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Hollywood as teaching tool

April 21, 2008

Did you see this article in today’s LA Times? This is a model I had in mind for advocacy nonprofits. The “brand” or “product” would be their issues or campaigns. Instead of “team-building”, we’d be interested in “leadership development”. And of course, you could do it for much cheaper than the “$15,000-$200,000” quoted in the article!

Lights, Camera, InterAction turns firms’ employees into film crews in team-building exercises.
By Richard Verrier
Los Angeles Times: April 21, 2008
The idea that Hollywood has something to teach corporate America about good business practices might sound like the inspiration for a new comedy movie.

But that’s the quite serious premise behind Lights, Camera, InterAction. The Los Angeles firm turns groups of employees into production crew members for a day, imparting lessons in teamwork and creativity by having them make their own commercials.

“We believe filmmaking is the perfect teaching tool for the business world,” said David Wendell, the company’s co-founder and a veteran TV producer. “A film crew is very similar to a corporate structure. There are all these different roles that people are playing and they have to learn to work together to make their vision a reality.”

Lights, Camera, InterAction — its slogan is Team-building, Hollywood-style — has carved out a niche in the unglamorous world of corporate meetings and events. Companies spend millions of dollars annually on retreats and team-building exercises for their employees, supporting an industry that boasts half a dozen trade publications and thousands of planners.

Typically, companies serve up activities such as building rafts, running obstacle courses and going on scavenger hunts to foster unity among corporate divisions and bridge multicultural differences among employees. Such esprit-de-corps exercises, reminiscent of an episode of “The Office,” frequently provoke more eye-rolling than high-fives.

“It’s not the typical drudgery of a corporate event where no one wants to be there,” said partner Sterling Lanier. “What we say is, ‘this is the most fun and innovative team-building exercise you’ve ever seen.’ ”

Lights, Camera, InterAction offers clients an opportunity to thrust their employees into the pressure cooker of a commercial shoot, and the results of the exercise can be instantly judged. The firm uses a network of directors, writers and producers to coach employees — divided into teams of 10 to 20 — on how to conceive, write and shoot their own 60-second mock commercials (although the vast majority of real TV spots today last 30 seconds).

Participants get a crash course in operating cameras, assembling props and directing the action, doing just about everything themselves except for the final editing, which is handled by one of the professional facilitators.

The company charges $15,000 to $200,000 for an event, which lasts three to four hours and even includes the mandatory Hollywood self-congratulation: an awards show at which the best commercials are screened. Despite its quirky pitch, Lights, Camera, InterAction has attracted such heavyweight clients as Hyatt Corp., General Mills Inc., Pepsi Bottling Group, Baxter International Inc. and Schering-Plough Corp.

“It’s probably the most unique event we’ve ever had,” said Jennifer Pesce, vice president of operations for Fusion Media Inc., which handles event productions for Pepsi Bottling and hired the company for two events in 2006. “We’ve done the typical human knot, building bridges and crafts. This was different. It forced people out of their comfort zone to play different roles and to think creatively about the company’s brand.”

One team, for example, produced a segment featuring a Pepsi Bottling delivery man showing up in some unusual places, including the bedroom of a couple where a groggy husband wakes up and asks for a caffeine fix. “I’ve got it covered,” the cheerful delivery man says, popping from under the bedsheets as he hands over a bottle of Starbucks Frappuccino. (PepsiCo Inc. makes the beverage under license from Starbucks Corp.)

Lights, Camera, InterAction is the brainchild of Wendell, a former segment producer of “Blind Date,” and Lanier, a brand consultant who has advised such companies as Warner Bros., Discovery Channel and Sony Corp.

Wendell hatched the idea when a college friend, who was a meeting planner, asked him to create a “Hollywood experience” for her client, Discover Card, which was sending a group of executives to Los Angeles. “I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if we could make movies with them?”

Discover executives were charged with making films that incorporated themes from the company’s mission statement.

Wendell converted four hotel rooms into sets, including a saloon and a space ship, and assigned teams of executives to each one. Then he had them shoot their own movies.

The event was a hit and convinced Wendell that he was onto something. But he lacked a partner who could “speak the language of CEOs.”

Enter Lanier, whose brother-in-law was a friend of Wendell’s and introduced the pair. Lanier was enthusiastic about the business concept.

“I thought there was no better way to make companies bring their brand to life than through the magic of filmmaking,” Lanier said.

The two launched the business in 2001 with just $2,000, which they spent on advertising and launching a website.

To keep costs down, they worked out of Wendell’s apartment in Brentwood. And instead of hiring full-time workers, they relied on freelancers, drawing on Wendell’s network of Hollywood contacts.

The thriftiness kept the company debt-free, but there were challenges. As often accompanies anything to do with a movie camera, customers demanded increasingly elaborate and time-consuming events. One involved building a set in New Orleans modeled on “The Apprentice” TV show. Another event was a knockoff of the TV series “CSI.”

“We were constantly pitching new ideas and reinventing the wheel every time,” Lanier said.

Two years ago, they settled on a simpler strategy: Help companies create faux commercials that would highlight their own brands.

They reached out to meeting planners and speaker bureaus such as Los Angeles-based Nationwide Speakers Bureau Inc., which recently booked an event for the company at the InterContinental Hotel in Century City.

As a result, business surged. Sales jumped 40% to $1.7 million in 2007 from the previous year, and are estimated to reach nearly $2.5 million this year, the co-founders say.

Today, the company undertakes two to three events a month in locales such as Huntington Beach and Cancun, Mexico, for clients as diverse as confectionary giant Cadbury Adams, home builder Ryland Homes and Morton’s Restaurant Group Inc.

One team from the Morton’s steakhouse chain turned to the action genre, crafting a commercial showing a wimpy customer emerging from an elevator with a bag of steaks after fending off a gang of beef-salivating bikers, who are shown piled up behind him.

Next up for Lights, Camera, InterAction is an event in May for financial managers from the newly merged Thomson-Reuters news organization.

One of the biggest challenges was finding a way to entertain 600 accountants and financial analysts at General Mills last fall during an event in Minneapolis.

But the number crunchers proved surprisingly theatrical. One team created a “superheroes of finance” commercial inspired by the film “Fantastic Four.” The segment featured various heroes of the balance-sheet and income-statement world with names such as “Anjelica Keeper of Profits.”

“The event could have been a flop, but it was a hit,” said Jason Krob, financial manager at General Mills.

Despite its growth, Lights, Camera, InterAction has stayed lean, with just five full-time workers.

Its only assets consist of half a dozen cameras and a warehouse of props, costumes and makeup, which are stored in giant crates and air freighted to events.

“We can outfit any idea that someone has,” Lanier said, “whether they want to be Mick Jagger or Flash Gordon.”

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