Vultures - by John Sealander


I'm sitting in a folding chair in the lobby of what was, until about a month ago, one of the largest and most elaborate post production facilities in the Southwest. I've sat in this lobby many times before during the last ten years, but this time I'm not waiting for an edit session or a transfer to begin. This time, I'm holding a little cardboard sign festooned with the number 451 as I listen to the staccato, somewhat musical voice of an auctioneer describe the assets of a company that was all too often my home away from home. Blue Cactus Post, aka Pyramid Teleproductions, aka Tele-Image has finally bit the dust.

An auction is not a garage sale. It's more like a wake. Most auctions signal that a family, a marriage, a business, a familiar routine has died. I guess some people attend these events to pick up a bargain. But many others come to pay their last respects, or dance on the grave of their competitor. I look around me at the other people sitting in folding chairs holding their cardboard bidding signs. There is a strange ambience in the room. Sophisticated video equipment that originally cost hundreds of thousands of dollars is being snapped up for a fraction of its true value, but nobody seems all that excited. The collective mood among the bidders reminds me of the way you feel when you pass a bad accident on the freeway and realize that your primary emotion is one of relief: a perverse joy that the car you are driving wasn't involved. You're not 'supposed' to feel this way, but you do.

Everyone in the lobby knows how tough this business is. The fact that one of the major players just went belly up doesn't seem to make anyone nervous though. On the contrary, it seems to lift everyone's spirits a bit. For the moment, the rest of us in the room are still survivors. Who knows, maybe we are doing something right. After all, nobody is auctioning off everything we own this afternoon. Seeing 48-track SSL mixing boards and Sony Beta-SP decks go for obscenely low prices somehow makes the act of avoiding purchase decisions seem like sound business planning. I'm certainly glad I never went out on a limb and bought all this expensive equipment anyway. You go spend a million dollars on the latest state-of-the-art gear, and even if it isn't auctioned off five years later, it's obsolete anyway.

That's just the way it is though. You could just as easily buy a $300,000 house and wind up getting divorced before you've made your first year of mortgage payments. You could get an expensive college education and still be virtually unemployable when you graduate. Or perhaps you buy that new car you've got your heart set on and someone with no insurance rear ends you and totals it on the way home from the dealership. You never know. Life is short. And risks are everywhere. That's why we secretly celebrate as we publicly mourn the failures of those we know.

People in the room halfheartedly bid on things they don't really need if the price dips low enough. Most realize that yesterday's technology is a bad investment at any price though. The real reason they are here is to reaffirm that their own companies and dreams are still alive. It is comforting to know that your own, often inferior, equipment is still humming along making money, while the fancy stuff the auctioneer is describing is boxed up and lifeless.

I get up to stretch my legs and as I walk around the lobby I hear a litany of "They grew too fast," "It was just bad management," "They never should have bought those D-2 machines when everyone else was going digital." Someone else's disaster is always easy to explain. Change the context just a little and the conversations could just have easily have been "I told her she should never have married that guy," "What are you going to do with a liberal arts degree anyway," "He should have known the company was going to downsize." Other people's failures somehow create the illusion that we are wise by default.

People are strange. We send each other wedding presents. We congratulate our friends on job promotions and our business associates on new clients. Secretly, we want these people to fail though. Everyone talks a good game about the fact that there are plenty of opportunities for everyone, but nobody really believes it. People still think that if enough of their cohorts fail, the competition might not be quite so tough. Maybe if they survive the latest corporate downsizing there might be more opportunities for advancement. Maybe if a brother or sister's marriage fails, the parents might mot be quite so critical of their own spouse. A nearby failure always takes the spotlight off yourself for a while.

It's funny how one person's misfortune almost always creates an opportunity for someone else. Roofers and auto body shops love hailstorms. Lawyers love a good divorce. And funeral directors look forward to your loved one's demise. As the auctioneer quickly steers us through the hundreds of items required to operate a state-of-the-art post production facility, it is apparent that there is little remorse in the room. Everyone seems quite comfortable with this bankrupcy. After all, the equipment will go somewhere and be used again. Most of the employees will eventually get new jobs. And of course the assumption is that the former clients of this facility like myself will migrate to the handful of still solvent studio owners sitting in the folding chairs.

