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Hollywood and the MBA

Brett Granstaff, Cambridge MBA 2012, talks about film, financing and Cambridge.

Hollywood and the MBA

Brett Granstaff

Brett Granstaff

Brett Granstaff, Cambridge MBA 2012, spoke on 8 May to students in the MPhil in Management programme at Cambridge Judge, directed by Allègre Hadida, University Senior Lecturer in Strategy. Brett studied film at New York University (NYU), and in 2008 he founded his own film company, Los Angeles-based Ridgerock Entertainment Group, which has produced seven feature films.

His biggest film to date, Black Mass, which opens in theatres in September 2015, stars Johnny Depp as Boston gangster Whitey Bulger, and the $72 million movie co-stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Kevin Bacon, Sienna Miller and Dakota Johnson, and is directed by Scott Cooper.

Brett took part in the Culture, Arts & Media Management Concentration as part of his MBA studies, which is offered to students in their final term as a specialisation.

Before addressing the MPhil in Management class, Brett discussed how he draws on his Cambridge MBA in the unique world of Hollywood.

You were producing films in Hollywood when you decided to pursue a Cambridge MBA. What prompted the decision?

I had a year between projects, so it really fit in nicely in terms of time. I’m a creative producer, and my father is financial producer of Ridgerock, but as creative producer you need to know how money works as well. Fundraising is an essential part of filmmaking, and it’s a lot easier to say to potential investors that “I’m a Cambridge MBA” than to merely say that “I’m the creative producer who wants your money.”

What skills did you learn at Cambridge Judge that were most helpful to you?

I’d been doing film since I was an undergraduate at age 18. I knew that while certain things happen in the real world, in Hollywood things can get turned upside down. Many agents (for stars or other talent) I deal with have both an MBA and a law degree, and I can now say, “No, that’s not the way it should work in the real world.”

Give me an example…

They (the agents) can’t get away with certain tricks with me. They might talk about “waterfall” aspects of financing, and I say: “I know how that works.” It just pushes the money back by five per cent or whatever the amount might be.

But on a broader level, I think business school really helps creative people develop a foundation for a business model that will interest people. I chose Cambridge because it offers an arts concentration: the School understands arts, but the education is business.

What are the biggest challenges of film producing?

Every film’s a war. Every film is in essence its own start-up project. What works in one film won’t work in the next one. Also, filmmaking is always chicken and egg: You need a star to get the money, but you need money to get a star.

Black Mass is your biggest film, with a budget of $72 million now that Warner Brothers is involved as co-producer. What’s the biggest difference between a $72 million film and the $10 million to $20 million films you’ve mostly produced so far?

With a bigger budget, there’s more spotlight on the film, and that means more handlers (for stars and others), but you just have to deal with it. Beyond that, it’s pretty much the same because filmmaking hasn’t really changed in 100 years: you have your camera, the actors have to hit their marks. The distribution has changed dramatically due to technology, but not the actual process of making the film.

Why was Johnny Depp interested in playing Whitey Bulger?

Johnny always wants a great character. You look at films and there are great characters like Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs), and Whitey Bulger is a great character. He was an informant for the FBI, but while they were supposed to handle him in fact he made his handlers his puppets. (Bulger was eventually convicted on multiple charges in 2013.)

Do Hollywood stars understand the business of film?

The smart ones do. Tom Cruise is brilliant at it. If he finds his films are popular in Japan he’ll do a whole tour of the country. Will Smith as well. He really understands how international the business is. When I went to NYU, international box-office receipts were 10 per cent of US-made films and the rest was domestic (box office) and DVDs; now it’s two-thirds international and one-third US.