The basic rule is you're either trying to sell a whole lot of something cheaply and keep your costs down, or you¿re trying to sell a few really expensive things and charge someone a mint.
With luck, catching fire in business is a breeze
There are really only two kinds of business that make sense. You can make a billion things and sell them for one cent each, or you can make one thing and sell it for $1 billion.
I know there's a grey area between those two possibilities but the basic rule is you're either trying to sell a whole lot of something cheaply and keep your costs down, or you're trying to sell a few really expensive things and charge someone a mint.
Either way, you're trying to come up with a money machine. You come up with a way to make a grande latte, or a hamburger, or to sell shoes on the internet, on a vast scale, and suddenly you're Starbucks, McDonald's or Zappos. The trick is to wring out the excess costs, standardise and use robots - or, in the case of McDonald's, teenagers - to do most of the work.
Or you come up with something awesome and expensive, like - I'm just pulling this idea out of the air - a time machine and then you can pretty much name your price.
There's not a soul on earth who doesn't want to be able to go back (or forward) in time. The price for such an object would be enormous. You'd have to make only one.
The singular obsession of every studio and television network in Hollywood is: can this product be replicated, cheaply and often? Can this idea for a show last for 100 or more episodes? That's the magic number for maximum profitability. Or: can this movie idea spawn a dozen or so spin-offs and sequels?
The biggest hit movie in years, The Avengers, manages an amazing feat - it's a pastiche of past superhero movies such as Thor and Iron Man but it's also a classic kickoff to a zillion possible sequels, The Avengers 2 through The Avengers 19. Yes, it made that much money.
The Avengers is between a Big Mac (fat and greasy and endlessly repeatable) and a time machine (expensive and nearly impossible to churn out weekly).
To be honest, as the title gets exploited by the Marvel and Disney studios that own it, it will go through several iterations. Big hits all have the same life cycle: big screen, small screen and finally children's animation.
In the television business it's pilot season right now. Studios and networks spend time and money to come up with the next year's hit shows. It's expensive, like a time machine, but it's also about scale - you've got to be able to make 100 episodes without needing too many adjustments.
It's a stressful, hot-tempered month. If you're paying attention, it seems like people are getting fired and hired hourly; scripts are being tossed out and rewritten and network and studio notes are being issued and then reissued, saying something different each time.
With all that going on, it's hard to remember that the entertainment business is just like any other business - maybe a little more baroque, maybe a little bit more comic - but we're all just like the guy who started Starbucks, looking down at his first latte and thinking, "How big could this be?" When Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, stuffed his first book into his first padded envelope, he probably thought, "How many of these do I have in me?"
There's not a writer with a pilot I've ever heard of who hasn't asked the same question. Or a screenwriter working on a big feature film.
We like to think that it's all about art - the vision of the writer and the electricity of the actors - but for all the people (like me) with TV shows in production or with movies about to get the green light, it's really about the intersection of art and zeitgeist and money and sheer luck that creates the money machine.
You can write a terrific show that just doesn't scale. Or you can write a so-so script that somehow catches fire. You can make a movie that doesn't work, that will never inspire even one sequel. You can also figure out how to deliver the television show equivalent of a Big Mac, on a dependable and regular basis, to a hungry and eager public.
All of those outcomes - and more, too, that I can't think of right now - deserve respect. The trick to the entertainment business - and every business - is first, you have to have some skin in the game. You have to have a product in the pipeline.
Right now, as I've said, I'm producing a show for a basic cable network. But what I'm really doing, if I'm honest with myself, is building a money machine.
Sure hope it works.
Rob Long is a writer and producer based in Hollywood. Follow him on Twitter: @rbcl