When is a dirty bathroom a broken window?"
This is the question that opens Michael Levine's recently published business tome, "Broken Windows, Broken Business" (Warner Business Books).
Levine is a successful Hollywood publicist. I am indebted to him forever for one of my most memorable Tommywood moments -- a séance with Hollywood's evergreen legend, Robert Evans, at his home, and on his bed (see "The Kid Still Stays in the Picture," March 2004).
Levine, like many a Hollywood success story, is self-made.
Born in New York City, Levine graduated from Fort Lee High in 1972, and attended Rutgers College for six months. At 18, with no job and, in his words, "a home life under an alcoholic mother," he was determined to forge a life of his own invention.
Levine had a passion for the entertainment industry and began his show business career as an impresario, renting out the local movie theater in New Jersey on weekends after the last show and putting on midnight screenings of "Reefer Madness" and other cult movies.
In 1977, Levine arrived in Los Angeles looking for work in movie promotion. By 1983 he had opened his own firm.
"The most difficult thing is to get your first client," Levine told me over tea at the Beverly Wilshire. He said it was "like trying to staple jelly to the ceiling."
His first clients were Joan Rivers and David Brenner. Steve Reidman, Brenner's then manager (now a beloved fourth-grade public school teacher in Toluca Lake) recalls that Levine's devotion to his clients was 24/7.
"One advantage I had," Levine recalled recently, "was that I was entering the business at a time of change... [the business then] was mostly old white guys. I was more intense."
He still is.
Over the years he has represented a smorgasbord of talent, everyone from Demi Moore to David Bowie, as well as Prince, Kareem, Jon Voigt, Cameron Diaz, Jon Stewart, Dave Chappell, Ozzy Osbourne, Suzanne Somers and even the gloved one, Michael Jackson. He repped Barbra Streisand when she returned to Las Vegas and Nancy Kerrigan when she was attacked by Tonya Harding.
Recently, Levine relinquished the title of president to long-time associate Dawn Miller. He retains the title of chairman. However, giving up some day-to-day management affords Levine the opportunity to pursue other interests -- and to express his theories.
"Broken Windows" applies to business the theories on controlling crime that were put forth by professors James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling and applied, most notably, in New York by Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton, who is now L.A.'s police chief. Levine paints a convincing picture that businesses need to pay attention to those areas where they intersect with their consumers -- first impressions matter, as do all the details that make up that first impression: the business representatives the consumer interfaces with, their attitude, the environment where that intersection takes place (store, Web site, phone conversation). All the small details contribute to whether the consumer will conclude a sale and continue to do business with one vendor over another. The book is about "how the smallest remedies reap the biggest rewards."
Levine decries a business culture where the incompetent get reassigned rather than fired.
"Businesses don't understand that little things matter a lot," he says.
Which brings us back to those broken windows. Repairing them makes a difference.
All very sensible and practical.
As for our conversation.... My mother had a saying: "Everyone in the world is crazy, except you and me. And sometimes I wonder about you."
Clearly, Levine is successful; he is charming and he is wily. "Broken Windows" is his 17th book.
I wondered if Levine is, as Oudom, my Cambodian-born nephew might say, "a bissele meshugah." (I taught him that!)
You decide. Here are some of the sayings of Chairman Levine:
1. "Most people are motivated by three things: 1) Cash; 2) Love and Sex; 3) Fame and Power -- if you can deliver one, you're doing OK, but if you can deliver more than one, you are going to get their attention."
2. How do you get your first client? "Somehow."
3. On motivation: "If you've got a gun in your mouth, you'll do anything."
4. "[There are] two pieces to our brain: the logical and the emotional. Eighty percent of the time, emotion wins out. [However] when the human is hungry, angry, lonely or tired -- then emotion wins 100 percent of the time."
5. "The central question of life is: What do you most want, and what are you willing to give up to get it?"
Levine dismisses the notion of "balance."
"No one achieves supersuccess in life," he says, "without some part of their life suffering.... Something's got to give."
As for the culture of celebrity and the publicity-mad world Levine has toiled in, he remarks that in America we have a "more and more sophisticated culture, but a less reverent society."
"Once upon a time, achievement preceded fame. Think of Jonas Salk," Levine says.
But today fame precedes achievement Think Paris Hilton.
The reason: "Technology is the principal difference," Levine says. "Technology is the enemy of reverence."
Again I ask: who thinks like this? Michael Levine does. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw: Some men (like me) see a broken window, and it is just a broken window, and others (like Levine) see a broken window and see a way to fix a business -- and write a book.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.