Wall Street Could Take Lessons From Hollywood Tightwads: Books

Author Edward Jay Epstein
Author Edward Jay Epstein. "The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies" is his latest book. Photographer: Valerie Saloun/Melville House via Bloomberg

Edward Jay Epstein never expected to find himself at an all-night emergency meeting to decide the fate of a failing investment bank.

Yet that’s what happened when Oliver Stone cast him as a Federal Reserve banker in “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps,” which had its premiere last week at the Cannes Film Festival.

The experience features in Epstein’s book “The Hollywood Economist: The Hidden Financial Reality Behind the Movies.” I caught up with Epstein, a New Yorker whose books include “Dossier: The Secret History of Armand Hammer,” on a recent trip to Paris at the Cafe de Flore.

Anderson: Tell me about your scene in “Wall Street.”

Epstein: It’s a flashback to give a flavor of the financial crisis, and is based on a real meeting held in September 2008 at the New York Fed. There’s a lot of shouting and a call from the White House. One of the people in my scene was the real-life MetLife president. Some of the others were actually at the Fed meeting we were recreating.

Anderson: Where was it shot?

Epstein: In New York’s MetLife Building. They have an antique executive conference room that they took from their old building on 23rd Street.

One of the rules MetLife made with Stone’s producers was that they couldn’t make any holes in the ceiling or walls, so hanging above us were helium balloons on which the lights were suspended. It was like being on the moon.

Anderson: What made you so keen to audition?

Epstein: I loved the attention but I can’t act. My only interest in doing this was the economics of Hollywood. To shoot three minutes takes a day, and in between the shots are union- mandated breaks. I had my own trailer, but who would want to sit in their trailer? Instead, I went around collecting data for my book.

Group Therapy

Anderson: Did you learn anything about what makes a good director?

Epstein: His reputation for future movies is based on whether he can bring the movie in on time. The way you do that is that you’re well versed in group psychology -- almost the leader of a group therapy session. You know how to put your arm around Michael Douglas and whisper into his ear.

Anderson: When we think of Hollywood we think of gargantuan budgets spiraling out of control. Is that fair?

Epstein: People look at Hollywood from the outside and they think it’s a wasteful, profligate industry. It’s exactly the opposite. They’re as cheap as you’ve ever seen anyone be cheap. They care about every penny.

The running costs on this particular movie averaged $220,000 a day. If you go over budget by one day’s shooting, they’ll take it out of your post-production budget. Or they might take it out of your salary, which they can do.

Anderson: So maybe Wall Street could learn something from Hollywood?

Epstein: Maybe. The salaries in Hollywood are a myth. Take the actor who plays the Treasurer of the United States. He probably gets 2,000 dollars a day, and he gets maybe three days’ work. Unless you’re a top star you’d get more in the theater. The people who stay in Hollywood are young people -- it’s sort of like high school with money.

“The Hollywood Economist” is published by Melville House (237 pages, $16.95 paperback). To buy this book in North America, click here. “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps” will be released in September.

(Hephzibah Anderson is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

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