Though most of Guber's 90-odd stories (notably those about Alice Walker, Mikhail Gorbachev, Magic Johnson and Wolfgang Puck) feature similar uplift, a few are downright chilling. In 1991, for example, when Guber headed Sony Pictures and Michael Jackson had a $65 million recording contract with Sony, Jackson was lobbying the company to let him branch out into movies. To find out what Jackson understood about the craft of telling stories — the lifeblood of movies — Guber went to visit him at his home in Encino.
As Guber recalls the meeting, he never had to pose the question. Jackson began by acknowledging that in both film and music "you have to know where the drama is and how to present it."
Guber narrates: "He gave me a long, intense stare and abruptly stood up. 'Let me show you.' "
Jackson led the studio head upstairs to a huge glass terrarium outside the recording star's bedroom and announced: "This is Muscles."
"Inside, a massive snake was coiled around a tree branch," Guber writes. "His head was tracking something in the opposite corner of the terrarium. Michael pointed with his finger at the object of Muscles' obsession: A little white mouse was trying to hide behind a pile of wood shavings. I said hopefully, 'Are they friends?' "
Jackson answered Guber's question with another: "Do they look it?"
The pop star then explained that the snake not only preferred live mice to dead ones but enjoyed instilling fear in them. "First he uses fear to get the mouse's attention," said the Gloved One, "then he waits, building tension. Finally, when the mouse is so terrified it can't move, Muscles will close in."
"That snake had the attention of that mouse," Guber recollects, "and that mouse had the attention of that snake — and Michael Jackson had my attention. 'That's drama,' he said."
Rattled by the episode, Guber was forced to acknowledge that his bizarre host had a complete mastery of dramatic impact.
Like that anecdote, Guber's book is as entertaining as it is instructive. And though readers leave this 255-page pitch meeting suspecting that many additional skills must be required to run a film studio or a sports franchise, Tell to Win is a stirring demonstration of the crucial human art form of relating a story that lingers in the imagination.
Antony Shugaar, a freelancer writer and translator in Charlottesville, Va., is a partner in Lightbox Press.