Putting business back in showbiz
How one man has sucessfully merged business and the arts
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