Blue Cactus was a good place to work. Some of the editors became personal friends. Over half of the commercials I made in Dallas were cut here. I never hesitated to recommend the place to others. I won't really miss it very long though. There are plenty of other places to edit. And I'm sure I'll cross paths with some of the editors again in the future. I am kind of surprised at my lack of remorse though. This place was a big part of my career. I was sitting in Edit E when I got the news that my Mom died. I was sitting in Edit A when I decided to start my own company. I guess I'm not all that different from all the other people sitting next to me with their cardboard bidding signs. I'll laugh and joke and drink with you while you're here. And I'll dance on your grave when you're gone.

Jobs, relationships and businesses are all transient. And they don't matter nearly as much as you'd like them to. I continue to be amazed at how quickly I was forgotten after leaving a variety of former jobs. As much as you hate to admit it, everything you used to do on the job goes on pretty much as usual without you. I may have liked to think I was indispensable, but I never was. It's pretty much the same story here. Nobody will miss this place in a couple of weeks. People will still sit in the dark somewhere editing commercials and films. Nobody will panic that this pillar of the film and video community is gone. Nobody will even care. Maybe I'm just rationalizing, but I think the fact that customers and competitors can sit around like vultures with our little cardboard bidding cards picking over the remains of what used to be the best post house in town is a good thing. If anything, it proves that life goes on. The simple fact remains that if Blue Cactus was still meant to be here, it would be. It had it's moment in the sun. Now others, perhaps some sitting in the folding chairs around me, will used this cheeply obtained equipment to have their own moment in the sun.

Companies spend a fortune these days trying to inculcate in their employees the illusive concept that everything they do is subject to change. The idea is to stay ahead of the curve, to continually reinvent yourself to avoid the embarrassment of having all your competitors sitting around in folding chairs picking over your remains. It's hard to do though. When you commit to anything, something totally unexpected is likely to blindside you and set a chain of events in motion that ultimately ends with your dreams on an auction block.

In retrospect it all seems so simple. The equipment being auctioned should never have been purchased in the first place. Why buy composite D-2 machines when customers really wanted component D-1 machines? Why spend a fortune putting in a film-to-tape transfer facility when there was already a great one less than five miles away? Why buy a new gismo and then let the only person who knew how to operate it slip away to another facility because you wouldn't pay them what they deserved? Every business faces these issues. If we could see into the future, it would be so easy. You can't though. You can hire all the consultants in the world. You can sit around for months and strategize and the future will still remain a mystery.

I may stumble and fall myself one of these days. When that day comes, I doubt that anyone will pay me any more respect than the motley crew sitting around me in folding chairs trying to pick up slightly used Beta-SP machines for a couple of hundred bucks is paying this facility. When my day comes, maybe a couple of people will buy me a drink. Maybe they'll commiserate over lunch about bad luck or bad timing, but the minute I'm out of their sight, they'll start calling on my clients and trying to appropriate what I spent years building at a bargain basement price. That's just the way it is. I used to feel bad that everyone was a potential Judas. Let's face it. We live in a world where intimacy is based on proximity and trust is a bargaining chip. Your best friend could fire you without remorse and your significant other could abruptly decide to run off with someone she met at a convention. It happens. As one smiling Judas told me recently, "No hard feelings buddy, it was either you or me."

I don't buy anything at this auction. Why should I? It would only give the next person more junk to pick up for a few cents on the dollar if I stumble and fall. It was nice to see everyone though. We traded business cards again because the ones we gave each other last year already have the wrong addresses and phone numbers. We made promises to have lunch that we will never keep. Transience has become a way of life. It's strange to look around and realize that the successful people in this room are those with no emotional equity in anything. They will never tie themselves down with a commitment that could lead them to the auction block, but they will be quick to take advantage of temporary alliances with those who do. We all notice the one guy in the corner who has been buying most of the equipment. His business will be the next to fail. It is disorienting to realize that success has nothing to do with building an empire anymore. It has to do with an ability to continually re-invent yourself as the situation demands. If you ask one of this new breed of mentally flexible people what they believe, the answer usually sounds good, but is frequently meaningless. Am I one of these people myself? I don't know. All I know is that I'm sitting in a room filled with vultures and I call these people my friends.


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copyrightę1995. Contact John Sealander at: john@sealander.com 17541 readers since5/22/97