Profile: Mark Cuban

The self-made maverick: In his latest venture, Dallas NBA team’s owner just might be revolutionizing movie distribution

May 21, 2006, Austin American-Statesman

Subtlety has left the building. It wasn’t excused, but expelled, chased by the echo of a yell.

Mark Cuban, the self-made billionaire from Dallas, has gotten raucous, again. Jolted from his seat, he’s courtside at Game 1 of the playoffs between the San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, the basketball team he owns, and he’s roiled. Wearing a blue Mavericks jersey, the hulky Cuban hollers, chest thrusting, fists punching the air, his face a welter of outrage.

In the six years he has owned the Mavericks, Cuban’s game-time spectacles of brute enthusiasm have gone from obnoxious to legendary, chafing fans and officials, who’ve rewarded the tantrumy proprietor with fines that would render destitute the average basketball fan.

During this May 7 game in San Antonio, Cuban hit the court to rebuke the referees, a considerable no-no. A few days later, the National Basketball Association fined Cuban $200,000, half for the incident and half for comments he posted on his blog, in which he called the playoff officials unqualified.

Cuban has been fined eight times for more than $1 million and suspended from three games.

But what’s a million or so to a billionaire? Like a jaywalking ticket to the rest of us?

“No, it’s still a lot of money,” Cuban says. “I know the value of money. I could be doing a whole lot of other things with it.”

What he’s been doing lately is revamping the way movies are produced and distributed, including releasing DVDs of films the same day they open in theaters.

His co-ownership, with Todd Wagner, of 2929 Entertainment, which holds production and distribution companies and an arthouse movie chain, has made Cuban a muscular player in the independent film world.

As if we would forget him, Cuban’s innovations in movie distribution and the heady accomplishments of the Mavericks have vaulted the boyish Texas billionaire back into high relief. Here talking art films, there chest-bumping sweaty athletes, his profile is as visible as ever.

Yet he remains best known for money and moxie. With a net worth of $1.8 billion, made during the Internet boom, he is the 428th-richest person in the world, tied with 22 other individuals, according to Forbes. Not as rich as Bill Gates (No. 1 with $50 billion), though a speck wealthier than Queen Oprah, who sits at No. 562 with $1.4 billion.

The basketball team (price: $285 million) and a Gulfstream jet ($41 million, bought online) are Cuban’s largest material purchases. Another major acquisition was his 24,000-square-foot Dallas mansion, where he lives with wife Tiffany, daughter Alexis, 2 1/2, and her cat Meshugana, whose name is Yiddish for a crazy person.

This is the good life. A healthy middle-aged billionaire who wears faded jeans and sneakers, more akin to a grown-up fraternity brother, boasting popular tastes (“I’m a Bud Lite guy’’) and a love of rugby and rap, and sporting a functional school-kid haircut.

Cuban, 48, did it by himself, earning all that money. There’s a peculiar strain of entrepreneurial spirit that matches its bloated ambitions. Before Gates and Cuban were Carnegie and Rockefeller, mythic figures of rapacious enterprise, with larger-than-life images worthy of marble busts.

Yet Cuban’s image has a rumpled, contemporary sheen, the rich dude you play hoops with, despite his 6-foot-3-inch frame and bumptious will to win. He’s famed for having a mouth as big as his bank book.

He seeks what he has not yet conquered. He keeps a list of goals in his head. It’s his “No (Expletive) Way” list, the passionate man’s declaration of intent. He’s acted in two obscure B movies. He’s had two TV shows, “The Benefactor” on ABC and “The Mark Cuban Show” on the UPN affiliate in Dallas. He’s writing a screenplay. He wants to write a book. He just signed with Sirius Satellite Radio for his own Sunday talk show, “Mark Cuban’s Radio Maverick,” which begins this summer.

If such a list denotes an appetite for life, then Cuban is very hungry.

“Im starved,” says Cuban.

It’s lunchtime, but, caught in his own whirl, he grabs a Monster Energy drink in a tall black can and two shiny-wrapped PowerBars.

“They’re good because they’re crunchy,” he says. Within minutes they are gone.

He buys the food at a hotel gift shop. Health consciousness, with velocity. Fact: What the 428th richest person in the world eats most are tuna sandwiches from 7-Eleven.

Cuban is relaxed in denim, Reeboks and a blue-striped oxford, unbuttoned at the top, revealing salt-and-pepper chest hair that’s been shaved at the neckline. A chain with a tag bearing his daughter’s name fits his neck. Cuban is allergic to some metals, so the chain, like his wedding band, is platinum. Otherwise, he says, “I turn green.”

