(Illustration by Gary Baseman)

Looking back, the truest sign that then-Vivendi Universal honcho Jean-Marie Messier was toast may have come when he showed up for a public forum at the Beverly Hilton two years ago with Viacom Chief Executive Sumner Redstone and other entertainment industry power players, and he wasn't wearing a necktie. The accepted sartorial style for Eurobusiness potentates is, after all, buttoned-up, highly starched, primary colors formality with all the accoutrements — forget the pocket square and you might as well be naked. On that occasion, Messier had on a shrimp-colored open-necked shirt under his charcoal gray suit. But that affront to taste was just one sign that yet another outsider had gone Hollywood. He had gotten slimmer too, and radiated a healthy tan even in photos.

Little did he know that he was headed for that nearly inevitable fate, the one that has befallen scores of interlopers who've dared to become moguls in that alluring but inscrutable culture known as the motion picture industry: Messier was about to be spanked by Hollywood.

"We don't go for strangers," spoke one of F. Scott Fitzgerald's characters in the writer's final, unfinished Hollywood novel. But he didn't get it completely right. The Industry likes interlopers just fine—as long as they empty their wallets and don't overstay their welcome. That scenario has been repeated in Hollywood almost as often as the two-unlikely-cops-become-wisecracking-crime-fightin'-buddies action thriller. An outsider, flush with success in some other industry or bankrolled by a family fortune, bursts onto the scene with dreams of becoming the next Louis B. Mayer, only to slink away a year or three later in ignominious defeat. The most recent, high-profile examples—Messier and Edgar Bronfman Jr., the Seagram heir whose Hollywood ambitions were intertwined with Vivendi's—are only the latest in a series that goes back to the early days of Hollywood, when sharpies such as William Randolph Hearst and Joe Kennedy came West to get their pockets picked.

Since then, scores of other West Coast carpetbaggers have met with varying degrees of failure—old-line industrialists, Wall Street financiers, insurance conglomerates and corporate raiders, New Economy wunderkinds from this country, plus Dutch, Japanese, British, Italian and Israeli hopefuls. The recent news that Comcast, the Philadelphia-based cable-TV giant, may make a hostile bid for Walt Disney Co. raises the possibility that Hollywood may welcome yet another outsider and would-be mogul—Comcast Chief Executive Brian L. Roberts, a publicity-shy, squash-playing scion of a family that amassed its wealth by making belts. But with few exceptions, such as Australian media baron Rupert Murdoch, the movie industry has chewed up and spit out newcomers like hunks of Morton's prime-cut steak.

Why do all these powerful, wealthy alpha males venture out of their comfy enclaves and plunge into an utterly unfamiliar, notoriously Byzantine business that they often approach with distain and condescension? What sort of mass-induced hypnotic state convinces a German investor, for example, that it's a sensible idea to sink millions into a film homage to L. Ron Hubbard's "Battlefield Earth"? Or an otherwise adroit telecommunications mogul into putting his name in the credits of an unnecessary remake of "Around the World in Eighty Days"? Is there some sort of semiotic explanation for why otherwise astute people from another culture—whether it's Amsterdam or Peoria—get hopelessly tangled up in movie industry lingo and end up mumbling about "synergy" after that disastrous first-cut screening?

To truly understand why would-be moguls mostly fail, we must look past the conventional explanations and into the realms of behavioral psychology and anthropology. It also helps to understand a bit about chaos theory.

The film industry is so notoriously hard to crack that there's a rich literary genre on the subject—ranging from "Final Cut" (Steven Bach's account of Transamerica's disastrous stewardship of United Artists in the 1960s and 1970s) to "Out of Focus" (Charles Kipps' account of David Puttnam's brief tenure as head of Coca Cola-owned Columbia in the late 1980s) to innumerable fly-on-the-wall exposés of the tribulations of Bronfman and others. Similarly, the precise strategic mistakes of the Matsushitas, PolyGrams and JVCs have been dissected and number-crunched by savvy business journalists in the Wall Street Journal, Variety and other business publications. Yet the mountain of bleached bones does little to deter the next wave of wannabe moguls, simply because the one enduring truth about all this is that we're dealing with human nature, not logic.

"Outsiders who've been very successful and made a lot of money rightly think they're smarter than the average person and perhaps even somewhat creative," explains Roderick Kramer, a onetime Hollywood script reader who is a professor of organizational behavior at Stanford University's graduate business school, where he also teaches a course on the movie industry for MBA students. "They want to believe they can translate that experience and power into success in Hollywood."

Unfortunately, the world's dream factory, by its very nature, doesn't quite work that way. And it could be that even the business world's richest and smartest minds are helpless to resist a fate that may be determined, in part, by our genes.

