The last three years I was at Disney, I watched it go from sleepy movie backwater (Ron Miller CEO) to cutting-edge industry dynamo.
The difference? The Players from Paramount (Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg) rode into town, and the dynamics of the Burbank lot changed overnight. The atmosphere went from relaxed and a little spaced out, to tense, anxious, and a tad paranoid. A-year-and-a-half in to the new regime, after a story session with the new rulers of Disney, an artist muttered to me:
"You never know where you stand with these guys. They sit at a meeting and praise your pitch to the skies. Then a week later they cancel the project."
It makes for an unsettled existence ....
Which, a couple of decades later, a longtime Disney staffer said was the main idea.
"Michael never wanted anybody to get too comfortable. He thought, and it was kind of the whole operating philosophy, that if you were scared about keeping your job, you'd work harder."
That was certainly the vibe I picked up at the time. And for a time (let's face the facts squarely) it worked like gangbusters.
Today, a lot of the industry operates this way, some of it by accident, a lot of it by design. As different artists have said to me over the past decade:
All these execs, they read The Art of War and The 48 Laws of Power, then they call a meeting and change the time and date four times, then show up late and let you sit there for twenty or thirty minutes. It's aggravating. ..."
... "Sharon never showed up on time. I remember her assistant calling and asking if David was there yet, and we all knew she wasn't going to show up until he did. So we all sat there waiting. And drumming our fingers." ...
And wasting hours where actual work could have occurred.
Of course mind games and jockeying for position are as old as Hollywood ... or the court of Louis XIV... or the Byzantine empire, when the court eunuchs schemed and back-stabbed in the polished marble corridors. The strategies of "Discovering each man's thumb screws" or "Mastering the art of timing" have their uses, but they also have built-in limitations. Creators are not cattle responding to electric prods as they shuffle along the wooden chutes, wondering what all that screaming is up ahead. When you're asking somebody to stretch and innovate, to perform better than they've ever performed before, fear and uncertainty only carry you so far.
Often they have the reverse effect.
"I got so tired of the manipulation and one-upmanship, I finally quit and went someplace else before my head exploded."
Me, I think creating an environment where the folks making your movies aren't worried about stepping on some hidden exploding landmine, where they think they might have some longevity with the company when they do good work, is useful for long-term success.
But maybe I'm wrong.