On the magic behind major blockbusters

The goal of Freakonomics — a series of books and more recently a weekly podcast — was to "explore the hidden side of everything". Basically a program after a magician's heart.

In their most recent episode, they took a detailed look at the visual effects industry — the people responsible for the magical imagery behind everything from Jurassic Park to Star Wars: Episode VIII.

It turns out, quite contrary to the intuition of most people, that the industry is struggling financially. How it got that way is a complicated tale of fierce competition, and tax incentives. Basically the way this essential work is outsourced means that they don't get to profit from the tremendous success of the films involved.

Having worked on countless live events, and been involved in the bidding process for them. One common problem that keeps coming up in these discussions is that clients are unwilling to pay for work which is — for them — invisible. As a point of comparison, a sixty-minute magic show might also include thirty minutes of preparation, forty-five minutes of driving each way, an additional hour (or more) of waiting between setting up.  

Now what happens if instead you want to consider a thirty-minute magic show? Half the time should be half the cost... fifty percent off... provided you ignore the rest of the time. The thirty minutes they shorten the show represents less than fifteen percent of the time commitment. This also doesn't include the time that it took to plan the even in the first place; the lengthy exchange of emails, signing agreements, or even the deeper back end work of putting together a website and branding your services.

It's a major blindspot. Other people's time is literally out of sight, out of mind. The (implicit) message is that any work done outside of a very narrow focus is expected to be done for free. Which is worse when you want to be a professional showman, you work hard to push all of your hard work into the shadows. You don't want the audience to see the set-up, listen to the sound check, fiddle with lighting. It's a major challenge to get people to properly evaluate the value of invisible things. 


I'm often asked if my shows are appropriate for children. I know that some people are confused, expecting magic shows to be designed for children. I know that there are sometimes economic realities mean that a ticket to a show and dinner for a small person can be less expensive than a babysitter. And I also know that some kids just enjoy more grownup activities. It's a tough question to answer. My secret mantra, given to me by a friend years ago is that "I perform magic for grownups." Which somewhat ironically means that my shows tend to be entirely G-rated.

That's not to say they're for kids. There will be words they won't understand, and I can't promise they'll understand everything, but there's nothing in the show that will leave them traumatized — certainly nothing as bad as Bambi.

Where we settled running Magic Tonight was the rather vaguely worded "family friendly but not intended for children under twelve." Basically a polite way of saying that the show was G rated but that young kids wouldn't find us all that interesting—no fluffy bunnies to see here. That never stopped children from turning up. I would always make it a point to ask how old they were. What I discovered, more than once, was that the children had been instructed to lie and say they were twelve. (How were they supposed to know that we didn't actually care?)

I was struck by Doug Walker's recent vlog essay about the standard movie rating system we all knew growing up. When I was younger, I paid attention to the ratings of movies because I know that they influenced whether or not my parents would let me watch them. In fact, to this day, there are films I've never seen, like Terminator, which were rated R, because at the time I wasn't allowed and by the time I was allowed, the need to see it was no longer pressing. It was also that awkward era where video rentals were becoming obsolete but pure on demand services like Netflix and iTunes hadn't come about yet.

Now I'm a grownup and can watch whatever I want, so I really haven't paid attention to a movie rating in probably a decade or more. So I was shocked to discover that both Frozen and The Hunger Games both had the same PG rating. So take a look at our ****ed up rating system:

Of course now, Magic and Martini is strictly nineteen plus because of the spaces we're using so we can get the most interesting cocktails to go with the show. I can't claimed to have added any mature or adult content anywhere in the show. So who knows, maybe some industrious twelve year old with a very good fake ID will make an appearance at one of our shows.