Smart Hollywood Summit: The Importance of Building Relationships, Resilience

To survive in the media and entertainment (M&E) industry, especially in these rapidly-changing times, three major keys to success are the ability to build trusting relationships with other people, build one’s own resilience to overcome failure, and to question the assumptions of what everybody else thinks is true, according to Dr. Iris Firstenberg, adjunct associate professor of psychology at UCLA.

Don’t be a “hostage” to history and the same way that things have always been done in the past, the renowned lecturer warned Feb. 27 during the keynote Women in Technology: Hollywood (WiTH) session “Harnessing Hurricane VUCA to your Leadership Advantage” that was held in conjunction with the standing-room-only Smart Hollywood Summit in Los Angeles. 

Firstenberg’s keynote on the VUCA (Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity), followed by a panel session featuring five Women in Technology Hollywood (WiTH) Leadership Award winners from 2017 and 2018, closed out the Smart Hollywood Summit program.

“This is Hollywood; it’s story time,” Firstenberg said at the start of her presentation, before she proceeded to share the story of a leader who “changed the trajectory of his entire career during a time of incredible change and crisis,” after he “seized an opportunity to create something extraordinary.”

The story started Monday, Jan. 17, 1994 at 4:30 am in Los Angeles, when there was a massive earthquake that destroyed about a mile and a half of Interstate 10, she recalled. Experts said it would take 6-10 years to fix the freeway, based on past experience, while economists predicted about $1 million a day would be lost in the meantime because traffic would be even worse than usual — a virtual “carmageddon” — after losing such a key artery.

However, a California contractor with experience building shopping malls and parking lots didn’t hear a “huge problem,” but instead heard a major “opportunity” that “could be a game changer” for him and his business. Realizing he had to move fast, he contacted a woman he had befriended on an earlier project who said she had worked in the Los Angeles mayor’s office. She was able to set up an appointment for him to meet with the mayor two days later and, in the meantime, he called more people he knew who would be willing and able to work on the project quickly if it was approved.

The contractor knew he had only a few minutes in the meeting to communicate three key parts of his plan that would convince the mayor to hire him, which were the cost, quality and schedule for how long it would take to complete the project, she recalled, stressing the importance of sticking to three issues because “the number three is like a magical number.”

There’s lots of evidence that people should always try to bucket things into three categories because it helps them think clearly about something and then communicate it, she said. As an example, she pointed to the common expression “location, location, location.”

The contractor also knew he had to start the meeting with the mayor by getting right to how he planned to fix the problem and how he could do it in just six months, she recalled.

To help sell the mayor on his plan and also discourage rivals from bidding on the project, the contractor promised to pay a penalty of $200,000 for each day the project was completed late, she said, noting that made it a “win-win” for the mayor “no matter how it turns out.”

The contractor then agreed to do it on three important but doable conditions: that at least a simple two-page letter of understanding be signed by the end of the following week; that the team could be on site and start working once it was signed; and that the inspector had to be on the job site with the workers to quickly catch any mistakes, she said. The contractor also asked to receive $1 million a day for each day the project was completed ahead of schedule, and the mayor got him to decrease that to $200,000 a day, she recalled.

One additional key to successfully completing the project was providing incentives to workers that encouraged them to work hard, she said, noting the contractor agreed to provide them with a party of sorts — food and (non-alcoholic) drinks — every Friday at the end of the workday, which helped build a sense of progress to discourage them from giving up on the goal. “We’re all very sensitive to this need to see progress,” she explained, pointing as an example to how quickly we tend to throw in the towel on a website opening if there’s no indicator to show it will be opening soon.

That freeway ended up opening to the public in only 66 days and the contractor became the “go-to guy” for all emergency projects in California, she said. Not all his projects worked out as successfully as that one, but failure didn’t stop him from forging ahead, she pointed out. An elevated carpool lane project in Orange County, for example, wound up over budget and late, and an investigation revealed it was partly the blame of both his company – Rancho Cordova-based C.C. Myers – and the architect, but the contractor took full blame and stuck with project to the end, she said, noting he “leveraged this failure to elevate his reputation.”

Lessons from that story can be applied to goals in the M&E industry, she said. For one thing, it showed how important it was for each side to show that he trusted the other person. Noting “it’s really hard to trust other people” you don’t know, she said you’re still “going to have to take some risk” to succeed in life. She went on to paraphrase a quote by Marion Blakey, a one-time Federal Aviation Administration head: “You can’t leave a lasting footprint if you’re always walking on tiptoe.” Firstenberg stressed to attendees: “You’ve got to get comfortable being uncomfortable in these turbulent times.”

The professor went on to give another anecdote, pointing to Paralympic athlete Bonnie St. John, who had dreamed from an early age of becoming a downhill skier despite one of her legs being amputated and the fact that she lived far away from any snow, in San Diego.

After qualifying for the Paralympics, she was participating in an event where everybody ahead of her were falling in the same places, Firstenberg recalled. With the help of her coach, St. John was able to avoid the same mistakes the others had made, but she ended up falling 200 yards from the finish line at a spot where nobody else fell, the professor pointed out.

St. John, however, got up and powered through to the finish line and won the bronze medal, and said in a speech that inspired the professor: “It’s not if you’re going to fall, it’s when. Everybody falls. Winners get back up. Gold metal winners just get up a little faster.” That was “the definition of resilience: You have the mental and emotional readiness that if you fall it’s just part of the journey. Get back up,” Firstenberg said.

This year’s Smart Hollywood Summit was produced by the Media & Entertainment Services Alliance’s Smart Content Council with sponsorship by IBM Watson, MarkLogic, EIDR, Hammerspace, human-I-T, Independent Security Evaluators (ISE), KlarisIP, Testronic, FilmTrack, OnPrem, Mediamorph, RSG Media, Vistex, Vubiquity and Bob Gold & Associates.