Leadership Tips From A Legendary Hollywood Filmmaker

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Photo: Pixabay/Unsplash

What leadership lessons can we learn from a legendary Hollywood movie maker?

Imagine that instead of managing your six team members in a nice, climate-controlled office, you were leading a recently assembled team of a hundred people, managing a $65 million budget, working in extreme weather and dealing with some of the biggest egos on the planet. Oh, and you have to jump a car across an open drawbridge by the end of the day.

That’s just a typical day shooting major motion pictures for Tom Reilly. As a director, producer, and production manager, Tom has worked on over 100 films in his 30-year career. He's worked for every major studio, including 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Disney and others. He's also worked with top actors including Al Pacino, Robert De Niro, Tom Hanks, and Harrison Ford. His new book is The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business.

I recently interviewed Tom to get his advice on leadership and management (the transcript below has been edited lightly for space and clarity).

Kevin Kruse: Tell us about what it's like to be a manager when you're producing a major film.

Tom Reilly: When I did a film called “City By The Sea” with Robert De Niro and James Franco, we had six weeks of night shooting, for example. That meant that the crew had to go to work outside, starting work at 4 o'clock in the afternoon and shooting until sunrise everyday through January and February. On top of this, I was on the Jersey Shore, on the waterfront, so we had wind chills that were probably close to zero, constant moisture coming off the ocean.

These are extremely difficult working conditions, but not only just for the 100 or so people that are making the movie, but also for the actors I mentioned who are in front of the camera and unfortunately they couldn't be dressed in all this goose down and the heavy gear that we have because their costumes were t-shirts or thin jackets, that sort of thing. There's a certain amount of suffering that goes on, and from a managerial perspective to get through that, you really have to motivate your crew, you really have to be onboard with protocols and the proper way to treat the creative people, which are the actors and the director, so that they can get the best performances possible, and you have to do everything as efficiently as you can because the conditions are grueling, and you still have to do a full day's work.

And then conversely, I talk in the beginning of the book about shooting in the everglades in “Just Cause,” the film Arne Glimcher directed with Sean Connery and Kate Capshaw, and we were up in the everglades in 110 degree heat and there were hundreds of alligators and water moccasins and spiders and fire ants and all that sort of thing, so we had to figure out how to, again, motivate our crew to be able to work efficiently, bring equipment in, light the scenes, keep it safe, and get the best performances we could out of our cast.

Kevin Kruse: What is the Oscar Effect?

Tom Reilly: Well, what we noticed is that in the film business, we're kind of unique because people work very hard and we built within the system, there's a lot of self-motivation. In the book, I mentioned I think I was doing a film in Providence, and I came out from dinner and it was 10 o'clock at night and I noticed the lights were on in the building, where office was, up in the seventh floor, and I determined where the costume department was, so the wardrobe crew was working late at night. Nobody told them to do it, they weren't getting paid overtime, and they were just doing it.

I got to thinking, “What is motivating them to do this?” One of the things is instilled within the business is a great degree of responsibility. Another thing is that we have a lot of public recognition and public display. What we do is very public on the set because everybody's individual task is observed and affects what other crews and departments are doing. Additionally, we have on a macro sense, real public exposure because what we do is seen on television, seen on movie theaters, and we're also rewarded because people get Academy awards, and they get Golden Globe awards, and if you're working for the department head that gets that award, it means you get more work.

We're very much a gig economy where after we finish one movie, we need another job to go to another movie, so your reputation is very important and that's part of what's built into it. We seem to be able to build accountability for your job and pride in your work, we're able to offer people growth experiences so it's not very humdrum. Every film is a different challenge in many ways, and there's some form of public recognition, and I think all of those factors, I've observed, helps to motivate the crew and the workers. This is across all departments and all levels, so it's an interesting factor and I think it's very much these are tenets that can be adapted to other businesses where you can instill different things to motivate your workforce or your crew or your office staff or whomever to improve and up the pace and take more pride and ultimately, they're more engaged.

Kevin Kruse: You talk about building equity with team members…what do you mean?

Tom Reilly: Well, I think a lot has to do with exposure. Before I decided it would be okay to have that actress take an extra day on the weekend, I had to really think about where we would be if there was a snowstorm and her plane was stuck somewhere and she couldn't get in. It can have a big effect because scheduling in our business is dependent on so many other things. Sometimes we might want to go to another set but we haven't built it yet, so there's only a finite number of places we can go, there's only a finite number of people that may be available for scenes, but in looking at it and determining that, “Yes, I could give this actress the extra day off and if she got stuck, there's several other scenes we could do for a few more days,” we probably weren't exposed financially.

If we were exposed in any way, I would have said, “We really shouldn't do this,” but I find that by doing that she's happy, she's appreciative, and she was saying like, “If you let me do this, it's anything you want. Bring me in at 3 in the morning, I don't care.”

Kevin Kruse: What's one specific thing our readers and listeners could try out today to become a better leader or manager?

Tom Reilly: I would have them start processing their decisions by using what I call the “hard corner approach” in the book. It's almost like a jigsaw puzzle and what you do is you ask yourself, “What is my end goal?” As soon as you can isolate that, and often for me it's just to get a day's work done no matter what, then decisions instantly become a lot easier. The hard corner approach applies in any other businesses and life situations, as well. For instance, if you had a grocery store and your hard corner was the customer's always right, that simple directive streamlines a whole lot of decisions and policies and responses, or if your hard corner was your family taking a vacation, your hard corner might be, “I want to go play golf and I'm bringing the kids,” or the hard corner might be, “I want to make sure the kids have fun,” so that would mean maybe you're going to Disney World as opposed to a country club.

If I'm doing “Sabrina,” a film I did with Sydney Pollack and Harrison Ford, it seemed overwhelming. It was a 65-million-dollar movie with a lot of things going on, but we shot in New York and Martha's Vineyard and in Paris, France. Automatically, I had some hard corners. I could now make three movies. One was a New York movie, one was a movie in Martha's Vineyard, and one was a separate film in France.

It really streamlined my decision making process because I had certain parameters that were immovable. If your listeners want to take the hard corner approach to analyzing problems and trying to think about how to make decisions after eliminating as many things as you can, I think it'll help them move forward more quickly.

Click here to listen to the full interview with Tom Reilly.

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Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.