Syracuse University evolutionary psychologist John Marshall Townsend suggests that would-be moguls may be driven metaphorically—and sometimes literally, in the cases of Joe Kennedy and Howard Hughes—by the same urges as male bulls: the biological imperative to dominate and procreate. "You're talking about the place where there are the most desirable women in the world," says Townsend, who has studied the sexual behavior of powerful males. "Couple that with the fact that male attractiveness doesn't matter in the subculture—you can look like the Elephant Man if you have enough power. The problem is that the cows are encircled by the bulls who already are in the herd. You've got to get past them."

Daniel Fessler, an assistant professor of anthropology at UCLA, notes that Hollywood in many ways functions as a classic ethnic group. "Essentially, the movie business is a culture of its own in which members use common behavioral markers—their style of dress, various decorations, a distinctive dialect and so on. What these markers are telling you is that another person shares the same values and cultural understandings and expectations of what is appropriate. An out-group female may be allowed in, because from an evolutionary perspective the in-group males stand to benefit from the opportunity to mate. But an out-group male is merely a competitor for resources."

Instead of locking horns like real bulls, the in-group may resort to trickery and exploitation. "The in-group members may look at the outsider and think, 'I'm not going to have reciprocal relations with this person in the future, because he's not going to be allowed to stay.' So instead they go after whatever he's got that's of value."

The idea of biology as destiny might seem odd in a culture where so many conspicuous body parts are fake, and Viagra is dispensed like Pez. But that theory neatly meshes with Roderick Kramer's field of organizational behavior, which studies the motivation, decision-making, uses of power and other things that people do inside businesses, and crosses into the realms of psychology and economics. Kramer sees Hollywood as a series of interlocking networks, composed of various combinations of movie potentates who started together in the proverbial mailroom and clawed their way to the top. Because they didn't kill one another in the process, they form alliances that last—and are almost impenetrable from the outside.

"The most important thing is [your] knowledge base, the contacts that give you 'reputational capital,' " Kramer says. "That's what gets you in. An outsider has a lot of trouble breaking into that kind of network, because outside money and power aren't going to trump those connections. They don't really have time for you. The ones who are willing to let you into a network are the ones who are less reliable, the ones who are out to take advantage. Because the only thing an outsider brings to the network is money—while he still has it."

Of course, the playing field is hardly level for newcomers to the game. Neophyte actors and screenwriters can rely on books such as Fran Harris' "Crashing Hollywood: How to Keep Your Integrity Up, Your Clothes On & Still Make It in Hollywood." But nobody has written a cautionary how-to manual for, say, an oversexed, middle-aged Italian financier who fantasizes about running a movie studio. And seductive illusion is, after all, Hollywood's stock in trade.

"When Europeans fail in Hollywood, they always blame it on the superficial culture," says French anthropologist G. Clotaire Rapaille, who lived in Hollywood for eight years and has known his share of washouts. "They say, 'Everything there is fake!' I say, no, the problem is that everything in Hollywood is real fake. It's so believable that you can't help but be fooled, even if you know better. When I'd go to the studios, I'd see fake antiques that were made as props. They looked so good that I wanted to buy them. It's the same with the deals."

But just as movie viewers suspend disbelief when they gaze on the digitally generated Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, the seduction of would-be moguls entails self-deception. Some have show business in their blood—such as Bronfman, who as an adolescent persuaded his father to invest $450,000 in an obscure British teen movie so he could work as a gofer in the production. Others, such as Sony co-founder Akio Morita, have found themselves seduced by the idea of being at the controls of the Hollywood dream machine. In his book "Sony: The Private Life," Japanese-speaking author John Nathan details an August 1989 meeting at which Morita announced that he was abandoning his proposal to acquire Columbia Pictures because the price was too steep. "It's too bad," he reportedly lamented to his top aides. "I've always dreamed of owning a Hollywood studio."

But Morita's underlings, showing a loyalty unknown in Hollywood itself, didn't want to see their elderly patriarch disappointed, and the next day the group reconvened and decided to buy the studio. They ultimately had to pay an exorbitant $3.2 billion and assume an additional $1.6 billion in debt. Sony was further seduced into hiring two Hollywood insiders, Peter Guber and Jon Peters, to run the place. After a string of flops in the early 1990s, it cost Sony $250 million in production deals and money to ease them out. (Sony persevered, and in recent years, with megahits such as "Spider-Man," which brought in an estimated $500-million profit, the studio has been considerably more successful.)

"They don't do the same sort of traditional business analysis that they would if they were entering, say, the machine-tool business," says Dartmouth College business school professor Sydney Finkelstein, author of the book "Why Smart Executives Fail." "Then again, when you're making machine tools, you're not seduced by the idea of sitting in the audience with a bunch of movie stars at the Academy Awards. Instead, you get seduced by the glamour and it screws you up"—even someone as astute in business as Morita.