Falling Upwards

As Mike "Heraclitus" Ovitz once said, the straightest road to the top is the road to the bottom.

Published April 23, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

You might think that it might have been a smarter move for Condi Nast to move some promising, bright young thing up from the ranks to have a crack at H&G. But that's not how publishing works. The clique of top editors is small and not easily broached. Once you're in, though, you're in. Whenever the powers-that-be need to replace an editor, they look at only a very small pool of risumis.

The same is true in movies. Not just any idiot can run a movie studio -- only a very select band of idiots. Once you're in, you're freer than a toddler in a playpen. Columbia Pictures hired Mark Canton from Warner Brothers despite the fiasco of "The Bonfire of the Vanities." He then went on to greenlight such money-burners as "The Last Action Hero" and "The Cable Guy." It took five years before his bosses figured they'd better give Canton his walking papers. (We won't even bring up Mike Ovitz, who exists in a class by himself. Well, almost by himself -- hello, Joe Eszterhas.)

The reason is that, in every creative industry, the people who have the money rarely understand how talent works. The best they can do is anoint someone who seems to have some talent-like aura attached to their person. This aura might come from some definite past success, or from a charismatic personality, or from just having held a similar sort of job in the past.

An editor who had his star rise lately tried to offer an explanation. He had to leave his editing job after a rather complicated low-speed crash of publishing-house egos. Though now out of a job, his stock has soared. "People wouldn't talk to me three years ago. Now everybody wants to take me out to lunch," he says. The reason, he figures, is that this particular instance of Magnificent Failure seems to have attached to his name like an official endorsement. "People want anything that has brand name associated with it," he explains.

A golden aura, though, can't always be translated into cash. Lurking behind the phenomenon of Failing Upwards is its reverse counterpart: Succeeding Downwards.

Compare the fates of Kurt Andersen and his partner Graydon Carter, who were the media wonder boys of the '80s as creators of Spy magazine. After Spy, Carter went on to middlebrow nirvana as editor-in-chief of Vanity Fair. Andersen took the high road as editor-in-chief of New York, where he continued to thrash out his edgy, ironic vision. Today Vanity Fair is thick as a porterhouse steak and Carter's bosses take out full-page ads in the New York Times lauding his success. Andersen got the boot, having been ousted for (reportedly) not doing enough to boost New York's circulation.

Andersen's down, but he's not out. Even though his high road led right off the edge of a cliff, his aura has remained intact -- burnished, even, by his principled spurning of mere financial success: Debt before Dishonor. His chair at New York was scarcely cool before the New Yorker snapped him up as a columnist.

Meanwhile, ask New York editors who they more admire, and most would say Andersen. Ask who they'd rather be, and most would say Carter. Andersen has the talent, but Carter has the stuff that takes success out of the realm of the fluky and fortuitous and nails it down in solid certainty: positive cash flow.

That's the kind of genius everybody appreciates.

By Jeff Wise


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