13 May 2016

Leadership lessons from hipster central


According to one estimate there are about 11,000 business books published every year. Many sell well and some sell millions: business advice is very big business. Companies and entrepreneurs – the active ingredients of capitalism – seem to be weirdly desperate to find out how to operate the machinery of capitalism. Leadership, teamwork and organizing are all in the mix, but what they really want to know usually boils down to this: how do you run an efficient organization?

The search for answers can take people to strange places. Space exploration, zen psychology, chaos theory, you can have your pick of these and more. But maybe you don’t have to range quite so exotically to work out how run things lean and manage people for maximum effect. One real place where business leaders could do a lot worse than spend some time is on a low-budget independent film set.

I’m speaking from some experience. It happens that my pal Tracey is that fabled thing, a TV and film producer. True, plenty of people call themselves producers but Tracey is the real thing, with a long list of mainstream UK broadcast credits and two feature films on her CV. My first thought when I heard about her upcoming low-budget feature was: how much can I afford to invest? No vast sum was the answer, but since there are many FTSE 100 companies that have considerably less compelling investment stories than Tracey’s modern techno-thriller, I just went ahead anyway and wrote my modest cheque.

Did I expect to make a profit? Kind of. We’ll come on to that.

Most people who have not been inducted into the world of indie film production probably have a standard set of preconceptions about how things work. You might imagine a colourful crew of dreamers and hangers-on drifting in and out of the proceedings according to mood. You might suppose that things either happen or they don’t, depending. You might think that parties play a leading role. You could be forgiven for thinking that art comes first, second and third, with budgets and deadlines a long way behind.

You would certainly have to be forgiven for thinking all that, because the truth is very different. What you actually will find on a typical low-budget UK film production is more likely to be a fearsomely efficient business machine, one where planning and budget control are meticulous, where teamwork is outstanding, where expectations are very high and where organisational politics are largely absent. It looks remarkably like the perfect management model.

It helps that the indie film business is competitive to the nth degree, despite being very poorly paid. Anyone on the team can be replaced in the blink of a camera shutter, something that tends to concentrate the mind when it comes to delivering in the workplace. But is this so very different from other jobs today? Just about any job worth doing has a queue of applicants who are ready and willing to do what you do, only cheaper.

Typically the film set brings together a lot of very disparate talents. Everyone is a specialist in something; everyone has got where they are by being rather good at what they do, and being good at what you do is dependent on the next person in the chain being just as good. The composite performance is everything. There is a lesson there for companies trying to organise teamwork, and the lesson is that high performers don’t really need to be organised, they organise themselves. Spend your time on team selection, the organisation will take care of itself.

You will also notice (as you are sitting there under the lights, doing your investor duty as an anonymous extra somewhere in the out-of-focus background) that planning and time management are absolutely critical. ‘Low-budget’ means you are on a very tight diary. Schedules are short and the workload is concentrated; everyone has to be in the right place at the right time, or else. There is no prima donna-ish behaviour (there is no time), there are no interminable business meetings (there is no time), and no politics (you guessed it – no time).

But none of this works without one crucial business component, and that is leadership. On a film production the leader is usually not the director, but the producer. The producer’s door is where the buck stops on planning, budgets, organisation, and problem-solving. A good producer does not lead by telling people what to do, but by example – by being the first person on set and the last to leave. It is not actually necessary for everyone to understand the project – in fact many people on the production will probably know little and care less about the storyline. What is necessary is that the leader knows where it is all going, and leads the way.

A film production is like a pop-up business. It exists on its own terms, in a temporary world where everything is accelerated and intensified. There may not be much here to interest big businesses that are concerned with managing large-scale repetitive operations, where management is by rule and compliance. But there may be lessons for companies engaged in short-term, target-focussed work that requires multi-disciplinary teamwork. And today, this includes most companies.

Which brings us to the bottom line: did we make any money? In a word, no. Our film, good as it was, went straight to DVD and video-on-demand, and failed to generate more than its production cost.

But hey, we were in good and numerous company. A low-budget film is defined by the British Film Institute as a production costing less than £2 million (and our film only cost around a quarter of that). The BFI says that only about 4% of low-budget films make a profit: there is no reliable way of making any film pay, but the best option is to spend a lot more than £2 million, with plenty of the money going on marketing. As with any creative endeavour the chance of a surprise hit is tiny; increasing the money simply reduces the element of surprise.

We learned – or rather re-learned – the lesson that where payback potential is very large, the most likely return is usually zero. If you are not comfortable with a high risk-to-reward ratio then you probably shouldn’t be in this business. But perhaps you shouldn’t be in any business at all.

Richard Walker is a journalist and communications advisor to financial companies.