“Dewwwwg, can we make a film together? You and me?” asked Marie-Cecile. She was smart, sexy, and French. How I answered this question would seal my fate. I’ll explain in a moment.
The previous blog focused on three low-budget short films made by a couple of work colleagues. The films were created to simply entertain our U.S. based employees. However, one film, The Godfather of Values, helped the audience understand the elusive topic of corporate values. That got me wondering: could a corporate film, created as a comedy to entertain, also enhance one’s connection to an important, yet dry, topic? A couple of years later, in December of 2007, I would have a unique opportunity to answer this question in a high risk, potentially career ending setting.
Big Change on the Horizon
The successful company I was working for, headquartered in the lovely country of Luxembourg with offices around the world, was preparing to implement an employee management system that would focus on eight universally applicable job competencies such as Accountability & Decision Making, Problem Solving, Communication & Influencing, etc. Most employees, when asked for their opinion about this upcoming initiative, would roll their eyes, yawn, or walk away without giving an answer about this important, yet dry, topic. Implementation would not be easy. Coincidentally, in August 2007, a few months before the competency rollout, I was given a terrific developmental opportunity to expatriate from our New Jersey office to our Luxembourg headquarters where I would live and work for six months. Top management figured that my U.S. centric view of the world could use a little, ah, “culturing”.
The Culturing – Part 1 – You Wanna Meet Me Where?!
My first afternoon in the office, a colleague with a heavy accent rings me up and offers to give me the cultural lay of the land over a cup of espresso. I said, “sounds good, where shall we meet?” He said, “I vill meet you in your annus.” Yes, he really said that. I said into the phone, “look Mack, are you a wise guy? Who is this?” He said, “this is Genady. I do not know this Mack of whom you speak. I am eagerly anticipating meeting you as I enter your annus at 13:00 hours. Your annus is located on zee ground floor between zee Saturn and Pluto conference rooms. It is zee conference room named after zee planet Uranus.” “Ohhhh, THAT Uranus. Gotcha.” It turns out the conference rooms are named after planets.
The Culturing – Part 2 – What’s in a Name?
My second day on the job, I learned that folks from Germany and Eastern Europe pronounce my name “Duck” with a really severe CK at the end. This always quacks me up (ouch, sorry). French women, however, pronounce my name as a soft, soothing Dewg (sounds like ew instead of ugh). The extended “ewwww” sound is beautiful and feels like someone is massaging the back of my neck; usually with finely manicured red fingernails, with a hint of Coco Channel perfume in the air. It makes me a bit dizzy and weak in the knees. And this gets me back to Marie-Cecile’s provocative question.
I asked MC what exactly did she have in mind? She asked if we could make a film explaining the new job competencies. Feeling disappointment and relief at the same time, I asked if there was a budget because, after all, the three films that I had produced in America enjoyed healthy budgets running between, oh, 50 and 500 dollars. And we would need a co-worker in Luxembourg who was skilled with filming, sound and editing. She said, “Dewwg, perhaps I have a nicer idea. You may have a 25,000 Euro budget and can use a local film production company. Might that be acceptable, Dewwg? Oui?” With a spinning head and weak knees, I responded, “Oui oui, that’ll be just swell” sealing my corporate film making fate.
Three Act Play
We approached the project as a three act play.
Act 1: due to holidays, we needed two months of Pre Production including writing the script, scouting locations, enlisting employees for 18 roles, and creating a 5 day filming schedule. Just as important, we made the following 5 strategic decisions: 1) James Bond would be the perfect film to parody for an international audience 2) Empower the Director (Erwan Gobliard) and Executive Producer (Patrick Hoffmann) to capture our vision and to inject their creativity 3) Employees will write the script and play all parts – made by the employees for the employees 4) Enlist one well known, credible executive to play a key character. This will make it easier to enlist others 5) Be professional, have a lot of fun, and feed the film crew very well.
Act 2: Film, with strict military type precision, for 5 days and evenings.
Act 3: one month of Post Production including editing, adding sound track/music, special effects, and packaging DVDs. Prepare a special All Staff meeting to unveil and explain the purpose of the job competencies in December. At the end of the All Staff meeting, surprise the audience with a special screening of the completed film: “007 – For Our Staff Only“.
The employees’ spirit during pre production and filming was just great. Folks really got into it, had fun and were quite brave trying acting for the first time. Erwan Gobliard proved to be a superb Director, working tirelessly to prepare shots, the production crew and the actors/employees. Marie-Cecile was the glue who held everything together and was the primary reason the film was completed. Marie-Cecile was smart, creative and she smoothly executed all tasks.
