For a guy who got into the entertainment business "by accident," Jay Firestone, chairman and CEO of CanWest Entertainment, has done all right for himself. He co-founded one of Canada's leading TV and film production companies in 1985, Alliance Entertainment. A decade later, he started his own production company, Fireworks Entertainment. In '98, after going public, Fireworks was bought by CanWest Global Communications for $62 million and is now the core operation of the Canadian broadcaster.
Ironically, Firestone had no interest in the entertainment business when he started out in the late '70s. He was an accountant but had decided real estate development was where the real money was.
In 1985, he was considering a real estate job when a headhunter friend asked a favor. The friend was about to lose an account (Alliance, then being formed). The favor: Firestone would "pretend" to be interested in a job (as chief financial officer), do an interview and "be amazing."
Well, Firestone was so amazing he got a job offer. "When you go to a job interview you have no interest in, you're brilliant," he quips. "I impressed everybody. I knew everything they asked about: international tax law, the stock market, raising money. It was the most brilliant interview ever. But I made it all up."
At first, he turned the job down, still thinking real estate. But Alliance kept raising the offer so he did some research and concluded that there was little, if any, financial sophistication in the Canadian entertainment business. So he figured, "Who's going to know I BS'd my way through the interview?" With that, he demanded a seat on the board and stock options and accepted the position.
During his decade with the company, Alliance grew to be a leading program producer in Canada. Within five years, Firestone was vice chairman. He passed on an opportunity to be president: "I wanted to make deals, not be an administrator."
Alliance did a number of shows for U.S. exhibitors, including Night Heat, Fly by Night
for CBS —all part of the network's pre-Letterman late-night strategy. Alliance also tapped the growing U.S. cable market, producing Counterstrike
for USA and The Adventures of the Black Stallion
for The Family Channel.
Firestone, though, had philosophical differences with Alliance Chairman Robert Lantos, who was primarily interested in producing quality shows for the Canadian market. Firestone wanted to produce shows on budget, acquire rights and distribute worldwide. "So we were a bit at odds."
In '95, Alliance bought him out. A year later, he founded Fireworks. Firestone is a big believer in evergreen product. PetConnection
is a good example: An advice show host by a veterinarian, it cost about $50,000 to produce and has taken in more than $1 million.
He also partners on a lot of projects. Tribune Entertainment is a partner on three weekly first-run hours, including Andromeda
and, bowing this fall, Adventure Inc. Fireworks also produces Mutant X
and, upcoming this fall for ABC, miniseries A Wrinkle in Time.
Despite his wealth, Firestone is a self-proclaimed cheapskate when it comes to spending on himself. When he splurges, though, he does it in a big way. Parked in his garage is an Aston Martin, the car made famous by James Bond. He also has a fondness for Franck Muller watches, which run $10,000 or more. Most satisfying, he didn't pay retail for his, courtesy of a chance encounter with Franck Muller himself. As luck would have it, Muller was a fan of USA series La Femme Nikita, which Fireworks produced. Firestone arranged for Muller to get a Nikita
jacket in exchange for a very nice discount on a watch.
Just how nice? Let's not go there. Others in the business like Muller watches, too. But they didn't meet Franck in person.