Friday, May 27, 2016

Rich Resources Could Add up to Poor Results: Costly Lessons from Tollywood Movie Disappointment, "Brahmotsavam"

In recent months, two movies of Telugu movie superstars raised huge expectations but failed to live up to them. While Sardar Gabbar Singh, starring Pawan Kalyan in the lead role, and also scripted and pseudo-directed by him released about a month ago disappointed viewers, the even more recent release, Brahmotsavam, starring Mahesh Babu in the lead role, threatens to be an even greater disaster. In fact, Brahmotsavam was a greater shocker because it seemed to have all the right ingredients: the handsome and elegant Mahesh Babu as the central anchor, three glamorous heroines Kajal, Samantha and Praneeta, an ensemble star cast of over 30 veteran stars, soulful and peppy music by Mickey J Meyer, gorgeous sets by Thota Tharani, breath-taking cinematography by Rathnavelu, an editor known for slickness, K Venkateswara Rao, famed choreographers Raju-Sundaram, a production house that splurges, and above all, a director who has track record of successful family entertainers in the past, Srikanth Addala.

Brahmotsavam was also notable for an intense level of promotions starring all the major stars and the music director and director in the 3 week run-up to the release, with clips and talks which underwrote the feel-good value of the movie, driving up viewer expectations sky high. After a great pre-release extravaganza, the movie released in over 900 screens globally. It is remarkable that from the very first show, there was a negative view about the movie across regions and across viewers, most of it centred on a meaningless and meandering second half, and all the songs wasted in the first half in rapid succession. Although the movie team has tried out a rear guard action by chopping off 18 minutes of draggy scenes in the second half and one song, there has been no improvement of the sentiment. The author has held in some of the previous blog posts that movie making is a highly enterprising creative endeavour and offers valuable management lessons, both from successes and failures. Brahmotsavam too offers important lessons, both for movie making and enterprise management.  

Calibrating investments

The general expectation is that if an enterprise is able to commit huge resources, either as investment or expenditure, it will be able to build world class infrastructure and business. While there is some proportionality between resources and outcomes the curve of proportionality tapers off after a stage. In fact, expenditures beyond what may be called ‘functionality’ level tend to be sunk costs with declining levels of returns. The phenomenon may be comparable to what a specific piece of sponge can absorb. Brahmotsavam has a super-gorgeous mounting of a movie but the movie as a visual treat made possible by a lavish budget (by Indian standards) of Rs 750 million but had little meaning without consistent emotional tether (which would have required no investments of such scale).

In business too, luxurious offices and gold plated factories have a visual impact but beyond a functionally utilitarian scale, they add more costs and overheads than value.  Internal value generation at increasing levels, which is hard to come by, is required to cater to increased investments.  Alternatively, investments have to be tailored to the value that can be created.

Synergizing expertise

Expertise is the key to success. The foundation of Brahmotsavam was to have the best expert in each field contribute to his or her department being top class. Indeed, the assumption played out well individually, there being nothing to fault any department in terms of cinematic excellence. However, together it made incoherent sense. Potentially, experts took specialized views rather than a comprehensive view of the movie, and the movie director was more preoccupied in providing each stalwart with a sub-canvas commensurate with his expertise, rather than building a more holistic total canvas with appropriate embellishments from all.

In business organizations too, having too many experts could lead to functional specialization but business sub-optimization. The CEO would more often than not be preoccupied with satisfying the individual domain needs of expert CXOs rather than do what is holistically good for the enterprise.

Roles to drive numbers

Closely allied with having more technician-experts on board, Brahmotsavam had even more stars for the screen. In a movie of 150 minutes having more than 30 plus veterans would only mean not more than 5 minutes of screen time for each star. With the hero Mahesh being required to be in every scene throughout the movie to carry it on his able shoulders, each veteran’s average screen time has been even lower. Rather than tight story telling what emerges in such a scenario is a visual spectacle of all stars vying for screen space. In low cost economies the tendency to over-deploy people is endemic; seen in movies as much as in businesses.

Having too many people lumped into a value chain is less productive than their being spread out across the value chain, in a role based manner. When a technical or operational bottleneck occurs it is the qualitative ingenuity of a few rather than quantitative redundancy of a mass that works.

Book rather than chapters

Brahmotsavam is much like a classic case of a book with an inspiring title and having a few chapters that are brilliant and several which are weak. The movie certainly has its beautiful frames and touching moments which reflect the theme in the first half but there are also several frames which run away from the theme as the hero takes off on a rather meaningless pan-Indian journey to connect with some spread out relatives. A book must be interesting to read cover to cover; so must be a movie from start to finish. Continuing emotional connect with the reader or viewer underwrites success in both the cases.

