The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business

The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business

by Tom Reilly


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What would you do if alligators were loose in your office? Or if your place of business changed 80 times during a four month period? What if two of your key employees were infant twins? Or you were asked to manage 130 people who were hired yesterday?

Tom Reilly has faced these obstacles and thousands more in his three-decade career managing major motion pictures. He’s led more than 100,000 employees and been responsible for overseeing over two billion dollars in pro-rated production budgets and learned that successful management isn’t about what you want; the question is, what do you NEED?

Often filming at live locations, Reilly was forced to adopt a unique set of strategies to accommodate for extreme workplace conditions and the challenge of leading and managing big budget projects, a revolving-door workforce of technicians, and actors such as Al Pacino, Robert de Niro, Tom Hanks, Charlize Theron, Sean Connery, and Harrison Ford.

In The Hollywood MBA, Reilly explores the ten key strategies he utilized to manage big crews, big budgets, and big personalities on major motion pictures, and shows us how these strategies can be leveraged in any business for success.

With an eye for making small adjustments to management strategy that produce big results, Reilly utilizes the narrative backdrop of the film set as an extreme case study in modern management identifying proven, easy-to-implement, and often counter intuitive practices that will increase engagement, team cohesion, efficiency, creativity, quality, and the bottom line in any industry.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250099181
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 01/10/2017
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 7.80(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

TOM REILLY has been a professional filmmaker for more than thirty years collaborating on over 100 film and television projects for every major studio. He’s worked with directors Sydney Pollock, Irwin Winkler, Barbra Streisand, and Woody Allen and with more than 75 Academy Award winners.

He is a member of the Director’s Guild of America, a Distinguished Lecturer on Film at Brooklyn College and the Barry R. Feirstein Graduate School of Cinema, and lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt

The Hollywood MBA

A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business

By Tom Reilly

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2016 Tom Reilly
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-250-09919-8



Don't Call Us, We'll Call You

Case Study:

The film The Prince of Tides. Warner Bros. Directed by Barbra Streisand; starring Barbra Streisand, Nick Nolte, and Blythe Danner.

One of the overriding challenges facing anyone running a company or heading up a division or a team — regardless of its size or the specific industry that it's in — is how to improve productivity and efficiency, even incrementally. This is a paramount focus in almost all businesses, but it is of particular concern in industries like film production where minutes matter and dollars add up very quickly and the cost can be high if we miss our marks even by a little. It's also particularly top-of-mind for us because, unlike many other businesses, in filmmaking, we know at the end of any given day whether we are on schedule and on budget, and if we're not, we know how much we are behind or over. That means that finding ways to improve our productivity and efficiency isn't just a top priority; the imperative to do so is staring us right in the face.

A key mistake that managers can make when working in businesses with less visible measures of productivity and efficiency is thinking, If I can't see it, I can't fix it. Or, If I can't see it, it's not happening. And a key insight that they often fail to realize is that these metrics can be improved — often significantly — with small changes in overall management strategies and their day-to-day implementation. To consider a simple example of just how big the impact of a small change in management approach or even a small change in the specific language of a single directive can be, take the cliché line Hollywood casting directors say to actors after an audition or casting call:

"Don't call us, we'll call you."

Those six words do something very powerful, something that any manager can relate to — they save time and improve efficiency.

"Don't call us, we'll call you" instantly takes the power and control away from the actors and gives it to the casting directors.

In other words, they invert control.

Because there will be far fewer incoming (and completely unproductive) phone calls from all the actors who didn't get the part, that statement immediately cuts down on work. And it does so with a single statement.

This concept is so powerful that when computer coders wrote a line of code that essentially did the same thing — inverted control and stopped inefficient contacts within a computer program — the coders jokingly called it the Hollywood principle.

Here's what those computer coders understood:

If they could write lines of computer code that would do what "Don't call us, we'll call you" does — instantly invert control and automate better outcomes — they would have more efficient computer programs.

And here's the best part:

When you find ways to invert control with a single statement like this, you get precisely what you want with very little effort — and this is true whether you are a casting director, a computer coder, or a manager.

Or, to phrase it differently, employing the concept behind inversion of control and the Hollywood principle is a simple way for anyone to improve efficiency and productivity.

Recognizing both the simplicity and the impact of that concept, I asked myself this: What if I took the construct of inversion of control that is embedded in the Hollywood principle and applied it to building a broad system of management that delivered similarly, highly efficient outcomes for all sorts of things?

So as I learned and grew as a manager, as often as I could, I looked to embed broad procedures and coded "commands" that inverted control as they maximized efficiency, productivity, creativity, and innovation as a means to improve outcomes and bolster success — not to mention make my job as a manager easier.

And the results far exceeded what I had hoped for.

In other words, it really worked.