He looks too big for his chair, the way tall men can, but he’s an amiable, cheery giant. When some guys recognize Cuban, they exchange comradely words.

His smile shows two worlds of teeth: The top is a white, media-genic rampart. The bottom is yellowed and jumbled, a tornado-whipped picket fence.

Cuban’s reputation for outspoken petulance trails him, and when he’s confronted with adjectives commonly thrown his way — brash, loud, outsized, hotheaded — he coolly replies, “Draw your own conclusions.”

He blames media laziness for typecasting him as the unruly bad boy. “It’s easy. You see me being a fan at a Mavs game, so you assume that’s me 24-7,” Cuban says.

His defenders consider him a galvanic asset to professional basketball, “shaking up some inertia that needed to be shaken up,” says Chuck Cooperstein, the radio play-by-play voice of the Mavericks on ESPN 103.3. With his festive marketing sense, Cuban has pulled new fans into the seats, “his greatest contribution,” says Cooperstein, who calls him “complex, yet very, very basic.”

Perhaps it requires a Mark Cuban figure, juvenile antics and all, to get things done, even if it means berating NBA officials until they take note.

“The officials are a lot better now than they were when Mark first took over,” Cooperstein says. “And he continues to fight. Sometimes he goes a little overboard, but it’s only because he sees himself doing the best entertainment product imaginable. He does it out of passion, not malice.”

On his blog, blogmaverick.com, Cuban opines through a cyber megaphone. It’s a far-ranging, self-serving soapbox from which he vents pet peeves, plugs his films, advocates naming the Mavericks’ Dirk Nowitzki the NBA’s Most Valuable Player and offers investment tips and corporate critiques.

Insults and name-calling are not unusual, and the blog’s message boards are clogged with back talk. He’s been told that “expressing ‘opinions’ with insults is not intelligent or professional.” He’s been ministered advice: “You are too emotional. I think you need to take a meditation class.”

“I have an opinion, and I’ll share it,” Cuban says. “But I’m not out to change anybody’s mind or elicit any type of response or position. I is what I is.” He shrugs.

Suddenly, the Kinks’ “Lola” plays in the hotel bar.

“I love this song,” he says.

Cuban’s entrepreneurial streak materialized early, with ardor. Growing up middle class and blue collar in Pittsburgh — “You had to go to work six days a week” — Cuban heeded the work ethic of his father, who upholstered car seats.

“He always wanted to instill in me that you can try anything, but you’ve got to be able to take care of yourself,” Cuban recalls. “Tennis shoes or whatever I wanted to buy, if it wasn’t a necessity you had to earn the money yourself. When you have a job, he’d say, then you can buy it and make that decision.

“I said, ‘Tell me what I can do.’ ’’

At age 12, Cuban sold garbage bags door to door, boxes of 100 for $6. “Who’s going to say no to a kid? Everybody needs garbage bags,” Cuban says. Later, he sold powdered milk.

In high school, he was a “better than average” student who would hole up in the library. “I was the heavy kid who wore glasses,” says Cuban, whose Russian Jewish grandparents changed the family name from Chopininski when they came to America.

He taught disco dancing lessons at sororities for $25 an hour and started a chain letter to help pay for tuition at the University of Indiana, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in business.

“I was just having fun and being opportunistic,” Cuban says of his collegiate money-making schemes. “Most people look at the line in front of them and will never cross it. When I see the line, I’m always looking to step over it and see what’s on the other side. That creates opportunity.”

After college, Cuban founded the computer consulting firm MicroSolutions, which eventually brought in $30 million a year. He sold it to CompuServe for a hefty sum in the early 1990s. Aware he would never have to work again, Cuban chased a dream, moving to Hollywood, taking acting classes and co-starring in a pair of micro-budget pictures. In “Talking About Sex” — a movie so embarrassing, he jokes that he’s bought up every copy — he plays a character named Macho Mark. In the action flick “Lost at Sea” he’s listed as “Villain.”

“Acting,” he says, “is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

Then came the mother lode. In 1995, back in Dallas, Cuban and partner Todd Wagner created Broadcast.com, a multimedia behemoth providing streaming audio and video of live radio, television and sporting events. They sold the company to Yahoo for $5.7 billion in 1999, making Cuban instantly and imperturbably rich. Through all of it, Cuban, a man with no shortage of self-esteem, says he’s kept his head on.

“I’ve just been who I am,” he says. “I liked myself before I made a lot of money. I had fun before I made a lot of money. I didn’t see any reason to change who I was because I made a lot of money. I didn’t want to be defined by my bank account.”

