I have spent three decades running movie sets which has always required me to anticipate and stave off problems on a daily, if not hourly, and even minute-by-minute basis. Of course, not every leadership and management problem is a crisis, although they can often feel that way. But how do you tell the difference?
Here’s how I do it.
Consider which of the situations below you would consider to be a crisis when running a massive motion picture that costs tremendous amounts of money per day to shoot? And why would you consider it a crisis?
A. When you are filming in the Everglades in 110 degree heat, three alligators surface in the water less than thirty feet from where your leading man, Sean Connery, will be standing for the next scene.
B. It’s 3:00 in the morning. You’re filming a stunt sequence for a period film (1952) in a desolate wooded area in Rhode Island and the battery to the antique car you are using dies.
C. When filming a scene in a Manhattan apartment, the three-year-old playing Robert De Niro’s grandson has a temper tantrum of magnitude ten on the Richter scale. So does his twin brother. At the same time.
D. The “smoke effect” being used for a diversion during a car chase literally blows the hood off a car and sends it three stories into the air.
Alligators, dead batteries, screaming kids, explosions… maybe not potential problems in your line of work, but they are in mine. In many businesses including film production, any delay, regardless of whether it’s due to poor planning or unforeseen circumstance, can greatly affect the project’s success. And in my job, it can do so in a very measured way.
On a blockbuster film, every minute counts for many reasons, not the least of which is that what we are doing involves photography, which is light dependent. So even a cloud blocking the sun can cause expensive delays.
So how do I gauge a problem?
First, I use a grading scale from one to ten to assign each situation a value. And what factors determine a “ten” and pending doom? Several. The most important of which is whether or not I have the assets on hand to solve the problem —be it personnel, material, equipment, or money. Another key step is to objectify the problem (as I did when the above situations happened), contain it, and then act to solve it, which in my case means not sacrificing the artistic demands of the project itself.
As for which of the above problems would rate the highest number on my one to ten scale? If you guessed B, you were correct.
Scenario A, as scary as it sounded, was actually a small problem. I was merely being confronted with a safety issue, which I was well prepared for. Knowing that there were lots of alligators in the Everglades, I had set a number of safety precautions in place before we arrived, including having armed “alligator wranglers” on set. In this case, two of the gators swam away and one had to be snared and was removed and relocated to another area. I had anticipated a potential problem and had the assets on hand to take care of it safely.
Scenario D also revolved around a safety issue. The explosive charge used was too strong, but since I always make certain that no actors or extras are in harm’s way, there was no actual danger. And when we shoot hazardous sequences like this we always have fire and police personnel standing by. To lead and manage well, it’s important to surround yourself with experts and have a check and balance system in place.
Scenario C was potentially a time consuming and expensive problem since our “meter” runs at thousands of dollars per hour. Shooting with kids can be difficult; when they need naps, bottles, diapers or a snack, they really don’t care if some director wants to do another take—which is why we try to use identical twins whenever possible. The unique aspect of this case was that both kids went ballistic at the same time. To solve the problem I saw that the kids got bottles and a nap, and broke the crew early for a one-hour lunch. I had no option but to rely on compromise and scheduling flexibility to solve it.
So why does scenario B represent the biggest problem? I mean, we’ve all had dead car batteries to contend with in our lives and they’re generally not a crisis.
I gave it a seven on my problem grading scale specifically because we didn’t have the assets on hand necessary to solve the problem. It was three in the morning, the car was a 1948 Packard, there was no backup battery, and a portable charger couldn’t do the job. Rural area… sunrise in less than two hours… and nowhere to go to get what we needed. Whose fault was it? The answer to that question didn’t matter at that moment. As a leader and manager, I’ve found that placing blame is counterproductive. My problem was that our scene was now compromised artistically. To make the night’s work, we were forced to shoot the sequence in a series of close shots without the desired and suspense building wide angle of the speeding car approaching the victim.
When confronted with a problem, and as a manager and leader I expect to be confronted with problems many times during the course of a day, I assign a number to each and every one. By objectively evaluating each problem and not getting rattled, it eases not only my stress, but also that of the entire crew, as well. The trickle-down effect of a stressed out manager makes for an unpleasant, inefficient work environment as it erodes confidence in management. This approach will save time and money, increase productivity, and earn you the respect of your team as you lead and manage them going forward.
– Tom Reilly is the author of The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business (CLICK HERE to get your copy). For more information please visit tomreillyauthor.com.
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