When Cash Is Not King: Star Wars and The London Symphony Orchestra

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Written by: Topics: Dealmaking

(Photo credit: NASA, Hubble Heritage)

So you’ve worked damn hard and earned compensation. Now it’s time to get paid.

Normally, most of us are remunerated in cash. And that’s cool because you know what you’re getting. It’s exact and there’s no ambiguity. It’s a fixed number. Voila.

But what if you’re given another option?

Let’s imagine that you are a provider of services and find yourself in one of the following, perfectly realistic scenarios:

  • You’ve not only got great business acumen but you’re a fluent Mandarin speaker. A promising software company looking to penetrate the China market has asked you to join their team and help launch their product there
  • You’re a branding expert and you’ve been brought on to orchestrate a launch campaign for a yoga company introducing a new form of practice to the world
  • You know plenty of investors and are confident you can secure 2 million dollars for a London-based app company that needs capital to release the potentially next hottest game in the market
  • You’ve been blessed with uniquely great looks and a film director insists you be in his next 3 films, which constitute an epic trilogy. “Darling, you’re just the face I’m looking for,” says the director with a big Hollywood smile

For these jobs and projects you’re normally offered cash. But then, unexpectedly, you’re given another option.

Another option? Not cash?

You can choose to receive a small percentage of profits.

Interesting.

However, should you choose to receive a portion of future profits then you’d have to forgo receiving any cash payment now.

Cash is king

No thanks, I’ll take cash please.

After all, who knows if the software company will be around in a year; the yoga company will appeal to anyone other than the founders and some immediate friends who express enthusiasm out of pity; the app will be downloaded more than 5 times; or the director will make more than a single film if the first one is an utter flop.

You can’t pay your rent with a “hope” that something will do well in the future. It certainly doesn’t help you put a downpayment for your first flat. Last I check restaurants don’t accept it in place of money or cash for their set menus. And let’s face it, the majority of ambitious initiatives and projects go under.

Why risk it?

Cash doesn’t lie. It doesn’t make promises. What it shows is what it is – depending on the currency of course and circumstance but let’s not delve too deep into it for the purposes of this post.

A virtuoso

A little over a year ago I got to know a wonderful lady. Let’s call her Ms C.

Ms C. is one of the most gifted violinists in the world. What’s more, she is a member of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), the oldest of London’s orchestras and without question one of the leading ones in the world. One interesting fact about the LSO is that it is in fact a Self Governing orchestra.

Aside from being a musical genius, she is a great conversationalist, loves chocolate and once told me that her world is so cutthroat and performance-driven that, when a member of the orchestra had a heart attack in the middle of a concert, the conductor and the rest of the band all carried on until the very end because of dedication to the music. Nobody knew whether their colleague was dead or not.

Thankfully, the man didn’t die.

Through my conversations with Ms C. I’ve come to learn that there is much in common between high finance and the orchestra world, just as some of my readers working in Hollywood have revealed to me the parallels between investment banking and tinseltown filmmaking. In the orchestra world, like in banking, there’s intense competition for limited seats, lots of travel, prestige and glamour, not to mention a great deal of pain and sacrifice.

I’ve urged Ms C. to pen a novel and share the amazing stories she’s experienced.

“One day,” she said. “Perhaps after I’ve read yours.”

[ Note: my novel is currently in the hands of a handful of beta readers, after which it will be professionally edited and soon after published. ]

A coffee and a chat

One afternoon, I met Ms C. over coffee near the Barbican Centre, a venue I don’t visit nearly as much as I should.

I remember it was a sunny day, always a welcome treat for us Londoners who must weather a great deal of grey.

The conversation began with an update on her travels. You wouldn’t believe the orchestra’s travel schedule. Let’s just say that they see the world.

“It’s such a nice day. What are you doing later?” she asked.

“I’m going to meet a friend of mine who’s an up-and-coming film director,” I said.

That triggered a change in pace and the conversation grew more exciting. Ms C. began telling me about her relationship with one of the most epic film stories of all time.

Star Wars

The LSO has for a long time been a part of cinematic history. I’m sure you’ve watched at least one film whose music they’ve been credited for. For instance, Harry Potter, Braveheart, Notting Hill, The Queen, Thor and the list goes on and on. And I’m certain you’ll see others in the future that will include their musical magic.

One day, over 35 years ago, the LSO was approached and asked to work on a new project spearheaded by a man with a remarkable hairline and who happens to be one of the greatest filmmaking minds in Hollywood, George Lucas. Though still young at the time, George had a vision that would, in time, touch the lives of millions of people around the world. The film was Star Wars.

