Why The Film Industry Matters — Not For Entertainment, But For Your Career


I remember being told in business school that the most successful organizations were the church and the military. Those ideal-type organizations had shown they could last for centuries. Their hierarchies brought order, and their people’s careers maintained those hierarchies. The pattern seemed to fit with the emergent film industry, where major studios had evolved to bring everything and everyone needed for film-making under one roof. To maintain this position, many employees, including leading actors, were signed to long-term contracts.

Tom Hardy attends the premiere of Columbia Pictures’ ‘Venom’ at Regency Village Theatre on October 1, 2018 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

The pattern lasted as long as there was no serious competition. Other film studios operated in a similar way, and life went on. Then came television, and with it a cheaper and more versatile video product delivered directly to consumers’ homes. Keeping a wide range of skills under permanent employment until the next film project needed them had never been efficient, and the fresh competition made it unsustainable. In a few years, film-making morphed into a different business model—one that holds powerful lessons for you about your career. Here’s why.

It’s project-based. The making of films takes place one project at a time. The old models of the church, the military, or the factory don’t recognize this. However, look around you: at construction, law, advertising, management consulting, information technology, all new product development, seasons in professions sports and many other fields of work. The common factor in all of them is that the fundamental unit of production is the project, sometimes known by other labels like the case, campaign, or assignment. Forcing time-bound projects into rigid hierarchies is not a good idea.

It’s market-driven. Another advantage of seeing the world one film or project at a time is that the work can respond to market forces. Films can be made to respond to those markets, by bringing in the particular talents needed to fulfill the film-making episode. Notice too, that this is not mainly about the leading actors. When the credits are listed at the end of the film, the actors’ names pass by in a moment, but the list of credits to lesser-known contributors seems to roll forever. All of those people responded to the market opportunity to make the film. And by the time their work was “in the can,” all of them had found or were likely seeking a new gig. 

It promotes learning. When it’s time to shoot a scene, everyone involved needs to be present, and to respond to instructions from the film director. However, there is down time between shoots, time when the enthusiastic learner can ask questions of more experienced colleagues, and when those colleagues can respond. The same happens, to a greater or lesser extent, in other project-driven worlds. Moreover, there needs to be a shared understanding in film-making and other kinds of projects about how people’s separate contributions come together, and the pursuit of that understanding can promote new learning in the contributors’ careers.

It invites innovation. They say old habits die hard, and the twentieth century was littered with examples of work being done in familiar ways because that was the way it had always been done, the risk of change wasn’t worth it, politics got in the way, the system wouldn’t allow it or some other cover people used to stifle innovation. In contrast, when people and materials are assembled for a single film-making enterprise, those old habits don’t get the same opportunity to sustain themselves and innovation is more welcome. In turn, a new film-making initiative can invite fresh innovation, without being tied to established methods that might otherwise have prevailed.

It’s a new metaphor. Finally, a focus on film-making provides a new metaphor. Instead of the church, the military, the factory, or other ways of seeing the world of work and careers, film-making now offers a template for a wide range of project-driven activities. In these activities, arrangements are temporary, collective and individual agendas co-exist, and innovation is encouraged. It’s not a perfect world in film – executives have abused their power, and there’s a low-budget sector where people hardly make a living. However, even in those situations, the new metaphor says this too will pass, and there’s a prospect for a better tomorrow.

Common to all of the above is the encouragement that you do the necessary thinking about your career, rather than leave that to another party. The church, the military and the factory still have their place, but the claim to their relevance in the new world of work has faded. Your career belongs to you, and it is up to you to take advantage.

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