Orson Welles on Organizational Structure

21 July 2013 at 7:09 pm 2 comments

| Peter Klein |

Welles was perhaps the greatest auteur of cinema and modern theater, so it’s no surprise that he comes out in favor of flatter hierarchies:

OW: [Irving] Thalberg was the biggest single villain in the history of Hollywood. Before him, an producer made the least contribution, by necessity. The producer didn’t direct, he didn’t act, he didn’t write — so, therefore, all he could do was either (A) mess it up, which he didn’t do very often, or (B) tenderly caress it. Support it. Producers would only go to the set to see that you were on budget, and that you didn’t burn down the scenery. But [Louis B.] Mayer made way for the producer system. He created the fellow who decides, who makes the directors’ decisions, which had never existed before.

HJ: Didn’t the other studio heads interfere with their directors?

OW: None of the old hustlers did that much harm. If they saw somebody good, they hired him. They tried to screw it up afterwards, but there was still a kind of dialogue between talent and the fellow up there in the front office. They had that old Russian-Jewish respect for the artist. All they did was say what they liked, and what they didn’t like, and argue with you. That’s easy to deal with. And sometimes the talent won. But once you got the educated producers, he has a desk, he’s gotta have a function, he’s gotta do something. He’s not running the studio and counting the money — he’s gotta be creative. That was Thalberg. The director became the fellow whose only job was to day, “Action” and “Cut.” Suddenly, you were “just a director” on a “Thalberg production.” Don’t you see? A role had been created in the world. Just as there used to be no conductor of symphonies.

HJ: There was no conductor?

OW: No. The konzertmeister, first violinist, gave the beat. The conductor’s job was invented. Like the theater director, a role that is only 150, 200 years old. Nobody directed plays before then. The stage manager said, “Walk left on that line.” The German, what’s his name, Saxe-Meiningen, invented directing in the theater. And Thalberg invented producing in movies. He persuaded all the writers that they couldn’t write without him, because he as he great man.

Clearly Orson would not agree with my take on entrepreneurship and ultimate responsibility, as applied to the arts. Or do well in a restaurant kitchen. I have to admit, though, that Welles has a certain credibility on the subject of creativity.

Entry filed under: - Klein -, Entrepreneurship, People, Strategic Management. Tags: .

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2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Scott Wallace  |  22 July 2013 at 3:13 pm

    While Welles was often his own worst enemy (leaving the country to film “It’s All True” in South America before completing the editing of “The Magnificent Ambersons”), his criticism of Thalberg sounds like the “imperative to manage” criticism of centralized authority as discussed by Milgrom and Roberts. This certainly is a problem at public universities. The dramatic growth in administrative personnel over the last two decades hasn’t reduced the administrative duties of faculty but has multiplied them.

    There is often a conflict between creativity and box office. Producers are more interested in the box office performance than in artistic qualities of a film. Groucho Marx, for example, praised Thalberg’s interventions in the production of “The Night at the Opera” as being responsible for the film’s popularity. I, however, prefer the more creative but financially disastrous “Duck Soup.”

  • […] the greatest sin of all in management–decision making by opinion, and not by data and logic. Here you can read about Orson Welles, and why he preferred a flat structure when producing movies. In […]

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