* * *

Let's begin with the simplest of simple examples of the Hollywood principle — or inversion of control — at work on a film set. Say we're shooting on the streets of New York City at rush hour in astough-as- they-get conditions, and over the walkie-talkie I hear a member of my production team say, "Someone go get my laptop bag." As a manager, I know that command will send a minimum of five people (production assistants, or PAs) running back to a motorhome blocks away to retrieve a bag. Since everyone on the team is trying very hard to get recognized for performance, they will all run to get that bag. But being "better" at retrieving a bag in this case is a function of proximity rather than skill — whoever is closer to the bag's location will be the one who retrieves it. So that instruction is, of course, extremely inefficient. I will have at least five team members who have left their positions unmanned, which could be problematic — and since only one person can actually get to the bag first, four of those team members won't accomplish anything. So, "Someone go get my laptop bag" is a line of code — or instruction — that isn't just inefficient, it creates worthless competition, as it also sets us up for potential cascading problems.

Yet, one simple change in that instruction — or code — effectively changes the outcome.

If the production team member had been more specific and said, "Bill, go get my laptop bag," instead of "Someone go get my laptop bag," we instantly improve efficiency and likely, in some immeasurable, incremental way, began to improve our outcomes. That simple change in wording alters the string of events that follow in a way that gives me better control as a manager — I now have four PAs manning their positions and one running for the bag instead of five unmanned positions — and while this may seem trivial, it's not. If the street corners that were supposed to be locked up* by any of those four PAs who are now unnecessarily running for a bag are compromised, it can cost us valuable shooting time. But to understand the real impact, multiply that incremental improvement by the thousands of instructions that we might issue on any given day or on any given project, and you can begin to see a clear route to higher efficiency.

Obviously, this is an incredibly simple example, and yet it demonstrates that as managers issue even mundane instructions, just as computer coders are writing code for software, we are writing code for employees. The idea is to identify the lines of code or instructions that, like "Don't call us, we'll call you," and "Bill, go get my laptop bag," instantly give you as a manager more control and have a positive and systemic structural effect on the functionality of your workforce.

Now take a look at a slightly more complex example of the Hollywood principle or inversion of control.

On the film The Prince of Tides, the director, Barbra Streisand, wanted a visually stunning sequence for the end of the movie that would start with the camera close on Tom Wingo (Nick Nolte) driving along a roadway during sunset outside Beaufort, South Carolina, then expand to encompass a beautiful vista of the low country. To achieve this, we would film a close shot with a tow rig, which would cut to a tight helicopter shot that would widen out to a full shot of the car as the music came up and (in voiceover) Tom professed his love for Susan Lowenstein (played by Barbra). To get the aerial shot, we put a camera crew in a helicopter, and to maintain the highest degree of control and creative freedom (the chopper would be flying too low for safe execution on a live street), we shut down roughly one mile of Route 21, the main road that connects, via the Woods Memorial Bridge, Lady's, Dataw, and St. Helena Islands to the city of Beaufort. Nick would be driving one car, and about a dozen extras would be driving "picture cars" so it would appear that there was a normal amount of traffic on our shut-down roadway as the camera crew in the helicopter filmed him from above.

Before we commenced shooting, Barbra and Stephen Goldblatt (the director of photography) had already briefed the helicopter pilot and camera operator on the intricacies of the shot from a directorial, cinematic, and creative standpoint, and Nick had received direction from Barbra about the nuances of his creative performance. The police had positioned their cruisers to block the entrance ramps to the roadway, diverting all civilian traffic, and I had assigned designated lanes to the dozen or so extras driving the picture cars, as well as the speed at which they should drive and a relative distance to keep from all the other vehicles. And they all had walkies on the seats next to them, as did Nick.

There are a number of potential risks when filming aerial shots in a sequence like this — all of which I had to assess while planning the day's work. For starters, a low-flying helicopter can be unnerving to drivers — the sound of the engine alone will make your lungs vibrate — but I deduced that since the roadway would be closed and the drivers briefed, a complication here was not probable. I also considered the possibility that a civilian driver could wander onto the road and panic at the sight of the low-flying helicopter, but I decided that this was also improbable since we had police cruisers blocking all the entrance ramps up and down the roadway. There was the chance that Nick could have an issue while driving (also unlikely), and since the chopper would be flying extremely low as it tracked along with him, it could potentially get into trouble, too — say, if there was a mechanical problem, a wind gust that buffeted it too close to the ground, or the blades hit the bridge abutment — all of which I judged to be unlikely scenarios in this case, as well. But there was one area where I knew that things could go wrong and where I could preemptively intervene: controlling potentially confusing and distracting communication.

