Why Your Startup Is Like A Movie

In the summer of 1991 I was in Hollywood, California. Or, more specifically, in Westwood and Culver City and on the MGM lot. I was sharing a studio apartment with a grad student at UCLA and working for a production company in the motion picture industry. Dream come true, ton of fun, et cetera, et cetera.

scriptsI was a script reader. The day I started, the producer who hired me showed me his office. There were piles of scripts stacked higher than my waist scattered all over the place. Some were still in envelopes that hadn’t been opened. He pointed me at them and told me to read them all and tell him which ones I thought he should produce.

I did.

In the end I made several recommendations.

They didn’t take any of them.

In fact one of the only films I read that was eventually made was called Undercover Blues, a yawner about husband and wife secret agents starring Dennis Quaid and Kathleen Turner. (Don’t bother to Netflix it, it was terrible. They tried again and made Mr and Mrs Smith with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in 2005 – a much better result). I remember thinking the idea was cute but that the dialogue was thin, the plot sleepy, and that the only thing remotely interesting was the comic-relief bad guy character “Muerte” (eventually played by a young Stanley Tucci).

The producers didn’t pick Undercover Blues because it was a great script, they picked it because Dennis Quaid was “attached” to it and he had significant box office cred at the time. In the end, it grossed $12 million at the box office, which even for 1992 wasn’t very impressive. Meanwhile, dozens of the brilliant scripts I had read went unmade. They’re probably still in the producer’s office at the bottom of some stack.

Two important things I learned that summer: 1. don’t bother sending scripts to Hollywood producers, because the college intern who has to read them first doesn’t know a THING about what makes a good movie and will more than likely be distracted by girlfriend issues or late-night computer gaming sessions and isn’t thinking clearly anyway, and 2. for people who take risks on ideas, the quality of an idea is worth far less than the people attached to that idea.

Investors are the same way. They have business plans stacked up on the floors of their offices too, and use interns to screen through them the same way Hollywood producers do. Many of those business plans are fantastic, but the investor doesn’t have the time (or, one would argue, the expertise) to dig in and analyze them at any level of detail. Nor does the quality of a business plan have much to do with their decision to get involved. Instead they rely on shortcuts to estimate the risk of any given idea – and the most common shortcut they use is: your team.

If your box office cred is good (i.e. you’ve started a company and “delivered value to shareholders” in the past), you’re considered less risky. If your picture has the commitment of a solid supporting cast and crew (i.e. your team has people with experience in their specialty), you’re less risky. If your script is mediocre but you’ve got a good cast, odds are you can fix it during production and still turn in a hit.

This is the logic, anyway. It doesn’t always work. Still, the fact remains: if you’re a first-time screenwriter with no background, the odds that your great summer blockbuster idea will get greenlighted on the strength of your script alone are just about zero.

And don’t bother to send your business plan in unsoliticed to an investor. Odds are good it will end up in a stack, read by some first-year MBA with girlfriend issues.

Michael Sattler

With a career spent in founding and technical leadership roles with new and enterprise-level organizations, Michael Sattler is a veteran in technology strategy, operations, and product management. He’s spent decades in B2B and B2C SaaS product development, software and application design, engineering operations, new venture creation, and innovation practices.

He has scaled and managed technical teams from 2-50+ across three continents, led large-scale cross-functional program management, and founded or co-founded six companies.