Wouldn’t it be fun to own a basketball team? Think of Cuban as a superfan of the home team who just happens to have the means to buy it. It’s sort of like buying the band U2 so they could play in your living room every night.

But Cuban wants more than entertainment. He wants the proprietary rush of ownership, and he wants to hammer into shape an NBA franchise with a grim record. He buys the Mavericks in 2000. He gets the players new uniforms and promotes team pride, partly by his effusive exhibitions in the stands. The team gets better. The Mavericks enjoy a franchise record of 60 wins in the 2002-03 season, reach the first round of the NBA playoffs in the 2003-04 season, lose in the second round in 2004-05 and will take on San Antonio in Game 7 of the conference semifinals on Monday.

Now he wants to make watching movies better. His love of high-definition television led him to found HDNet Films, which runs two high-definition networks, HDNet and HDNet Movies. He and Wagner then started 2929 Entertainment, a vertically integrated media company that covers film development and production on down to distribution and exhibition. HDNet Films produced the Oscar-nominated documentary “Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” and 2929 produced titles such as “Akeelah and the Bee” and the Oscar-winning drama “Good Night, and Good Luck.” They also own movie distributor Magnolia Films, which maintains an office in Austin, and Landmark Theaters, the largest arthouse chain in the country, which runs the Dobie.

In a significant media experiment, Cuban and Wagner have introduced a new mode of distributing low-budget movies, such as Steven Soderbergh’s “Bubble,” with what is called “day and date” release, in which DVDs for a title go on sale and air on HDNet Movies the same day the film opens in theaters. (“Bubble,” which ran briefly at the Dobie in February, did poorly, grossing less than $200,000 on 32 screens nationwide. Cuban won’t reveal DVD sales for the movie, saying that they were healthy and the $1.7 million film easily turned a profit.)

Cuban contends, “We’re not trying to revolutionize anything,” yet the idea has been blasted by some observers as a threat to ticket sales and deemed intriguingly radical by others.

As things change rapidly in film distribution, “I don’t know if (Cuban’s) model will prevail,” says John Pierson, film producer and financier and a film lecturer at the University of Texas. Pierson’s film class helped get a distribution deal for the thriller “Cavite,” which Truly Indie, another distribution arm of 2929, is showing in Landmark venues.

With DVDs being released as soon as two to four months after a film’s theatrical release, Pierson says, the window between the theater and the video store “is collapsing anyway.”

This is the future, according to Cuban. Movie production and distribution must be driven by the latest technology, which today is quick-turnaround digital, from shooting movies on affordable high-definition video to releasing them promptly into theaters, on DVD and on high-definition TV. Simultaneous releases won’t hurt theaters, he says, because people still want to see movies on the big screen.

“There’s an analogy with sports,” Cuban told Advertising Age. “The more you put games on TV, the more people go to games. It’s a different experience.”

Sudden wealth can do strange things to people. Look at headline-making lottery winners, or Lindsay Lohan. Cuban will have none of it.

The money “wasn’t always there. I’m not any happier. It just makes things easier,” Cuban says.

By all accounts, his wife and child have mellowed the man, if slightly. Each day Cuban wakes up about 7 a.m. to Alexis’ piercing “Daaaadeeee!” If possible, he has breakfast with the family, then heads to his home office, where he runs all of his businesses at two computers. To unwind, he plays basketball and rugby, treads the StairMaster and reads.

It’s peaceful next to his public life.

Cuban knows he gets slammed for the antics and words that have taken on so much more heft now that he’s wealthy. He knows he’ll hear more of it the more he puts himself on the line with the latest endeavor.

“I don’t care about the criticism. I care about doing the things that I want to challenge myself with,” he says. “Twenty years from now, how am I going to feel about not having tried something versus somebody giving me a hard time? You think I care if somebody gives me a hard time? I’d rather be able to look at myself in the mirror and say I did it.”

Even if he doesn’t cross off everything on his list, leaving summits untouched, what of it? He’s content already.

“When I die,” Cuban says, “I want to come back as me.”

Sidebar:
Mark Cuban
Born: July 31, 1958, in Pittsburgh
Net worth: $1.8 billion
Number of jets he owns: 1
Number of cars he owns: 3
Number of televisions he owns: 8
Favorite book: ‘The Fountainhead’ by Ayn Rand. ‘It’s about the strength of the individual, of a person’s spirit,’ he says. ‘You define yourself by yourself, not how other people see you.’
Favorite movies: ‘American Beauty,’ ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and anything made or distributed by his film ventures, including ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ and ‘Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.’
Politics: ‘Independent, leaning to libertarian. I vote for the candidate who I think will do the least. ‘

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