Management and Other Problems

The two young executives stood admiring the impressive artwork that lined the wall of the huge exhibit room. Clearly they were taken aback by the beautiful artwork and the stellar concept designs on display. The executive dressed in the “serious” dark suit was eager to know the person or persons responsible. She turned to her colleague with an important question.

“Who managed this incredible project?”

That question is my concern with many companies today. Apparently, the talented artists whose work the executives admired were not even worth mentioning. It would appear the talented staff that made the project possible were not worthy of a mention. That was because they were nothing more than hired hands, fruit pickers or a few other unflattering terms I could mention. The person or persons who should truly be noted, respected and admired was - you guess it. The manager.

As an old veteran in this crazy business of creating media I often stand in amazement when I consider how much management has encroached on the business of creativity. Today, the tail wags the dog as clueless managers rule the roost and take credit ( not to mention the compensation) for the hard work of others. But, I’ve gotta confess the managers have always had an edge. That’s because they’re excellent at doing one thing. They’re masters at exploiting the work of others to serve their own selfish agenda. The worker bees and other creative types have their nose to the grindstone creating product. This gives the managers ample time to plan and scheme their way to the top. And, believe me, they’re more than effective at doing just that.

Consider the old days of animation film making where the studio’s management team was lean and mean. Most studios employed a production manager and a handful of secretaries who ran herd over multiple projects in work. Should you consider what things were like at a truly huge enterprise such as The Walt Disney Studios you might be in for a surprise. Even Walt’s massive cartoon factory employed a very lean management team even though several projects were in work. Besides Roy O. Disney and his upper level management team, the animation studio was able to operate efficiently with production boss, Ken Peterson and Andy Engman running a department that numbered in the hundreds. How could Ken, Andy and their secretaries handle such a daunting task? Why didn’t these Disney bosses have multiple assistants? And, why didn’t their assistants have assistants? The answer is simple. They weren’t needed.

Of course, I was clueless to the business side of animation when I was a young artist at the Mouse House. However, when promoted to Walt’s Story Department I gained a closer view of Disney’s production process. Here we were creating a major motion picture that would mobilize the considerable resources of Walt Disney Productions. Yet, Walt Disney didn’t need an “army” to accomplish that task. You’ll notice there’s usually no producer credit on the Disney animation classics. The job of running production was left to a production manager and his management team. When it came to the production pipeline, each department pretty much managed themselves. It made sense, actually. Only the team knew what had to be done and what would be required to accomplish it. It was a very clean, simple way of working. And, it provided a very effective solution to the daunting task of creating a motion picture.

You can imagine what a jaw dropping experience it was returning to the business of animation in the early nineties after a ten year absence. I arrived to find my beloved animation department working in a way I could never have imagined. Naturally, all this was deemed necessary because the studio had totally adopted the convoluted mechanism of corporate management. You already know what this means, of course. The corporate methodology of layered management. Whether you call it, systematization or bureaucracy it was the new way of doing things. Those new to the animation business considered this process normal. For me, it was a new form of madness. The old system of filmmaking had been collaborative. Questions were answered and problems were solved by simply going to the person who could make a decision. Now, key people were buffered by legions of assistants who acted more as “gate Keepers.” Rather than facilitate efficiency they usually did the opposite. None of this was intentional, of course. That’s just the way the system functioned. Naturally, in time, the managers would wield a good deal more clout than the artists.

Some might misconstrue this missive as attack on studio management. Of course, that’s not my intention, but I do have a concern and it comes from first hand experience. I’ll not mention any names here, but recently I overheard a conversation between an artist and a manager. All the artist needed was an answer to a simple question. The question was clear and straightforward, yet the manager continued to overcomplicate the question and refuse to give an answer. I understood the subtext, of course. Corporate interests were clearly in the way of a clear and simple answer. This never would have happened in the old days of Disney. Today, it’s simply the way we do business.

I regretfully watch the two young managers in crisp business suits and I sadly realize we live in two different worlds. Management and art have never truly been ideal companions. Today, that reluctant relationship shows little signs of improving.

Never an ideal relationship, today, it appears to be worse than ever.

Never an ideal relationship, today, it appears to be worse than ever.