However, being involved with all aspects of making the film distorted my perspective. While watching the clips over and over, the humor seemed less funny to the point where nothing seemed funny. The creative shots now seemed tedious and unnecessary. The competencies seemed over defined and heavy handed. The employees playing the many parts were no longer convincing, but, seemed unprofessional and clownish. I became convinced that our daunting task of delivering a universal message to 450 employees, originating from 25 countries, would instead be viewed as confusing, silly and amaturish. I convinced myself that a multi-cultural, European-based audience would be cynical and critical. What a mess. Ultimately, I felt sorry for Marie-Cecile for trusting me and have her name attached to the project. I decided to update my resume as this would certainly be a career ending mistake.
Teaser movie posters, colored light orange silohwetted with James Bond flanked by two Bond girls, hung throughout the campus mysteriously stating “for our staff only, join us at the all staff meeting room at 3:00 pm on December 14″. This created curiosity and buzz throughout the campus. The one-hour All Staff meeting was divided into two parts: a 40 minute presentation to introduce and explain the job competencies followed by the film “007 Four Our Staff Only”. The first part of the meeting was a success. After a brief Q&A, I said something like: “Ok, now it’s time to watch the movie that a few of your colleagues have produced. You know, ever since I was a little boy, I loved going to the movies. But, the only thing better than going to the movies was eating popcorn while watching the movie. Now, I gotta believe that the only thing better than eating popcorn while watching a movie, would be to have our Executives SERVE the popcorn to us. Right? Ok fellas, get serving.” And with that, the five top executives jumped out of their chairs in the front row, and grabbed baskets filled with bags of popcorn, and walked around passing out bags to the audience. The employees loved it! And the Executives loved it more than the employees!! It was a riot!
The lights dimmed and the movie, filmed in crystal clear high definition, opened on a huge screen (Opening 2 min 6 sec). The room filled with a Bond-type score. And “thud” – the audience remained conspicuously silent. My worst fear was hovering. However, a few minutes into the film, the first comedic scene approached and, thankfully, ended with a wonderful laugh ( Slapping 54 sec).
Then, with each scene, the audience loosened up and realized that this was pure comedy. They giggled whenever an employee would enter a scene. The laughter became greater with each scene until they were practically roaring with laughter during the final and best scene with Q and the atomic pen (Q & Atomic Pen 1 min 49 sec)
It was perfect. It exceeded my expectations! There was a huge applause at the end of the movie. After the movie, I thanked everyone and then presented Marie-Cecile with an Oscar statue for Best Producer. She was shocked and everyone applauded her. Then I said something like, “in the spirit of the Christmas Season, from your Human Resources Team, the CEO, and the executive team, we have gifts for everyone…. an Atomic Pen (it appears at the end of the movie) and a copy of the video.” The employees loved that part, too.
After the All Staff meeting concluded and as the crowd rushed to get their gifts in the
back of the room, a top German executive walked up to me, shook my hand, and said, “Duck congratulations. I have never experienced anything like this. This is the best All Staff Meeting we have ever had. The employees’ enthusiasm was just amazing. I just cannot believe it. And we have never had this many people show up to a meeting.” Several other executives and employees said something similar at a cocktail reception held immediately after the meeting. A Russian employee said, “Duck, I have seen many movies in my lifetime, but, this is without question the best movie that I have ever seen.” Another said, “Doug, look around. Everyone is smiling. I’ve been here for 13 years and I’ve never seen a single person smile after these meetings. But look, EVERYBODY is smiling. It’s incredible.”
Longer Term Impact
The process of producing For Our Staff Only did several things. First, the collaborative process proved to be a terrific team building initiative. Second, poking fun of the competencies made it easier for employees to actually take the competencies more seriously, giving the initiative a better chance to succeed. Third, a few months later, a number of employees said that the film’s quality and the fun premier at the All Staff meeting was having a positive impact on the campus’ culture and the way folks were presenting information. Fourth, Marie-Cecile had a brilliant idea to edit the film into 8 scenes — one for each job competency — and place them on the company intranet so employees could access it as a reminder. This had a sustaining impact on learning and understanding. And that really got me wondering how to use film to help folks learn.
And personally, I walked away with several life enhancements. First, I quickly developed a deep respect and affection for my European colleagues and their various cultures. Second, when speaking with French women, I’ve learned how to “direct” the conversation so they’ll have to say my name several times; and third, I never, ever schedule meetings in conference rooms named Uranus.
Your thoughts and comments are always appreciated. Merci beaucoup, ya’ll!