MBAs make a calculated move on showbiz versatility

Graduate degrees mean a foot in the door?

Chris Lang cares deeply about show business — or more correctly, he cares about the business of show.

Lang, a second year MBA candidate at UCLA’s Anderson School, is part of a growing breed who aspire to break into Hollywood through the business back door.

“My clients will be creative executives,” he says of the job he recently landed at research shop Smith Geiger. “I’ll get to work with them and see what they do. At the end of the day, I can still go back to my office and be a numbers geek.”

In an era of mega-mergers and synergy, the media and entertainment worlds are no longer the domain of renegade cowboys. Increasingly, a graduate degree is becoming crucial to negotiate the ever murkier business waters of the new mass media.

And B-schools are happy to lend Lang and his ilk a hand.

Mailroom bypass

“The landscape is changing. The whole mentality that you start in a mailroom and work your way up is changing. The industry is consolidating,” says Sam Craig, director of the Stern School of Business’ Entertainment, Media and Technology Program at NYU. The 5-year-old program offers students such classes as “Commerce & Craft of Cinema” and “Entertainment Finance.”

It boils down to, in part, a closing of the gap between the creative side and the bean counters, says the entertainment program’s exec director, Al Lieberman.

“Look at ‘Heaven’s Gate.’ It nearly brought down the studio. There’s a thousand reasons why, and every time it comes down to no understanding — no communication — between the creative and business people.”

To act as interpreter between talent and the suits, Barry Blyn decided to enroll at Stern part-time two years ago, even though he already had a job at Comedy Central.

Second language

Blyn, who still works in programming research at the cable channel, says he reckoned “if I go to business school, I can talk to both camps. The business of entertainment is as much about business as it is about entertainment. You can only be left-handed or right-handed if you sit on either side of the equation.”

Newly ambidextrous, Blyn feels he can contribute more at work and will have opportunities to advance in the future. He also strikes a familiar chord when he cautions prospective MBAs against getting their degree in hopes of becoming the next Jeff Zucker.

“If you go straight from the MBA into entertainment, it’s likely to be in financial. It’s a much harder thing to get an MBA and be deciding what the primetime lineup is.”

Despite whatever Stern’s Craig may say, many recently minted MBAs are finding that, like anyone else, they have to start at the bottom.

Sid Kara, who got his degree from Columbia last year, was VP of his campus film financing club. Already a published novelist, he had dreams of breaking into the biz and flew west after graduation.

“My MBA so far has turned out to be something that most folks don’t care about,” he says, noting that, unlike in the investment banking or consulting worlds, there is no formal cycle of Hollywood recruitment on campuses.

“The way to get a job in development or finance is if you know someone. Having an MBA is irrelevant. And I’m not temperamentally suited to be someone’s coffee person.”

Shana Eddy, a United Talent Agency agent without an MBA, says that “having a graduate degree certainly helps you get hired, but it doesn’t mean you’re in for less of a haul. There’s not a lot of transferable information.”

As someone who has brought people into the agency, she knows MBAs need to start in the mailroom like anyone else.

At a recent forum at Stern called “MBAs in Media and Entertainment,” held in conjunction with four other B-schools, Patricia Karpas, a VP at AOL, mentioned that she recently passed over several MBAs for an analyst position in favor of someone with more hands-on experience. She also stressed the importance of finding the right mentor.

MTV entertainment prez Brian Graden echoes such advice. “A random coffee or mailroom job won’t help as much,” he tells Variety. “Hook up early if you can. Find a mentor.”

With a Harvard MBA that “means nothing to anybody” in the industry, Graden says he has only recently been tapping into the skills he picked up at school 10 years ago.

Instead, he put his MBA in his back pocket and went to work immediately on the creative side to prove his mettle.

“The business issues have become so much more complex in the last 36 months,” he says.

“Only recently, as I have had a cross-channel leadership role and the business is going through market challenges, am I finding the MBA to be personally relevant. I can’t say I meet that many MBAs. Most people would say it’s incidental to my success.”

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