Enterprise is a series of projects but is an unending book or movie. Participants in an enterprise, employees or investors, look to a continuing story that is engaging. The moment a project wanes, and gives the feel of a ‘done chapter’, and in fact has more such disappointments in sequence or in store, enterprise starts becoming an emotionally and economically losing proposition.   

Directorial deficit

All said and done, the director remains the central anchor for a movie. Only he or she holds in his mind a mental picture of how he or she would convert the emotional theme to visual frames. He alone knows why he has engaged the stars and technicians he has engaged and the results expected of them. In Brahmotsavam, the director has failed in his primary role, probably with the misplaced belief that conversion of the concept of his earlier successful family movie set in rural background into an urban setting would provide a similar success. He is also responsible for all the deficiencies listed above, again due to excess of confidence and infallibility. Sometimes, directors are hamstrung by weighty producers and stars which also impacts their delivery on screen.  

The CEO of an enterprise wields a similar powerful role. The growth script or turnaround script can only be in his hands. Those CEOs who do not exercise this right and obligation or are not allowed to exercise such a role by the promoters and boards could lead to sub-optimal, if not disastrous, results for their companies.  

Expectations management

The modern society grows on expectations. Expectations management which is relatively new is different from advertisement management which has been age old. While the latter largely explains what a product or service stands for, and only subtly raises expectations, expectations management through a series of leaks, chats, promos presents an alluring image of great things to come. That said, there must be some link between the delivered reality and promised utopia. The issue with Brahmotsavam is that expectations were driven to crazy heights by focusing only on the good parts of the movie. Those who were exposed to such feel-good promos expected that the entire would pan out like the promos and were highly disappointed when things did not turn out as promised.

Companies are well within their rights to promote their products. In fact, it speaks of the collective confidence of the corporate sector that they are able to openly present futuristic features without concerns of copying by competition. That said, expectations have to be set in realistic zones to be able to deliver on them.

Customer supremacy

Even after the high profile debacle, the stars and the makers of Brahmotsavam must be wondering what hit them and why things went wrong. The reason lies in the possibility that all of them took the viewer for granted, and assumed that flashes of brilliance would suffice to impress the viewers. The fact, however, is that the user has his own way of feeling the experience which develops as one sees the movie. While many reasons for viewer dissatisfaction can be adduced as above there may indeed be no one reason why the viewers reject a movie. It can only be related to rather qualitative phenomenon of user experience.

Enterprises are not immune to failing to gauge user experience. Apple has tasted many successes by providing a great user experience on its iPod, iPhone and iPad products but has failed to provide the same user experience with its Apple watch. The customer continues to be supreme in judging a new product regardless of the past successes of a firm.  

Open to feedback

One can have open-to-sky ambitions with a relentless focus and unremitting faith in the goals and processes.  In fact, such passion is needed to fuel growth ambitions. However, as with many things the dividing lines between healthy ownership of a concept and unhealthy possessiveness, and between positive commitment and blind obsession are indeed thin. When a movie is taken with a few overarching themes (eternal family sentiment, charismatic Mahesh Babu, best-in-class departments, successful director etc.,) everyone believes that the success is assured. The makers must, however, be open and sensitive to feedback, which alone can course-correct disasters in the making.

Enterprises tend to be far less interactive and open-house oriented as movie houses are. Yet, if movie houses themselves suffer from myopic or obscured approach towards open feedback, the asphyxiating situation in tightly run enterprises can only be imagined. The need to facilitate and receive continuous feedback in an open manner and respond to that meaningfully is quite evident.

Result not a sum of parts

We are all aware of the constant exhortation that organizations must aim at synergy, whereby the sum is more than a mere addition of numbers. As this blog post illustrates parts are extremely critical but even the best parts cannot automatically make for even a viable product, let alone the best product. Just as in a mechanical watch all components must be fine-tuned for perfect assembly and perfect operation, every product and a project whether it is moviemaking or product manufacture must have parts that are fine-tuned in a success formula that is, in the overall, cohesive, balanced and integrated. Without coherent, balanced and unified thought as well as execution, the result of an endeavour may not even be a sum of parts!

Hopefully, the lessons of Brahmotsavam will be learnt. There was once a movie, Dil Se, made in 1998 by an ace director (Mani Ratnam ) with a star hero (Shahrukh Khan) and some of the finest technicians ( A R Rahman and Gulzar, for example) which raised huge expectations as a visual and musical masterpiece but turned out to be a huge box-office disappointment. Both the director and actor (and, of course other technicians) picked up the pieces and went on to make great movies, individually and collectively, post-failure. All stakeholders of Brahmotsavam, likewise, would hopefully bring out their collective best in their future movie endeavours.

That said, why should anyone, movie makers or enterprise leaders, fail at all when success can be assured with some sensibility and sensitivity as well as some reflection and introspection?

Posted by Dr CB Rao on May 27, 2016

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