What do the future portrayed in Avatar and the future of The Tonight Show have in common?

Each of them is driven by a particular type of business thinking that in short order leads to disaster.

Let’s start by looking at Giovanni Ribisi’s character in Avatar, Parker Selfridge, a businessman.


Sounds like James Cameron had the word “selfish” in mind when he came up with that name, doesn’t it?

Yeah, well, Cameron just made a movie that’s about to earn a couple of billion dollars — what does he know about being selfish?

But selfishness is not what leads Parker Selfridge on the wrong path.

Look. I see where James Cameron was coming from. You take Christopher Columbus. He’s all over popular culture as an explorer, but really what he was looking for was a new trade route to Asia, where he could bring back opium and spices. Columbus gets to America instead — off all his maps — and he’s so narrowly focused on one idea that he doesn’t even notice that he’s discovered a new world. So he tries to make lemonade out of this lemon and brings back slaves and eventually sets himself up as a brutal dictator on the island of Hispaniola — that’s where Haiti is, if you’re watching the news these days. When Chris gets back to Spain he’s regarded as a criminal for his atrocities and thrown in prison.

In Avatar Parker Selfridge looks out on a whole new world — Pandora, a planet of wonders — and says, “This is why we’re here; because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo.”

Exqueeze me?

Has Parker Selfridge never opened up a history book? Or a comic? Or studied any science? Or attended a business school? How the heck did he get this job?

How can he not be aware that a new planet would have untold riches in the pharmaceuticals that could be made from its indigenous plantlife?

How can he not know that simply going around and recording native music can make him the king of earth’s music industry?

How can he not know that the stories the natives tell will be made into entertainments that can earn — well — a couple of billion a pop?

What, isn’t there a single Pocahontas or Sitting Bull on Pandora who’d like to make a tour of earth as a feasted celebrity?

Which brings us to NBC’s late night problems.

Half a dozen years ago — when Jay Leno was the King of Late Night — an NBC programming executive went to Jay and asked him to hand over The Tonight Show to Late Night host Conan O’Brien, because O’Brien was younger, hipper, and did better in the 18 to 35 demographic. “We don’t think you can sustain your ratings,” quoth the maven.

Five years later, when Jay did his last Tonight Show, he was still top of the ratings, so NBC decided to try him in a new time-slot — 10:00 PM — prime time. Jay didn’t think it would work but took the gig because the NBC management team admitted that his ratings would start slow but convinced him they’d give him two years for his audience to find him again.

But the NBC affiliate stations panicked and panic doesn’t look good when Comcast is buying the network.

So NBC broke their word to Jay and canceled him after four months, and promised to move him to his old time slot for a half-hour show.

This put NBC into breach of contract also with Conan O’Brien, who’d moved his entire Late Night cast and crew from New York to take over Tonight. He balked at starting his new gig halfway back to his old time slot.

So you have two pissed off stars … and more importantly, an 18-to-35 audience in rebellion, picketing NBC for showing Conan the door. As it turns out, it’s not all that easy to take candy from a baby. They wail. They wail on the Internet.

And the viral wailing pumped up Conan’s viewing audience to the point where, like Jay, Conan is now King of Late Night.

So if he goes, and Jay takes over, Jay will have to start with the handicap of the show being boycotted by the prime demographic.

By the way, the solution is simple. Two stars, one time slot — split the show days between the two of them. Jay Leno got his big mojo by filling in as permanent guest host for Johnny Carson — back when the show was 90 minutes long — so we know the time slot is big enough for two hosts.

But what’s the big-picture lesson here?

It’s this: a Board of Directors can’t give a top management job to a short-sighted, tunnel-visioned, unimaginative drone and expect to give the investors steady dividends.

Businessmen win when they have vision and understanding.

Sensitivity and an ability to communicate are preconditions to successful business.

If you play only zero-sum games you will lose money. If you play positive sum games you can make money.

You do better as a businessman reading Gandhi than reading Sun Tzu.

A saying attributed to Winston Churchill is “The problem with socialism is socialism. The problem with capitalism is capitalists.”

Capitalists who never think beyond the next quarter are unfit to wear the three-piece suit. They are disgraces to their country clubs. If they don’t have a clue what high character it takes to be a Capitalist they might as well just inherit their money. But if it’s not safely in trust — out of reach of their stupid little hands — their grandchildren will be eating at McDonalds.

Why, if you have a country that’s run short of real businessmen, anything could happen. You might have entire industries — investment banking, manufacturing, real estate — driven into crisis.

A country with stupid businessmen could even decide to give socialism a try. Then you end up in a country where rich people get that way not because they’re smart, but because they’re connected.

And you’re back to a country of aristocrats and peasants.

That’s not the country I was born in and that’s not the country I want to die in.

Stupid businessmen are the enemy of the people.

And this is a lesson only a greedy capitalist looking out for his own bottom line is smart enough to teach.

You know. Like that self-made billionaire, James Cameron.

My comic thriller Lady Magdalene’s — a movie I wrote, produced, directed, and acted in it — is now available for sale or rental on Video On Demand. If you like the way I think, I think you’ll like this movie. Check it out!

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