Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Wise Old Cartoon Producer

I had lunch today with my friend the wise old cartoon producer (now retired). He related this.

Years ago I was supervising an animated feature. We were about a quarter of the way through it, and I realized that there were too many characters and too much movie for the budgets we had, that we'd be over budget if we didn't trim both.

And I made a mistake. Upper management said they wanted to know if there were problems, so I thought, "Okay, I should be transparent about what's going on here, tell them about the problems. So I wrote a detailed memo about what the issues were, how we'd go over budget if we didn't do some cuts, what the ideas were to deal with it. And upper management flipped out. They brought in trouble shooters, brought in another production accountant, spent a bunch of money on the new personnel.

But the new hires didn't have much to do. The director and crew made cuts, and the production trouble shooter and the money counter had nothing to do for a month except sit around. By the time we finished the picture, we were under-budget and the picture was a money-maker.

And I got let go. The lesson I learned was: Upper management says they want to know about problems that come up, to help solve any difficulties, but they really don't. What they want is for you to fix whatever's wrong and tell them as little as possible. ...

I've been around the track a few times, but I'd never heard that particular story from the WOCP. Even so, it rang memory bells. When I got back to the office after lunch I remembered which bells jangled:

... Quite recently I had an artist come into my office and tell me the sad story of being in a meeting where "suggestions and input" to make the project better was "encouraged."

So he came up with suggestions, and was told his ideas were interesting and "worth thinking about." And two weeks later his producer informed him that his last day would be January 4th. ("Right after the holidays. Because, you know, we don't want to lay you off right at Christmas ...")

S.R. Hulett (2011)

Which inevitably triggers this:

"I want someone to tell me," Lieutenant Scheisskopf beseeched them all prayerfully. "If any of it is my fault, I want to be told."

"He wants someone to tell him," Clevinger said.

"He wants everyone to keep still, idiot," Yossarian answered.

"Didn't you hear him," Clevinger argued.

"I heard him," Yossarian replied. "I heard him say very loudly and very distinctly that he wants every one of us to keep our mouths shut if we know what's good for us."

"I won't punish you," Lieutenant Scheisskopf swore.

"He says he won't punish me," said Clevinger.

"He'll castrate you," said Yossarian. ...

-- Joseph Heller, Catch 22 (1961)

To be even-handed here, there are show runners and show creators who want to solve problems and are happy when members of the crew pitch in to help. But it's always good to be sure of your supervisor's receptiveness to new solutions or constructive criticism before offering any.

As my old comrade-in-cartoonss Pete Young said long ago:

"You can't give them a new idea until they're ready to hear it." ...


Mark Mayerson said...

And that's why so much crap gets made and so many projects go over budget. Because management people are so ignorant of what's actually going on and so insecure in their positions, that they would rather shoot the messenger than be open to warnings or ideas.

The people in the trenches always have a better grasp of what's happening than management does, and yet management often ignores its greatest resource.

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