one baffling breakup and a healing montage of running along the beach—they get married and the best man offers a drunken toast about how the couple was always meant to be. The truth is, it does happen in real life. It happened to me over a quarter century ago, although the groceries involved had more to do with a commercial real estate rental. I wake up every day thanking my lucky stars I was paying attention. I could have let that go by. It would have been much easier to maintain silence. My life would not have been the same. The risk involved was sub-measurable. The reward was beyond belief. How close I came to blowing that. How very, very close!

Wait a second… risk… reward… aren’t those words better applied to, uh, business? Is it possible we are shutting down real possibility by obsessing in our solipsism? What part of the obvious are we shutting down for no good reason at all? If someone doesn’t want to talk, he or she will tell us. If someone doesn’t want to be bothered, that can be revealed in a nanosecond. Why are we so afraid of interaction? What might the avoidance of a kind greeting be costing us?

The “Chance Meeting” is the Platonic version of the Meet Cute, where the paths of two strangers intersect for any number of reasons and the grounds of some relationship begins. Like the Meet Cute, where romance comes when you least expect it, the Chance Meeting commences without expectation. In my own life this has resulted in a job opportunity, discovery of a favorite vacation spot, invitation to a speaking opportunity, the hugely rewarding chance to mentor a technology star, a book recommendation that changed the way I think about words, an affordable channel for collectible wines, and more than one new friend who likes to hang out at Dodger Stadium. The Chance Meeting is powerful, and yet I rarely leave myself open to it. When I think about what may have gotten away based on what didn’t, it’s scary. And stupid.

My new book, Endless Encores, is all about a Chance Meeting. It takes place in an airport executive lounge, where a veteran CEO offers a life’s experience to a rising executive who is about to encounter failure for the first time. When I was sending out early versions of the manuscript for feedback, one reader told me she really loved what the book had to say about what it takes to repeat success, but she couldn’t buy the premise that a successful woman in an airport would strike up a conversation with a downtrodden young manager who was in desperate need of all she had to say. Was it really that outlandish, I wondered, that a seasoned business leader would engage in dialogue with a stranger to pass a few hours and hand off her years of learning without expectation of anything in return? My reader said yes, that was a sticking point for her, if I could get past that, the rest of the wisdom was solid. I guess my reader closely observes the unwritten Golden Rule of the business traveler. These days, I’m trying to get over it.

Don’t miss out on a Chance Meeting. You never know where it could take you. You never know where you could take someone else. Learning happens when ideas are exchanged. For ideas to intersect, people have to intersect. That only begins when someone says hello. Imagine the power you can unlock with a single word. Or you can stay safe and stay silent.

Your risk. Your reward. Your choice.

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This article originally appeared on The Good Men Project.

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Profits

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Profits.

♫ ♫ ♫

There was a modest rumble in the room. A flight had been called. It was not Daphne and Paul’s flight to Los Angeles, but both were heartened by the rustling of computer bags and rollaboards around them as fellow passengers-in-waiting began ambling to the door. It had been a long night, but now it appeared the delay would not go on forever, nor the conversation.

“We have hope,” proclaimed Paul. “We’re going to get out of here.”

“Hope is the strength that keeps us going,” said Daphne, watching people around her happily begin to leave the airport lounge. Since their flight wasn’t leaving, she had no reason to follow them, but she knew her remaining time with Paul would be limited.

“When you set out to determine strategy, how do you think about building the business so it keeps growing?” continued Paul. “No sane executive wants to lead a company into the Dead Brand Graveyard, yet so many end up there. Suppose they have the best people and the best products. How do they get their head around a business model that is going to both work now and expand into the future?”

“That’s the greatest enigma of all,” answered Daphne. “You have to think about recurring revenue alongside new revenue. Some transactions have to be there without your prodding, so you can add new transactions on top of them. If you’re going to spend money to acquire new customers, you have to balance that with what you’re spending to retain the ones you have. If all you do is spend to acquire new business, your margins will be perpetually squeezed. No fun, I assure you.”

“My boss says that all the time,” agreed Paul. “If every year you start the P&L from zero, it’s virtually impossible to grow. You have to know there is some business already on its way from your catalogue of products, and on top of that you add new product introductions.”

“Smart guy, your boss,” said Daphne. “He gets the mix a lot of us miss. Maybe he was at the same Paul McCartney concert I attended.”

“The same boss who isn’t going to can me for this lackluster sequel?”