“I want the most epic of musical pieces ever played for this film,” said George, addressing the LSO.

The choice is yours, o masters of music

“We can either offer you a cash payment and each of your players will receive X amount. Or, you can get a small percentage of profits the film makes in the future. But if you choose the second option then it means you have to forgo receiving any cash now,” said the great George Lucas.

The LSO gathered and deliberated both options very carefully. To spend all that time working on and creating great music for no money, all in the hopes that the film become a success some day, perhaps, if very lucky, was not prudent. Not at all.

“We have bills to pay,” said one of the LSO cello players.

“Think about all the films that crash and burn each year,” said a trumpet player.

“We can’t rely on probability,” said an Oboe player.

The decision was unanimous: we’ll take the cash.

One of the biggest mistakes in music making history

Star Wars went on to become one of the most successful film and media franchises in the world. I don’t have to convince anyone of the breadth and strength of the brand.

Let’s just say that had the LSO chosen to forgo cash and to receive a portion of Star Wars profits, then they would never have had to work again for money. None of them.

The great gamble

For every successful film there are thousands of failures which never see the light of day.

Hence the temptation to ask for cash. But once in a blue moon you come across a Star Wars.

How can you recognise a future success? How can you tell that the man or woman before you spearheading a project is a rainmaker of epic proportions? A visionary whose work will become a part of millions of people’s lives. In particular children who will grow up and look back on their youth and say, “That was such a big part of my life.”

Some of you will be faced with a similar situation one day. Maybe even several throughout your lives. When it happens, look into that person’s eyes. Look deep into their soul. Ask yourself, “Does he or she have the force to make magic?”

I hope you make the right decision.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

R Whyte March 20, 2014 at 4:28 pm

Nice post Mr ibanker!

I wonder how much the LSO would have made each year. And would they make money each time the song was played? Even in games??

Like facebook or google…you’re part of the original team and you can be set for life :)

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Conductor March 20, 2014 at 4:38 pm

Imagine how much Mr Lucas has made.

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Archayos March 20, 2014 at 6:42 pm

Excited about your novel. Can’t wait for it to hit the shelves! :D

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The ibanker March 21, 2014 at 2:56 am

Thanks :)

Slowly but surely getting there. Self-publishing is time consuming…

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Julien March 21, 2014 at 3:22 am

Lucas was a badass mofo.

The way he rocked it was he lowered his salary for making Stars and asked for all merchandising rights and for rights to sequels. The idiots @ 20th Century Fox thought the film would be a dud.

Boom. What happened? One of the highest grossing films of all time. And? He’s a billionaire now.

To think George was struggling in the early 70s to make a decent living.

ADVICE FOR THEIBANKER: If you’re approached by film studios for film rights to your upcoming novel, then keep the merchandising rights as well as rights to sequels. You never know.

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The ibanker March 21, 2014 at 3:51 am

Hahah. Deal! I’ll keep merchandising and rights to sequels.

Tell you what, if it becomes a film, I’ll fly you out to the set :)

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jaap March 21, 2014 at 3:34 am

I remembered once hearing stories about how very popular movies never showed a ‘profit’.
I found this article if you are interested: http://digitalcommons.lmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1203&context=elr
Maybe the orchestra made the right decision after all…

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The ibanker March 21, 2014 at 3:45 am

Thanks Jaap. Good stuff.

My weekend reading is taken care of now :)

Amazing how skewed Hollywood contracts can be.

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jaap March 21, 2014 at 4:15 am

http://www.slashfilm.com/lucasfilm-tells-darth-vader-that-return-of-the-jedi-hasnt-made-a-profit/
And here is a follow-up on my own post… even Star Wars.
So if you want to advise her on another deal, tell her to talk to a lawyer.

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Giedrius March 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Hello, ibanker!

Quite some time has passed since your last post. I’ve been waiting impatiently as I always do for your new posts.

Will it be possible to purchase the book in UK, when if yes, and how much are you thinking of charging for it? Looking forward.

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The ibanker March 24, 2014 at 4:40 pm

Hello Giedrius,

I would love to post more often. Alas, work gets the better of me :) It’s a resolution of mine to write more frequently though…

The novel will be available through Amazon. I’m self-publishing and it will be accessible via Kindle first. To be honest, I haven’t thought about pricing but it will be reasonably priced. Also, I’ll discount it when it’s first released and will notify people by e-mail so they can take advantage of the lower price.

Take care!

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