My Entertaining Education in Movieland

I figured folks with their names in lights would be aloof and arrogant, cursed with too much beauty and not enough brains. Boy, was I wrong

By Vivek Wadhwa

One thing that both the East and West have in common is a fascination with movie stars. Whether it's Hollywood or Bollywood, the masses practically worship the people who feature in the films that they love to watch.

I must admit that I, too, have been part of this crowd since childhood, when I was addicted John Wayne's horse operas, even though I could never understand why the Indians were always the bad guys, but that is a different issue. Those larger-than-life screen idols were often my role models, filling my head with dreams that, one day, I would be a superhero myself and save the world. And then I grew up, and became a technology executive.


  Yet, it must have been the childhood fascination that ultimately led me to get involved with a Hollywood film being shot in India's film capital called Bollywood. We were producing a film called My Bollywood Bride that would bring together the East and West in quite an interesting way. The job required me to hang out with famous directors and movie stars. As they say, it was a tough job, but someone had to do it. But making movies is not all fun and games. Seeing how the stars, directors, and other beautiful people turn bare-bones scripts into onscreen magic was an eye-opening experience.

For starters, I learned that movie stars are not just dumb blondes, so to speak. Truth be told, I had always assumed that the brightest people were drawn to technology and the most handsome to the entertainment industry. After all, the movie stars seem better looking than real people. And I can't recall any who are known mainly for their intellect or business acumen. I had also assumed that, aside from good looks, movies stars possessed more than sufficient amounts of aloofness and arrogance. That's the way they seem in People, right?

Wrong. My first surprise was how down-to-earth the people I have met from the entertainment industry have been. It's all relative. But after working with some of the smartest people in the technology industry, I have come to the conclusion that movie stars are far less arrogant than the average computer programmer. Once you get past the stars' façades, they are usually normal people who know their own strengths and weaknesses, yet strive for perfection. They will readily repeat a performance over and over again, and take criticism from the director. Have you folks ever tried getting a programmer to change his computer code? Good luck if you ever find the intestinal fortitude to try!


  The bigger surprise for me has been the level of business and marketing acumen required to really succeed in the film world. In technology, you can become very successful with just hard work and great skills. Granted, you won't run a company, but qualities like personality and business acumen aren't required of tech's big brains. Nor do looks don't count, fashion sense, and work hours are usually flexible. The entertainment industry is quite different.

Take the example of Jason Lewis, the "hunk" from Sex and the City. Considered by many women to be one of the sexiest men alive, Jason is well known for his undressed body. So, would you expect him to have the intellect of a software architect and business skills of a CEO?

When we approached Jason to act in our film, we were absolutely convinced about his on-camera skills and looks. We had no idea about his temperament or personality, and we were quite worried about his ability to handle the cultural shock of working with a Bollywood cast and crew in Mumbai, India. Would someone born and raised in Southern California adapt to Bollywood's haphazard ways? Could he survive 40 days in the sweltering Indian summer?


  I don't think I have ever heard our producer, Brad Listermann, as excited as when he called after Jason's first day on the job to report that our star was very cool, really smart, surprisingly normal, and very much committed to the project. Jason had already charmed the Bollywood cast and crew, suggested some great enhancements to the script, and he readily worked a 11-hour day despite the jet lag that came with flying in only the night before. Yet he was ready to do whatever it took to produce a great film, all the while displaying a great degree of cultural sensitivity.

I was also very impressed with Jason during my recent trip to Mumbai. Jason articulated how he had meticulously planned his career from the time he was America's highest paid male model, to his role in HBO's hit TV series, to his debut in feature films. He managed his every TV appearance, modeling assignment, and press interview with the savvy of a top marketing executive. He understood the market and how it would position him for success.

Before accepting the lead in our film, he was presented with dozens of opportunities, some offering astronomical sums. None would have positioned him the way he wanted, or opened up the new markets he sought, so he declined them all. When presented with an opportunity to break into both Bollywood and Hollywood, and do so in a part that would demonstrate acting skills rather than just his good looks, he jumped at it -- even though he would be working for just a fraction of his market value.

To compensate for having to take such a cut, he very smartly negotiated a deal similar to that of investors. Contract talks with him reminded me of my last deal with Microsoft (MSFT ) -- except that Microsoft was actually easier to negotiate with.By Vivek Wadhwa


  Another example of what it takes to succeed in this industry was Brad Listermann's wife, Kashmera Shah, an ex-Miss India finalist who is considered one of Bollywood's greatest beauties. Yet as a co-producer of the film, she was managed the toughest vendor negotiations, analyzed detailed financial spreadsheets, and cracked the whip on filming schedules. In between handling those jobs, she also found time to be the star of our film.

Even our other Bollywood star, Sanjay Suri, surprised me with a discussion of a business plan he was putting together to produce television serials. Like Jason, Sanjay is an ex-model, but much more than a handsome face. He has been analyzing market opportunities and business strategies for his own production company, and is forever keen to learn more about the financial opportunities in the U.S. industry. This is not a discussion I expected to have with one of Bollywood's matinee idols.

I realized that actors usually have a very limited shelf life -- when their careers begin, the biggest asset is also the most perishable, appearance and youth. In the tech industry, your market value goes up with experience. In showbiz, it's like climbing a steep cliff, only to be pushed off the edge once you reach the top. To stay employed, movie stars, like successful companies, need to constantly reinvent themselves.


  Of course, the job does have its benefits. It seemed like every night that we were not shooting we were partying. Every new restaurant that opened, every rich business executive who wanted to impress his clients and friends, every Bollywood film that was premiering, all would send invitations to my new friends to attend lavish extravaganzas.

One night I sat with Jason and our associate producer, Richard Martini, at a fancy party in Mumbai. Three gorgeous women joined us. Naturally, one of them was Miss India 2004. No, they weren't there to talk to me. They wanted to talk to Jason, but I still got a kick out of the scene. Another night, I was at a party and met Diana Hayden, Miss World 1997. She knew all about the film and our stars. I felt almost famous, at least for a fleeting moment!

I know I'll never be a superhero or even a Hollywood heavy hitter, but playing the role of executive producer is just fine. Now, if I could only get my sharp, smart, and astonishingly savvy movie-star friends to start tech companies, it would be "Watch out, Bill Gates!"

Vivek Wadhwa is the founder of Relativity Technologies in Raleigh, N.C. When not producing movies or battling venture capitalists, Wadhwa mentors fledgling entrepreneurs.

Edited by Alex Salkever

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