“Yes, that clever fellow. Let me ask you something about that catalogue of products, the base of recurring revenue. Do you cannibalize your own markets before the competition does it for you?”

“Well, we don’t put out the same videogames, so it’s not exactly possible,” said Paul. “But if you’re asking do we sometimes leave one out there longer than we should to extract the last bit of profit from it, yeah, we do that sometimes.”

“How does it make you feel?”

“Queasy”

“Me, too,” winced Daphne. “I think we all do it to some extent, but the key to all of this is balance. Yes, you need a base of recurring revenue, but if you don’t give your customers something new and exciting before your competitors do, they will sweep your customers into their camp. You have to study and manage the ratios of evergreen and introductory endeavors at work in all your sales channels. Remember, constraints on distribution are low, choices are high.”

“It’s staggeringly hard to find the stamina to pull a product from the shelf when it’s still selling,” said Paul. “R&D costs are ridiculously high. We need all the sales we can muster for contribution margin to make sense.”

“One of the hardest choices in business is to pull a product while it’s still moving. Again, what we are talking about is strategy. Of course you don’t want to leave more money on the table than you should, but you’ll often find you need to leave some. If you don’t do it, your competitors will happily obviate your offerings. That can be the end of one brand and the birth of a new one that is no longer yours.”

♫ ♫ ♫

Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.

“Focus relentlessly on the extraordinary.” Pub Day

Endless Encores: A Brief Excerpt on Products

EE CoverWith the September 22, 2015 publication of my second book, Endless Encores, I wanted to share a few excerpts to catch your interest. Published by The Story Plant, this is a business parable about People, Products, Profits—in that order. This excerpt is from the chapter about Products.

♫ ♫ ♫

Paul’s phone dinged. It was the text alarm. He was afraid to look, but he knew the Band-Aid had to be ripped off in one pull. He turned over the handset so they could both see it at the same time. The text read: “We’ll talk when you get back.”

“I’m not off the hook,” grumbled Paul. “Not even a little.”

“Did you expect you would be with a simple text?” asked Daphne. “He’s your boss, not your father. How much did your company invest in the sequel?”

“Millions. We’re not going to lose all of it. We may not lose any of it. We just aren’t going to make the kind of money we made on the original. Sequels in my business are supposed to do better than the originals as the brand and market expand. Everything we do can’t be a winner.”

“Would you let Randy or Helen off the hot seat for mediocre performance with just a text?”

“No, of course not,” said Paul. “I would remind them that there is no growth without risk, that we have to be willing to try things and fail, but when we fail we have to learn. It’s not failure if it’s learning, but there has to be learning. You have to capture that learning and harness it.”

“I suppose he’ll say something to the same effect,” said Daphne. “Of course, I’ve never met him, so you never know. He could mop the floor with you to make him feel better.”

“Thanks, I feel so much more chipper,” grimaced Paul.

“You should,” said Daphne. “Think about the opposite spectrum. Suppose you weren’t willing to risk failure and learn. Suppose you devoted all your energy to protecting the status quo. Think of a company that isn’t around anymore that tried that trick.”

“Kodak comes to mind,” said Paul. “I read somewhere that they developed the first digital camera in 1975, but kept it off the market because they were afraid of what it might do to their traditional film processing business.”

“Polaroid missed the shift to digital as well,” replied Daphne. “They didn’t have to stick with mechanical, self-developing prints. That was a choice.”

“It’s amazing how bad the blunders can be,” continued Paul. “Borders Books, Circuit City, Tower Records—they’re gone forever. With all the customers they had, the vast resources, all that talent and cash in the bank, these days they’re just names, empty shells. Businesses become nostalgia.”

“Tombstones, actually, all in the Dead Brand Graveyard,” said Daphne. “No Endless Encores there. The list goes on and on: Palm, Zenith, Blockbuster, CompUSA, Wang Laboratories—all once beloved brands, all now decaying tales of yesteryear. Now think of the once great brands about to fail, the ones you know will soon evaporate. What is their idea of risk?”

“Way too conservative,” answered Paul. “They’re afraid to take risks because they’re afraid of failing, when in fact they’re already failing by refusing to dance a little closer to the edge.”

♫ ♫ ♫

Endless Encores: Repeating Success Through People, Products, and Profits by Ken Goldstein is available in hardcover and as an e-book from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, iBooks, Kobo, IndieBound, Indigo, and at independent bookstores near you.