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Issue - 01/03/2013
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Strategic Decision
The Returns to Entrepreneurial Investment
Why do entrepreneurs ignore the poor risk-return trade-offs of private equity investing? Many entrepreneurs invest substantial amounts of money in their own privately held companies. Recent research suggests that such investment strategies result in a much less attractive risk-return trade-off than investing in publicly traded stocks coordinated by: amir moin
amir moin | Issue Date - 01/03/2013

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This second model has been the foundation of the Toronto festival from its inception. In this case, the festival works to be as inclusive as possible, engaging with the local community and nurturing a passion for film within it. This creates a strong local base of filmgoers and volunteers, but there isn’t much buzz or draw to the larger film industry to attend. Had Handling failed to understand the causal logic at play, he might have just assumed away the problem and tried to mash the two models together without questioning to what extent such a move was possible: If you create inclusivity, THEN you will generate buzz (i.e. media interest), making the industry want to attend AND you will develop a community of local film lovers, plus a vibrant local industry.

Handling recognised that the causal logic didn’t easily support the structure he wanted: an inclusive, community-oriented festival with buzz and industry attention. When he took over the festival as Director, rather than simply assume away the tension between inclusivity and exclusivity, he worked to find a mechanism by which he could achieve his goal. To do so, he dug into the logic of both models to look for a way to have both, seeking a leverage point that would allow the Toronto International Film Festival to have both the buzz from exclusivity and all the benefits of inclusivity, both industry involvement and grassroots support. He and his team engaged in a process of designing the kind of festival they wanted to be.

Together with his team, Handling took a deeper look at the salient features of the problem and at the causal relationships. He asked: Who matters to the festival, and what do they most want? He thought about the incentives for all of the players: audiences want to see films they’ll love; stars want media attention for their films; sponsors want exposure and access to an audience; media want a story to cover; and the industry wants a financial incentive – a real reason to attend.

In these incentives, Handling saw a way to leverage causal relationships that all the other festivals had missed. Industry insiders attend Cannes because of the buzz generated by the Palme D’Or. But the top prize at Cannes is ultimately a hollow one. The last five winners of the Palme D’or, including l’Enfant and The Wind that Shakes the Barley, have gone on to average just $16.5 million at the box office worldwide. This is because the winners are the favourite film of a small, elite group of insiders, who have no real predictive power. Here, Toronto had an advantage that no one else had – a massive community of film lovers that look (and spend) an awful lot like the rest of the North American movie marketplace.

Handling knew he had an appealing audience because his sponsors had told him so: “We deliver an audience for them that is crucial,” Handling observed, “and they get excited about that audience.” Handling knew that he needed to leverage the similarity between the Toronto audience and the rest of the world to provide a financial incentive to the industry and to create a story for the media and coverage for stars. But how? By what mechanism could he do that?

It was through the People’s Choice Award, which was already in the Festival’s repertoire but not placed front and centre. Handling recognised that the People’s Choice Award could be a signal to producers and distributors of what would really sell in the commercial market; if it became a centerpiece of the Festival, it would create a story for the media and a draw for the stars. And it turned out that he couldn’t have been more right. The People’s Choice Award has since become a prized and globally recognised laurel. Why? The last five winners of the People’s Choice award at Toronto, including Slumdog Millionaire and Precious, went on to earn a whopping average of $103 million and a slew of Oscar nominations.

Handling leveraged the greatest benefit of the inclusive model – a large and engaged audience – to deliver the greatest benefit of the exclusive model – buzz (and through buzz, industry engagement). He recognised the relationship between resonance with a wide, representative audience at a community festival and eventual success at the North American box office. He saw that success amongst the crowds in Toronto could be a predictor of a film’s success more broadly. The growth of the Toronto International Film Festival on the back of Handling’s insight has been remarkable. It has become, to paraphrase Handling, the gateway to the North American film market. Handling aptly demonstrates the gains that are possible when we dig into competing causal logics, seeking a way to integrate them thoughtfully and strategically, rather than mashing them together without insight or analysis.

Thus, we can say that Integrative thinkers embrace the idea that causal relationships are murky, confounding and complex. They explicitly attempt to understand the full scope of the relationships, from multiple perspectives, to build a robust causal model. They ask: ‘Under what conditions does X cause Y? What is the driving force fuelling this relationship? And what are the mechanisms underlying it?’ In so doing they dive deeper to resolve the tensions between models, rather than pretending they don’t exist.

At various times, we all fail to think through the causal logic of our choices carefully and explicitly. By following the example of integrative thinkers, we can learn to take a more sophisticated and rigorous approach to thinking through causal relationships. By putting in the necessary thinking work, and refusing to accept unattractive trade-offs, we can unleash our ability to build new and better models and create value for the world.

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