Putting busi­ness back in show­biz

How one man has sucess­fully merged busi­ness and the arts

Finweek English Edition - - Business strategy - ANA MON­TEIRO

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT

that an artist would use Monte Carlo math­e­mat­i­cal meth­ods – used to cal­cu­late fi­nan­cial risk, among other things – and re­gres­sion mod­els to work out how many bot­toms on seats would make stage pro­duc­tions fi­nan­cially vi­able? Bot­tom Line En­ter­tain­ment (a television pro­duc­tion house, which pro­duces, among oth­ers, the pop­u­lar daily soap Back­stage).

Highly com­pli­men­tary of the cal­i­bre of SA’s artists, Op­per­man is con­vinced that lo­cal mu­si­cals will be staged over­seas more fre­quently. “We’re go­ing to colonise Broad­way,” he says.

So how did a Rhodes BA grad­u­ate who is also a Ful­bright scholar (hav­ing com­pleted an MA at Chicago’s North­west­ern Univer­sity) get into cal­cu­lus and fi­nan­cial cal­cu­la­tors? Op­per­man says his “fi­nan­cial awak­en­ing” came in his teenage years, thanks to his fa­ther (a re­gional MD at Glen­ton & Mitchell, the tea/cof­fee busi­ness bought by SA Brew­eries in the late Six­ties).

“My dad called me into his study and asked: ‘Son, do you think I’m rich?’ I replied: ‘Of course.’ To which he said: ‘We live well, but I’ve made some­one else very rich’.”

While he pur­sued a ca­reer in the arts, act­ing, di­rect­ing and pro­duc­ing many ac­claimed plays on SA’s fes­ti­val cir­cuit, Op­per­man re­mem­bered that con­ver­sa­tion. “When I be­gan my first busi­ness – work­ing in small en­vi­ron­ments and pro­duc­ing plays for fes­ti­vals – I re­alised that I couldn’t own a busi­ness with­out know­ing how to run one. One of the great­est prob­lems with start-ups, no mat­ter which field they orig­i­nate in, is that they’re great ideas – but the owner of that idea has no clue about the fun­da­men­tals of mak­ing it work.”

It turns out that fi­nan­cial modelling is an in­te­gral part of how dis­tin­guished South African ac­tor, di­rec­tor, play­wright and pro­ducer Deon Op­per­man goes about his busi­ness – show busi­ness.

“De­ci­sions in the per­form­ing arts in­dus­try are of­ten based on gut feel,” says the East Lon­don-born mas­ter-of-all-trades. “Un­less in­for­ma­tion is or­gan­ised in some form of modelling that can be very high-risk. Gut feel doesn’t al­ways work.”

Op­per­man’s work has cul­mi­nated in the stag­ing of top-class pro­duc­tions of some of the world’s most pop­u­lar mu­si­cals at South African the­atres (with fi­nan­cial back­ing from Absa). The Sound of Mu­sic – fea­tur­ing none other than Afrikaans pop icon Steve Hofmeyr as Cap­tain Von Trapp – was a sold-out suc­cess in 2005, as was My Fair Lady last year.

The mu­si­cals are staged by Packed House Pro­duc­tions, a sub­sidiary of Op­per­man’s Tanstaafl Hold­ings (Tanstaafl be­ing an acro­nym for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As a Free Lunch”). Other sub­sidiaries in­clude eQ2 Cor­po­rate Ser­vices (a cor­po­rate con­sul­tancy) and

De­ter­mined not to be a statis­tic, Op­per­man pro­ceeded to en­rol for an MBA at Wits Busi­ness School. “I loved ev­ery minute of it,” he says. While work­ing through a mod­ule on the prin­ci­ples of pro­duc­tion (cus­tom-made prod­ucts com­mand a price pre­mium, while the op­po­site holds for mass-mar­ket goods), he noted an anom­aly in the busi­ness he op­er­ates in. “Shows pro­duced by artists for fes­ti­vals are pre­mium prod­ucts yet they’re priced cheaply – at mass-mar­ket rates – with lit­tle or no re­turn. Mu­si­cals, on the other hand, are mass-mar­ket prod­ucts yet they of­fer bet­ter re­turns. I said: ‘Right! Economies of scale, here I come’.”

In 1996, Op­per­man was a found­ing di­rec­tor of Afda, the South African School of Mo­tion Pic­ture Medium and Live Per­for­mance, a private ter­tiary in­sti­tu­tion (with cam­puses in Jo­han­nes­burg and Cape Town) that of­fers ac­cred­ited de­gree cour­ses in 13 dis­ci­plines re­lated to film and drama.

While no longer in­volved in the day-to-day run­ning of the school (he did that for eight years), Op­per­man re­mains a share­holder. The school’s learn­ers are pro­duc­ing Os­car-win­ning ma­te­rial, with Elalini win­ning the hon­orary film cat­e­gory in the 33rd An­nual Stu­dent Academy Awards.

Keen to en­sure that stu­dents were equipped to deal with the busi­ness side of show­biz, Op­per­man made busi­ness man­age­ment part of the cur­ricu­lum, with stu­dents hav­ing to take the sub­ject for all three years of their un­der­grad­u­ate cour­ses.

Leave the gut feel and look at the fig­ures. Deon Op­per­man

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