Brown Brothers Harriman is the oldest private investment bank in the United States and is known for its cautious investment strategy and prudent financial management. These qualities were never more evident than in its decision, in the spring of 1987, not to offer me a job.
The reason was simple: I was utterly unqualified. I was an English major about to graduate and hadn’t even bothered to take a single economics class during my four years in college. And though not technically innumerate, I was not above counting on my fingers. But it was the late 1980s, when the policies of the Reagan administration had kicked off the greatest bull market in history, and TV’s Dynasty and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities set the cultural tone. If you were a college senior about to graduate, you really had only two smart choices: You could go to work at an investment bank right after commencement, or you could go to law school and then go to work at an investment bank.
And if you couldn’t do either of those, you could pack up your car and head to Hollywood. Which is what I did. And let me tell you, my timing was excellent.
I drove into Los Angeles in a 10-year-old Subaru Outback with a rusted undercarriage and a permanently shut rear passenger side door. It burned a quart of oil a month and needed new radiator fluid about that often. I didn’t fix the car. I let it leak. My theory was, in a few months I’d be a big shot in Hollywood anyway, at which point I’d be able to afford a BMW. Which sounds irrational now, I suppose, but it turned out to be the kind of prudent business decision that would even make sense to a partner at Brown Brothers Harriman. Barely 10 months later, I was a 24-year-old staff writer on Cheers, one of the most successful television shows ever.
Show business, like the financial industry and Silicon Valley, was at the beginning of a very long boom. Broadcast and cable television were geysers of money. Audiences thronged to movie theaters not just on weekends but even on weeknights. It was the age of blockbuster comedies and buddy-cop action movies. The Cosby Show regularly drew 30 million viewers at 8 P.M. on Thursday nights, but even midrange television shows had 20 million loyal viewers.
Studios would pay writers $1 million for a movie idea after hearing a 15-minute pitch. On the television side, times were even fatter. The writing staffs on some shows often reached two dozen writer-producers. The typical television series produced 26 episodes per season, and middle-ranking writer-producers were routinely making $50,000 dollars per episode. By the early 1990s, young writers, some still in their 20s, had multiyear, multimillion-dollar production deals on top of their producer’s fees.
Around this time, students at fancy colleges and universities back East—and that’s what we called it: back East—noticed that there seemed to be a lot of money sloshing around the sprawl of low-rise stucco buildings and sun-baked streets of Los Angeles. This kicked off a Gold Rush from places such as Cambridge and New Haven. A third option had emerged for smart, ambitious college seniors: In addition to Goldman Sachs and Yale Law, you could head out to Hollywood and get even richer.
It was an updated version of the famous telegram that Herman Mankiewicz sent to his friend Ben Hecht in 1926, telling him to pack his bags and head for the Hollywood Hills. “Millions are to be grabbed out here,” Mankiewicz cabled. “And your only competition is idiots.” For “idiots,” you could substitute “Cal State Northridge grads,” and the meaning would be essentially the same.
In the early 1990s, GQ magazine commissioned an article to explore this cultural phenomenon. It was called, if memory serves, “Smart People, Dumb TV.” I am featured prominently in the article, which is blissfully unavailable online so you’ll just have to take my word for it: I come off as a jerk.
But it’s a measure of how different it all was back then that the invasion of grubby, tacky showbiz by overeducated Ivy League snoots was worthy of a big spread in a Condé Nast publication. And also: Television back then was reflexively categorized as “dumb” by magazine writers and newspaper journalists.
Within a few years, that attitude was inverted. TV was no longer “dumb.” Cultural journals were clogged with pompous think pieces about The Sopranos and the Generation X gestalt of Friends. I remember speaking to a graduate student for an hour about her Ph.D. thesis, which was an investigation into the hermeneutics of the television-show theme song. And if you stood in the middle of a Hollywood studio lot and threw a rock, you’d probably hit a Wesleyan grad.
It didn’t seem like it would ever end. We’d saunter into the office at 10:30 or 11 A.M., the morning after our show aired, and the production assistant would have written the previous night’s rating and audience share on the dry-erase board in the kitchen. It was usually somewhere in the 20-million-viewer range, which meant that more than one-third of every television in use at 9 P.M. on Thursday nights was tuned to Cheers. We’d shrug and get our coffee and begin the work, which would be kicked off by ordering lunch from whatever local restaurant was the most outrageously priced.
That world? Gone. And gone forever. The nutshell version is this: cable-channel explosion, Internet, YouTube, streaming services, ad-dollar diversification, TikTok, corporate debt-service payments, and over-investment in production. Or, even simpler: The go-go years led to an oversupply of product, which led to diminishing demand, which led to (I’m skipping some steps here) layoffs and hiring freezes at studios and networks, radically trimmed production slates, and the general sense around town that the long boom in show business has finally come to an end.
To be fair, it lasted nearly a century. From Herman Mankiewicz’s 1926 telegram to the most recent depressing Warner Brothers Discovery earnings call, the business was doing, as we used to say when there was still a reason to say it, boffo business.
Today, the worst thing you can do for young people trying to break into show business is encourage them. The number of movies in release has never been smaller, and studios are still trying to figure out the economics of the feature-film business in the age of streaming. They have only recently discovered that spending $100 million on a feature film that goes directly to streaming is a money-loser—but then so are multi-episode series that sit, unwatched, on the servers of Netflix, Hulu, Peacock, you name it.
An ambitious young person chasing a show-business bonanza in 2022 needs to be content working in an environment with no big production deals, much smaller episode fees, and a television “season” that lasts six episodes. A writer on a current multi-season television series may eke out the equivalent of an annual salary in the $75,000 range, which in the late 1990s was what a lot of writers were paid per episode.
Oh, and these days, you have to buy your own lunch.
What will happen to the next generation of young people who, like me in 1987, are too bad at math for banking and too lazy for law school? A career in show business is no longer a solid third option. But that may be a good thing. Each generation deserves its own gold rush.
Photo: Michael E. Arth
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