The lean methodology isn’t new. But can it be applied to an artistic endeavor like documentary filmmaking? That’s the question a three-member team of graduates from the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School have been asking for the past year through Observatory Ventures, a documentary filmmaking startup.
“Lean” film production “is something we learned in business school,” says Stephen Robert Morse, Oxford Saïd Class of 2016. “We’re trying to apply those same lean techniques to filmmaking, so we can make films in way more efficient ways than has been done before.”
Morse, 31, brings documentary chops to the team: Even before enrolling in Saïd’s full-time one-year MBA program, he had already directed and produced Ain’t Easy Being Green, a full-length documentary about Carl Romanelli, a 2006 Green Party nominee for a United States Senate seat. As Morse worked through the MBA program, the Netflix original documentary Amanda Knox, which he had helped produce, was in post-production; soon after Morse graduated with his MBA, Amanda Knox was released to wide acclaim and a flood of award nominations — including one for a Primetime Emmy.
A NONTRADITIONAL TRAJECTORY TO B-SCHOOL
Morse’s career has been a medley of journalistic and entrepreneurial endeavors. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania, he worked at Mother Jones magazine before founding MyTwoCensus.com, which he describes as a nonpartisan watchdog of the 2010 U.S. Census. Morse’s reporting has appeared in Fast Company, The Atlantic, the Financial Times, and many other outlets. Meanwhile, the Oceanside, New York native has employed his writing abilities in the service of multiple New York City-based early-stage startups.
It was while working at those startups that Morse noticed a hole in his professional skill set. He had never really studied simple business strategies like finance, marketing, or strategy. Morse decided a one-year, intensive program would help fill those gaps. But once at Oxford, he did much more than fill a skills gap — he found his eventual co-founder.
FINDING THE PERFECT TEAMMATE
After graduating from UCLA, Maria Springer co-founded LivelyHoods, a U.S.-registered nonprofit that provides clean energy and employment in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya. Through the work of Springer, her co-founder Tania Laden, and other employees and volunteers, LivelyHoods has created more than 1,200 jobs, saved almost $12 million in fuel costs, distributed more than 20,000 cookstoves, and sold nearly 2,000 solar products.
Springer, accepted into Saïd’s MBA program as a Skoll Scholar, was never on a team with Morse at Oxford; they never even shared the same class. But they were friends and lived close to each other. Then, last summer and fall in the leadup to the U.S. presidential election, Springer contacted Morse while he was doing Saïd-sponsored healthcare work in Ghana — she was on a mission to keep Donald Trump from becoming president of the United States, and was looking for help.
They devised a plan to work with Uber, Lyft, and Google to make sure there were plenty of rides to polls in urban areas on Election Day. “Ultimately, that project fell apart,” Morse admits, blaming complications with working alongside the Hillary Clinton campaign for derailing the project.
But even as that door closed, Morse and Springer busted open another. “I was like, ‘Let’s make movies. I’m positive we can make movies — I’ve done it already,’” Morse says.
THE SOUTHWEST AIRLINES OF FILM PRODUCTION COMPANIES
Not only had Morse already made documentaries, he had done so very successfully. Morse and his team were also good at making movies on a budget, which is helpful for a team of graduate students. And they soon did it by taking a few pages out of the B-school playbook. Observatory has adapted to the documentary making world the method that MIT professor James Womack coined in describing Toyota’s model in the 1980s — the “lean manufacturing process.” “Instead of building Toyota cars in a lean way,” Morse says, “we want to build documentaries that way. And actually make money doing it.”
While many award-winning and -nominated producers and directors in the film industry fly around in business or first class, wine and dine, and enjoy plush hotels, Morse and his team travel on a budget. “Our theory is, if you can keep your production costs down, you’re in a better position to make money,” Morse says matter-of-factly. “For a hundred years, people have not really been able to do that, but that’s what we are doing now.”
Morse likens Observatory’s approach to disruptive mega-brands like Southwest Airlines and Amazon.
“Southwest and a few other airlines around the world have reformed the airline industry,” he says. “They gave people the basic barebones. You’re still getting the same thing and getting from point A to point B, but you’re just not going to have this first-class service anymore. You’re not going to have all of these luxury items tacked on.”
‘WE THINK BEFORE WE MAKE DECISIONS’
The result sounds like common sense: “We think,” Morse says, “before we make decisions.”
That means more than just cheap motels and flights in coach on economy airlines. It also means a measure of frugality goes into production decisions. Observatory looks for ways to get around going on a specific trip, Morse says, or finds secondary research or data at a lower cost. “It could even mean we’re not going to work with the person with 30 years of experience. We’re going to take a chance on the person with five years of experience,” he says.
“If you sell a film for $300,000 but spent $750,000 making it, you’re in the hole,” Morse continues. “But if you only spend $150,000 making it, $300,000 is a two-times return.”
Not rocket science.
GAINING A B-SCHOOL SWAGGER
The lean method isn’t the only way B-school has helped Morse in making documentary films. He credits Oxford’s diverse student body for beefing up his confidence in communicating with people from different cultures and backgrounds — which for obvious reasons comes in handy when making documentaries. Most recently, his newfound swagger helped Morse and Observatory convince Dutch right-wing populist Geert Wilders to go in front of the cameras; the result is the newly released EuroTrump.
“This is a guy who has never participated in a film in his life. And we convinced him successfully to make this film with us and let us follow him around for months,” says Morse, still sounding a bit surprised. “If I wouldn’t have gone to business school, I wouldn’t have had the confidence or skills to approach someone like that.”
Wilders, widely known for his extreme right views on immigration and a loose physical resemblance to U.S. President Donald Trump, gained a lot of media coverage last spring while campaigning to be prime minister of the Netherlands. Wilders lost in a landslide.
Morse and Springer are pretty far to the poets side of the typical MBA population, but Morse says B-school benefits people from any background. “No matter what industry you come from,” he says, “business school should be a really positive experience.”