In order for us to easily communicate with each other (because we're often spread out over several hundred yards), on every film set there are dozens of people with walkie-talkies. But once we roll camera on a shot like this, I know that random or confusing communication can be detrimental — if not dangerous. A unique aspect of using a walkie-talkie is that if someone is speaking, it means he or she is pressing down the TALK button, which precludes anyone else (for example, me) from using the radio. So in a shot like this, if someone else is talking and I have a dangerous situation — say, I need to stop a picture car because a civilian is on the roadway or the helicopter is too close to some high-tension wires — I won't be able to warn them until the other person stops talking. And those lost seconds can be life threatening. So, as I always do in these situations, I made the decision that once we were set to go, from the time that I said, "Everybody off the air," to the time that I yelled, "Cut!" for everyone with a walkie-talkie other than me, barring an emergency, it was a listening device only. In other words, I would be the only one communicating over the air (via walkie-talkie with Nick, the drivers, the police, and, on a two-way radio, with the chopper).

That single directive to stay off the air significantly diminished the risk involved in shooting this sequence. And it was the essence of the Hollywood principle — I inverted control with a single command. I effectively said, "Don't call us, I'll call you," and in so doing improved not only the safety of everyone involved but also increased the likelihood that we would get the highest-quality technical and creative performances in the most time- and cost-efficient manner.

In fact, to me — as a manager responsible for the execution of the shot, as well as its creative success and the safety of everyone involved — the benefits of making that decision were numerous. I dramatically diminished the possibility of miscommunication, and by eliminating what could be distracting audio communication, I increased the focus of Nick, the background drivers, chopper pilot, police, and camera crew, and cleared the airways for a quicker response in case there was an emergency and we needed to abort the shot.

When we were ready to go, I instructed all the background drivers to start their cars. I sent the chopper to its first position (hovering about twenty feet above the water parallel to Nick's car), confirmed that Nick was ready, checked with Barbra, locked it up, got clearance from the police that the last civilian car had passed through on the road and that the ramps were blocked, and then yelled, "Roll it!" — which means to turn on the camera, roll sound, and slate the shot. When the pilot confirmed that he was ready, I called, "Action!" Nick took off, the background cars began moving, the helicopter flew parallel to Nick, and the camera crew commenced filming from the low-flying chopper.

The shot went flawlessly. A few moments later, I yelled, "Cut!" The chopper landed, the camera assistant on board handed a video cassette of the footage we had just filmed to a waiting production assistant, I repositioned the cars for take two, and Barbra, Stephen, and I reviewed the tape on a monitor to see if there were adjustments to be made for the next take.

By making the simple, definitive management call to limit communication, I streamlined a complex situation and lowered the risk level for everyone involved. I also improved the likelihood of successful execution of the shot by removing cluttered, confusing communication, thereby increasing focus and concentration — and that meant that there was a better chance that we would be able to get the work in fewer takes, which kept us on schedule and on budget. And I did this with a single command that inverted control. No radio communication other than from me.

Now before you decide that this doesn't pertain to your line of work, consider that distracting communication is not a problem unique to film production.

Far from it.

In fact, to see just how universal this problem can be and how valuable it often is to limit stray and distracting communication, consider that virtually everyone now has a smartphone in his or her pocket. Then consider that employers rate cell phones / texting and the Internet as the largest killers of productivity.

And that distracting communication can do more than derail productivity. In May 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) announced that the 2015 Amtrak crash that killed eight people and injured over two hundred outside of Philadelphia occurred because the engineer failed to reduce his speed when he was distracted by radio communication from another train.

* * *

While the two examples I just gave about the laptop bag and the aerial shot on Prince of Tides are examples of individual, isolated commands that inverted control — "Bill, go get my laptop bag" and "No one on the air but me" — what is even better is when we establish a whole system of management that has embedded structural directives that invoke automatically and will accomplish the same inversion of control without a verbal command at all. Using examples of how this has been done successfully in both film and non-film-related industries — from the restaurant business to ride-share companies like Uber — the following chapters will explain how to do just that.

Why is this so important? Because as managers, we want a system in place so we can achieve the outcomes we want in the most efficient way, and we want that system to automate and be responsive and sensitive so it can adapt quickly in a changing environment. In essence, what we're really striving to do is put a fluid and adaptive system of management in place so that we don't have to try so hard to be so adaptive and responsive ourselves.

What I've learned over the years is this:

If we set out as managers looking for those beautiful lines of code that structurally and systemically change outcomes for the better, those positive outcomes will begin to occur with little effort on our part for the simple reason that better outcomes have been built into the structure of our management directives from the onset.


Excerpted from The Hollywood MBA by Tom Reilly. Copyright © 2016 Tom Reilly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents



Chapter One

Invert Control

Chapter Two

Begin to Build Tensile Strength

Chapter Three

Engineer Epic Trust

Chapter Four

Replicate the “Oscar Effect”

Chapter Five

Accommodate Employees

Chapter Six

Bank “Equity” with Your Labor Force

Chapter Seven

Optimize and Exploit Diversity

Chapter Eight

Find the Hard Corners

Chapter Nine

Adopt a Crisis Management Model

Chapter Ten

Remember to Lead as well as Manage


Making the Jump

Customer Reviews