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Parallels in Film and Technology: The Producer and Product Manager

I was talking to a Swiss friend of mine last week and he was asking me how I find the time to write such detailed blog entries. To be honest, I spend much more time devoted to reading, being up-to-date with the financial and venture capital developments and having conversations with people about various subjects than to spend time actually writing. These are subjects I have an innate curiosity about, and so reading for me is simply a natural part of my work-life integration. Most of the time, I spend a lot of time thinking about these issues, and when it comes time to write, it is really a matter of articulating those ideas onto print- or rather, in our technocratic era, to the blinking screen. I even think about what I am going to write about as I am working out and running on the treadmill.

Anyhow this conversation with my Swiss friend lead to a segue-way about the parallels between the production cycle in a film, TV or new media project to the product life cycle for a technology company. As I mentioned previously, I come from a production background and was lucky to be in a sector where the distribution of men to women were fairly equal and there were just as many female Producers to male Producers at any given work environment. Successful Producers are very open and tend to like to share their insights with younger Producers because so much of the production life cycle is related to building relationships with people and developing trust and mentoring naturally comes with the Producer title. 

Similar to a product life cycle- Producers work in a similar way as Product Managers and Project Managers. (In fact, at the Producers Guild of America, the "project manager" title in new media is the same as the Producer title, and project managers can receive Producer credit.)

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Producers, Product Managers and Project Managers don't have a 9-5 sort of position where you can clock in and out. There are 3 phases in the film/TV show/new media project life cycle- as there are 3 phases in the technology product life cycle: Pre-production, Production, and Post-Production.

In the Production cycle, similar to the phase of release of a new product in a technology company, there is often an aggressive push to the deadline. Producers are known to work around the clock. Producers are also problem-solvers. They don't want to hear excuses, eg, "The shop was closed and I wasn't able to get the required items," "We weren't able to shoot this scene because the actress didn't show up." The only viable excuses for not accomplishing a goal or project deadline are family tragedies (ie, death in the family or accident).

However, a more relaxed, and less intensive phase are the Research & Development and Pre-Production phases. This is a time when the schedule is not as aggressive, and one can spend time reading, meeting with people, going to conferences, giving talks or interviews, networking and generally have more of an open schedule where ideas are starting to come together, and the right talent are being acquired. One of my colleagues at the Producers Guild of America (in which I am on the International Committee) Butch Kaplan is always reading screenplays. The only time he isn't reading several new screenplays is when he is on-location in the Production phase. Butch is the only Producer I've met who can read a script and say exactly how much the budget is going to be, down to the exact dollar figure. 

In the Post-Production phase, this is a time for audience testing and re-writing storylines. Similar to an alpha or beta launch when user feedback has been integrated, all bugs are fixed and modifications are made to the product before launch, the film or project can undergo radical change. A mentor of mine from Morgan Creek Productions told me that there had only been one film he had worked on in which the entire film had changed to such a significant degree in Post-Production due to unusual events during the Production phase, so that the film did not even resemble what it had originally meant to be. In a parallel manner, we can attribute this kind of radical shift to what happened with companies like Slack, and how the founders had originally wanted to produce a web-based multi-player game, but eventually ended up with a company communication platform. 

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Slack, a company that changed its core product during the production phase
recent valuation $2.8 billion

For me, a lot of my interest in not knowing everything about a particular subject is what captivates my interest. I can't think of anything more egocentric and boring as to say one is a complete expert on something. For me, learning is an integral part of this product life cycle. Brad Feld, entrepreneur and VC writes in his blog:

While a great mentor knows a lot and has had plenty of experiences, she’s always learning. The best mentor/mentee relationships are peer relationships, where the mentor learns as much from the mentee as she teaches the mentee...I know a lot about some things. And I know very little, or nothing about a lot more things. My business and technology experience is deep in software, where even the hardware companies we are investors...But I don’t know all software. And I especially don’t know vertical markets. We’ve consciously stayed horizontal in our investing, being much more interested in our themes which apply to many different vertical markets. But ask me about a vertical market, whether it be entertainment, real estate, insurance, auto, food, energy, or financial services and I’ll often approach it with a beginners mind.

I think this is the best kind of attitude to have, and nearly all of the A-list Producers I have met via the Guild have this mindset. There is an openness to Product Development in a technology startup, where ideas are shared and there is a collective mindset where relationships are built that is parallel to the life cycle of feature films.

And possibly, another reason why Steve Jobs had successful careers in both feature film and technology could be attributed to the parallels in the film life cycle to the product life cycle.