Momentum Building

Success Isn’t Accidental

A movie has an extraordinary value proposition: If you give us 30 seconds of your attention, which is the average length of a television commercial, we will make such a compelling argument that in a couple of weeks you will give us two hours of your time and also some of your money.

This doesn’t just happen. Our techniques in the movie business create success that isn’t accidental, and can provide useful tools for your business, no matter what industry you are in.

We have one objective: to get as many people as possible into the cinema on opening day. It is a lot like launching any product, service or retail sale. Apple builds up enormous momentum in advance of releasing each new iPhone, to the extent that people line up for hours on the first day they can get it. New web apps create buzz and far in advance, in the hopes that at the moment of release many people will download them, moving the app into the “must have” category. In the retail market, stores create massive momentum leading up to Diwali and Public Holiday Sales, because they know if the store is crowded when it opens, sales for the day will be strong.

Films are the same.

For a movie, a full house creates critical mass and spreads word-of-mouth like wildfire, because movies play better when they are screened for large audiences. There’s something about being in a big group of people, all having the same experience in unison: it makes the experience stronger. And sells more tickets in the long run.

How do we do it?

The first thing we realize, on any film or enterprise, is that there is much we do not control. In the movie business, we cannot control the weather, the other movies opening on the same day, or what critics say. Therefore, we focus on what we can control. It takes advance planning.

A major motion picture starts planning three years ahead, which is when we set our opening date. (In fact, some movies now plan even farther ahead; Disney had announced a Star Wars movie for summer, 2019!) This is a first communication with our audience, and it gives them plenty of time to start getting ready for our big premiere.

Then, often before we start shooting, we start doing test marketing. We use research companies to find out who the most likely audience will be, and how they will feel about the concept of the movie and its stars. We use the information to craft the marketing campaign and to shape the finished movie. For example, if we find that audiences really like an actor who’s in a supporting role, we might emphasize that character. If we discover that women under 25 years will be more interested in the movie than men over 30 years, we’ll start to design messaging specifically for this target audience group.

Over the course of the next two years, we will keep up a steady drumbeat of messaging—teaser trailers and posters, social media and publicity, news “events” and paid commercials. As we get closer to our opening day, the tempo increases from, shall we say, a waltz to a double-time march. If we have done our jobs right, fans are lining up on opening day, and the cinema sells out.

Our success at building momentum depends, of course, on having a good movie to sell, and nothing takes the place of excellence. You can’t break trust with your audience by promising one thing and delivering another. When the combination works—a great movie coupled with a great, momentum-building campaign—the result is non-accidental box office success.

You can use this same approach in any business you are managing. Plan your launch far in advance, and begin market-testing right away. Listen to what the testing tells you—have “big ears” and keep your ego out of the way, because the audience will tell you who they are, how they like to be communicated with, and what they want. Then build a calendar of creative messaging that gets bigger, bolder and faster as you approach your launch day. You’ll have your momentum. Now all you have to do, and it is no small thing, is exceed what your audience is expecting.

The Power Paradox In Leadership

In leadership, just because you have the power, does not mean you should use it. And even when you don’t have the power, sometimes you must act as though you do

As a CEO, how should you exercise your power of leadership? Should you govern by consensus? Make people tremble in fear? Be tough but fair?

We confront the same questions every day in Hollywood when we’re working on movies, because each movie is its own start-up entrepreneurial venture—we craft the business plan (the script), hire a bunch of people, and then make the product (the movie). Along the way, those of us who finance films and run studios need to decide what kind of leaders we are and what kind of power we will wield.

This issue comes into play at every step in the process, and nowhere more so than at the end, when we have to decide how the movie will be finished. We call that “final cut.” The “final cut” is the final version of a film, the moment where we stop tinkering with it and say it’s done. It’s also a moment where emotions can run high, because most of the time the director does not have “final cut”—that power is reserved for the motion picture studio or financial investors. While I know this seems strange to people in many other parts of the world, the United States has no tradition of droit morale or “moral rights” given to creators of intellectual property. If someone else is paying the bills, everything, even a movie, is a “work for hire,” which means the filmmaker, in the last days of a movie, holds precious little power.

On one film I supervised, our studio found the ending unsatisfying. We had an instinct, borne of our experience, that if the ending were better—in fact, if the last two scenes were reversed—audiences would leave the movie much more up-beat, which would translate into better word-of-mouth and more ticket sales in the future. The director didn’t want to make the change. She liked the ending the way it was, but she agreed to a test, so one Sunday afternoon we went to a cinema and screened two versions of the movie in adjacent rooms for test audiences. The versions were the same except that two scenes at the end were in a different order. After the screening, a research company did an audience survey, and it turned out we were right: the version with our ending had a higher approval rating.

You’d think that would be the end of the story. We, the studio, had “final cut,” and the director didn’t. But, even with the audience results in hand, she didn’t want to budge. She made an artistic plea, stating that the film was simply a better film with her ending, and that we should support quality and artistic integrity.

That evening, we executives at the studio caucused among ourselves. We reached a surprising decision—we agreed to let her keep her ending. We had done our job, and showed her that a different, more commercial ending was possible. She had done her job, and fought back to preserve her vision. Why did we make the decision as we did? Because, at the end of the day, we recognised that our role was to be financiers, not movie-directors, and even though we had the power to change the movie, it would overstep our role and imperil our relationship with this director and other directors we may work with in the future.

The outcome of that film was an even further surprise, because its box office turned out to be double our expectations. The director had been right all along; the audience appreciated her mark of quality.

Then I worked on another film with the opposite result. This time, we had engaged an extremely powerful director, one of the few who commanded the power of “final cut” himself. When we screened the film for a test audience, it tested poorly. The fixes were obvious to all of us, including the director. But he knew the film’s star would not want to go along, and this director told us, in confidence, that the only way to get the changes made would be if we played a charade, so he could claim we were forcing him. Here, too, we played our role, and he played his. The film got changed and became a moderate success.

What’s the lesson of these two stories, and what does it tell you about the kind of leadership that you should practice? Think of it as the Power Paradox. Just because you have the power, does not mean you should use it. And even when you don’t have the power, sometimes you must act as though you do.