By Jenny Bridle
When you’re in the racing business, it’s never far from your thoughts especially these days as the industry attempts to reinvigorate itself and find new and younger fans. That’s what happened this week when a trip to the movies on a cold winter’s night brought us to “The Big Short” starring Christian Bale, Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, and Ryan Gosling. If you’re in racing, you will walk out of that movie asking, “How come we can’t do this?”
One of the challenges horse racing has always faced is that playing and winning can seem very difficult, especially to newbies. And worse, some might even say that sitting at the track with hardcore players – who are often not very social or interested in sharing what they know — can be, well, kind of boring.
Which brings us back to The Big Short and the parallels between this movie and racing. After all, unless you’re into the stock trading and are some kind of financial wizard who understands all the jargon and statistics, the stock market and the world economy can seem a difficult to understand and boring topic. And really, on the surface, the concept of this film sounds dull: a bunch of stock traders beat the market and make mountains of money. Who cares.
Not being fans of stock market stories we went on the recommendation of a stock market friend who said that this was the best explanation he’d ever seen of a very complex subject. With the un-ending stream of entertainment available in 2016 who signs up for the “complex” or complicated option?
That would be me and lots of other movie goers who have helped this $28m movie gross almost $60m at the box office since its release in December 2015. The friend’s description was perfect except the part he left out: how the movie explains what happened in 2008 in the simplest of ways that are also so far from boring. Take for example one scene which features a cameo with Selena Gomez sitting at a blackjack table with professor of behavioral economics Richard Thaler. As they play cards, Gomez tag teams with Thaler to explain what a synthetic collaterized debt obligation or CDO is and how it can be a bad bet with a ripple effect as other players bet for or against each other until the whole house of cards collapses and everyone loses their money.
The Big Short’s audiences need to understand this kind of Wall Street jargon so they can comprehend what happens when the traders in the story win their gamble or “short” – the 2008 collapse of the American housing market along with several prominent financial institutions. Director Adam McKay uses other celebrities in cameo spots including chef Anthony Bourdain who makes a fish stew while explaining what the non-synthetic kind of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are.
And Wolf of Wall Street actress Margot Robbie who explains how mortgage bonds work while drinking champagne in a bubble bath.
One of the most educational scenes in the film happens when Ryan Gosling’s character Jared Vennett explains the mortgage bond market using the block stacking game, Jenga.
Added to these explanations are some things you just don’t see in movies these days: explanatory quotes on the screen that help move the story along and characters who talk directly to the camera.
All in all, this movie is a great example of how a smart director can take a very good book on a rather boring subject and turn it into a story that is both compelling and at times extremely funny. A huge part of what makes this movie so good and so cool is that it has an ensemble cast made up of actors and celebrities from across the spectrum from the young yet sophisticated Selena Gomez to the genius of Christian Bale and everything in between. And, here’s that question again: why can’t racing do this? When the sport tries to explain betting and handicapping to anyone, the result can be pretty awful and, let’s face it, boring.
Another take away from this movie is that drama and comedy can go very well together if done with some finesse and a great sense of timing. This is true in our daily lives, in social media, at our jobs, and in a lot of the pop culture we all currently consume. Why should racing be any different? Really — and sorry if you’ve read this before on this blog — what’s needed is for many people in horse racing to have a bit more of a sense of humour. This would serve two purposes. One, people could relax a bit and have some fun — if the people who put on the show (whatever show that happens to be) are actually having fun doing it, this will be transferred to their audience. And when your audience has fun, they want more, they have taken one or more steps along the loyalty road. When they are new and their trip down this road becomes not fun or boring, their loyalty wanes or disappears altogether. Two, when life is tough for any reason, humour often helps to pull us all through. Ask anyone who’s ever been in a serious accident or had a major health crisis. More than a few will tell you that they got through that first day with the help of great emergency responders and trained medical help, supportive family and friends, and frequently, at least a little humour.
What can The Big Short teach horse racing? How to help people understand something that seems complicated and boring. How well people learn all depends on how you deliver the education. These days it must come in the form of “edutainment.” And it can’t be just any combination of education and entertainment but must be the right kind for each of the right audiences. Too many racing executives do not seem to have much empathy for their customers and what each customer segment or demographic wants. At the same time many racing executives do not go out of their way to be very likeable, which is so key these days. Now, is not the time for conformity but neither is it the time for leaders to live and die by “I’m here to lead, not make friends.” Racing needs executives who can be both and more, who are creative, able to extrapolate, who can play parts in — or are capable of building — an ensemble cast of “edutainers.”
Everything most people in racing think they know about attracting customers needs to be thrown out the window. We are living in the YouTube and Vine generation where you only get a short period of time — like a few seconds — to get your point across or make that great first impression. Understanding this is critical because these days, people learn relatively complicated things through content that’s visual, short, cool, and funny and from people they like such as Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, and Selena Gomez. It doesn’t matter whether the people they like actually know anything about the subject they are talking about. What matters is that for 6 seconds on Vine or a few minutes on YouTube someone like Gosling or Gomez held their attention long enough and told them something helpful, funny or very moving. It sounds patronizing to say it but everyone needs to understand that “like” and “likeability” do not mean what they used to. In the 21st Century, liking a celebrity or a brand or anything is also about credibility and loyalty. People trust what they “like” and vice versa.
Obviously, The Big Short director understands all of this and has taken a complicated subject, sometimes populated with not very ethical people, and turned it into edutainment, which many of us will now “like” and want to know more about. There are times when the movie is hilarious and times when you will actually feel emotional about boring things like the economy, banking and the stock market. Really. We can only hope everyone in racing, and particularly all racing executives, will go see this movie and, beyond taking notes, truly see what they need to do for the sport in 2016.