Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

Customers, Waiters and Cooks
(May 24, 2006)

I suspect we've all eaten in restaurants. The waiter hands us a menu and mentions the specials. We order what we want, sometimes asking for a varation that leaves out the onions or replaces the french fries with a salad. The waiter just writes down what we want and the food is brought to our table.

We get the meal that we want. The waiter is happy to bring us anything, as our business keeps the doors open and generates tips. But what about the cook?

The cook has worked hard to create the day's special. He has honed his craft for years in order to create meals that are memorable, yet nobody is ordering the special. The cook tells the waiter to push it harder, but the waiter responds that he doesn't want to alienate the customers. The cook is frustrated. He's not allowed to reach his potential and show what he can do. Instead, he's stuck endlessly frying hamburgers.

I doubt that any of us has ever looked at a menu and asked ourselves what we could order that the cook would enjoy making. We don't go to restaurants to satisfy the cook; we go to satisfy ourselves.

Why am I telling you this? It's because I believe that this is analagous to how the film and TV industries work. The customers are the movie studios or the broadcasters. The waiters are producers and the creative people are the cooks.

For years, I worked in animation studios and never understood the requests that came in the door. From my perspective, the designs were problematic and the stories made little sense. That was my motivation to create a show, figuring that if I created it, I could shape it as I saw fit. I was wrong.

I sat in a meeting with our broadcasters and producers where the broadcaster-customer asked us to "hold the onions." The producer-waiter immediately said yes. I, as the cook-creator, was dumbfounded. The show was significantly different without the onions, but it wasn't even up for discussion. The decision was made and I had to live with it.

I considered the work I created to be a finished product, done as perfectly as I was able. The broadcaster-customer didn't see it as finished at all; it was simply a menu option. The producer-waiter was happy to serve anything that would be paid for.

That's a dynamic that I didn't understand until I experienced it. The restaurant analogy works because we've all been customers. If the waiter forced us to order something or prevented us from substituting, we'd probably avoid that restaurant in the future. And if the cook ever came out of the kitchen to criticize our choices, we'd think he was crazy.

Inside our studios, where we're trying to cook up memorable films, we often think everybody outside is crazy. They're not, but they're operating with the same expectations we have when we go to a restaurant. Our industry is structured in such a way that we're stuck frying hamburgers.

The above analogy isn't perfect; there's a very big flaw in it that I'll discuss tomorrow. A new book about the TV business called Desperate Networks shows why the restaurant analogy doesn't work and why we should think about getting out of the restaurant business.