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Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Lessons for Product Managers from Cannon Films

I recently watched an entertaining and informative documentary on Cannon Films, a movie studio responsible for some of the most questionable cinematic endeavors of the early 80s. Films such as the "Death Wish" series,"Breakin’, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo", and "American Ninja" sealed this firm's reputation as purveyors of possibly some of the worst motion pictures ever released. While watching this fascinating story, I realized that I interpret almost everything I see and hear in terms of product management (sad but true!). In this case, the parallels with my chosen career were surprisingly obvious. Here are a few product-related lessons and insights driven home by "Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films".

Sell first, develop later
Cannon would sell a film to international distributors before they shot the first frame. While obviously risky, I've found myself doing the same thing with courses I've developed. This principle of ensuring a viable market before investing in development is an approach that should guide virtually all product development.

Make a powerful emotional connection with buyers using simple collateral
Menahem Golan, chairman of the board, would often secure international sales for unmade movies by developing a poster that could make an emotional connection with buyers. His strong personality and charisma notwithstanding, the ability to concisely represent the value of a product (whether it exists or not) is a skill every product manager should hone. I've previously written about one approach to doing this by writing a press release for a software release before development starts.

Empathy for your customers is crucial
During it's most infamous period, Cannon was run by a couple of entrepreneurial Israelis who, while successful in their homeland, probably lacked an adequate understanding of the American movie-goer to be successful in this competitive market. This lack of empathy made decisions on subject matter and trade-offs between quality and budget constraints precarious at best. The result was inexpensive movies that, over time, became a joke in the industry and with audiences. We as product managers must continually make the same types of trade-offs so must have deep empathy for our product's stakeholders, especially customers.

Speed is no substitute for quality
Again and again, Cannon sacrificed quality in an attempt to get product out the door as fast as possibly, often in response to competitive pressure. While a healthy company can withstand one of the mistakes every few release cycles, there is no getting around the minimum quality bar expected by the market.

Follow your passion
Despite their missteps, all who knew Golan recognized his absolute passion for movie making. Whether directing or running the studio, he worked tirelessly to make movies that he hoped would entertain the masses (and make him massively rich!). There is no doubt in my mind Cannon Films managed to survive as long as it did to a great extent due to the "power of passion". It makes me wonder about the impact they could have had if they hadn't suffered from some of the other challenges enumerated above.

In closing, we product people have a lot to learn from industries outside of our own. I would say the points above apply to virtually any product. Do they apply to yours? What is your favorite Cannon Films creation?

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