“Productive paranoia: Lights, camera…anxiety!” Lessons from making 37 movies

This week’s episode of our Stanford FRICTION Podcast stars Sheri Singer, who has worked as a TV and film producer since she was 21 years old. Sheri has been executive producer of 37 made-for-tv movies–and is working on several additional films right now. She is perhaps best known for the Disney Channel Halloweentown series, where young woman Marnie Piper trains to become a witch and uses her powers to battle evil. Sheri is my first cousin, so it was easy to convince her to join us on the podcast. We had a rollicking conversation, in part, because Sheri’s husband Steve White was in the room during the recording and kept egging us on with provocative stories and questions. (Steve also has had a long and successful career as a producer and NBC network executive–and was the Grateful Dead’s road manager for a year in the 1960’s).

The movies that Sheri makes provide an excellent laboratory for uncovering when friction is desirable, the warning signs that bad friction is emerging, and how leaders can nip it in the bud. These films are made under strict financial, temporal, legal, technical, and administrative constraints. Each film is produced by a temporary organization that Sheri, as executive producer, is responsible for assembling, running, and disbanding. The filming is nearly always completed in 15 to 20 days — so speed is of the essence, and even small delays and mistakes can mess up the schedule, undermine a film’s quality, and destroy profit margins. (Here is a story on the parallels between this “Hollywood Model” and the research on flash organizations that Melissa Valentine discussed on FRICTION in season one)

As I went back and listened to Sheri’s episode and read the transcript, I realized a key to Sheri’s success is that she has keenly tuned radar–a form of healthy, rather than destructive, paranoia. Her attitude, constant scanning for red flags, and penchant for avoiding (or quickly eliminating) trouble reminds of research by Rod Kramer on “prudent paranoia.” Here is Rod’s definition in the Harvard Business Review:

Prudent paranoia is a form of constructive suspicion regarding the intentions and actions of people and organizations. Prudently paranoid people monitor their colleagues’ every move, scrutinizing and analyzing each action in minute detail. They are aware that those around them harbor powerful—and often conflicting—motives for the things they do. By awakening a sense of present or future danger, prudent paranoia serves as part of the mind’s early warning system, prompting people to search out and appraise more information about their situations.

In our 25 minute conversation, Sheri discusses numerous red flags that arouse “constructive suspicion” in her and that shape if and when she intervenes in small and big ways. Although Sheri talks more about destructive than constructive friction, she discussed times when it is wise to slow things way down and fix problems; otherwise the production will be haunted with higher costs, lower quality and destructive friction down the road. For example, Sheri emphasized– even if there is pressure from funders and partners to move faster– that if a film has a bad script, chances are high the film will be bad too. Or, even the best case, the constant rewrites, reshooting, and intensive editing required to save the film will result in a hellish, expensive, and frustrating production process:

I don’t say, “I don’t care if it’s not as good “as it could be, I just wanna get the movie made.” I don’t do that. But some people do, and that’s one place where it’s really worth it to slow down.

Once the cast and production crew for a film are hired, and the planning begins, Sheri looks for warning signs that people need to be nudged to move faster, make the right decisions, or sometimes, just aren’t right for the film. She described a recent film were the stunt coordinator fell asleep at an early meeting . Sheri wanted to fire the guy right away, but her partner wouldn’t let her. She was right:”He did finally get fired, but he got fired when it was so close to when the big stunts were coming that we had a major scramble job.” Sheri then explained how her “prudent paranoia” feels and works: “So my albatross is, I get it, I don’t know why. I just get it right away when I see that I have a problem. ”

Sheri also talked about warning signs that the daily production schedule is slipping, and how important it is nip them in the bud. A classic problem happens when the “talent” comes out of hair and make-up 45 or 50 minutes late every morning. When that happens, the production schedule is at risk of becoming hours, and soon, days, behind schedule. So at the first sign of trouble, Sheri nudges and nags the people who cause such delays, and if necessary, she will fire hair and make-up people who keep messing up the schedule.

As Sheri says at the opening of the podcast, “The best moment of a producer’s life is the day they get the call that they got a film order.” And after that, it is all problem-solving and productive paranoia. In short, as Huggy Rao and I have written elsewhere, the path to excellence requires a focus on avoiding and eliminating the negative to clear the way for the positive, of going from “bad to great.”

Finally, by necessity, Sheri and other skilled producers wield much authority and make decisions quickly. Sheri emphasized, however, that the most creative, efficient, and civilized productions aren’t ran by rigid and authoritarian dictators. There is give and take, brainstorming about different suggestions, and lots of constructive and respectful conflict. Given the constraints that the crew and cast work under, this all must happen faster than on a big budget TV series or Hollywood blockbuster. Yet, as I’ve seen in other industries, although having some hierarchy appears to be essential for all groups and organizations, that doesn’t mean that people at or near the top are the smartest, have all the answers, or ought to ignore or disrespect the people they lead–as Sheri suggests, having authority over others is no excuse for behaving like an authoritarian jerk.

I hope you enjoy my conversation with Sheri as much as I did. It was a strange and delightful experience because, even though I have heard Sheri talk about her work in bits and pieces many times over the years, the podcast gave me chance to learn about her work in a systematic way for the first time.

Sheri makes a compelling case that although “prudent paranoia” feels like an albatross around her neck at times, her friction detection radar enables her to produce well-reviewed films that she is proud of– and to do so on time and on budget.

This article first appeared on LinkedIn.