What Richard Zanuck Taught Me About Leadership


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NOREENA HERTZ: What is the best depiction of what goes on in the C-Suite that I’ve seen in TV or movies?

Rather than answering this question with a story of a movie that depicts business, I want to instead share a powerful lesson for business from the movies, as taught me by the legendary film producer Richard Zanuck.

When he was only 30-years-old Zanuck had his first big hit. It was with a musical about a trainee nun in the Austrian Alps starring Julie Andrews, called “The Sound of Music.” The film was a huge commercial success. It remains, in inflation-adjusted dollars, one of the highest grossing films of all time.


So what did Zanuck do next? Understandably, he tried to repeat what he’d just done.  Over lunch just days before he died in July of 2012, he told me he had been convinced that the musical was back, and a lot of people, a lot of other studio heads, were convinced that this was the way to go. And so he commissioned three more musicals—“Doctor Doolittle,” “Hello Dolly,” and “Star!”—all in a similar sugary vein. “Star!” even starred Julie Andrews and had the same director and choreographer as “The Sound of Music.”
All three were box-office flops. Indeed they lost so much money that Zanuck was fired from this job as production chief at Twentieth Century Fox as a consequence.

When at lunch all those years later I asked him what he thought had gone wrong, his insights provided me with an important lesson.
He explained how when “The Sound of Music” hit movie screens, the appeal of singing nuns and the lush Technicolor greenery of the Austrian hills made sense against the backdrop of the early 1960s. But by the time the back-to-back movie flops were released, things had moved on. The Vietnam War and the civil rights movement had politicized the American public, pop and rock music were dominant, and saccharine-sweet family productions had lost their appeal.

It’s not that the past is never a good predictor of what lies ahead. There are of course many examples we could cite of times when looking backward, consciously or not, has helped people reach the right decisions. But what Zanuck learned was this: We cannot be wedded to our past successes and failures, or our experience-based instincts, so that shifting tides or new information are ignored. Nor can we assume a linear trajectory.

This is truer now than ever, as we attempt to navigate today’s uncertain and unpredictable digital world, in which things are changing with an ever greater rapidity. Success does not necessarily breed success. Just because we haven’t seen a snake today or yesterday, it doesn’t mean that we won’t see one tomorrow. And just because a certain set of ingredients once worked, it doesn’t mean they always will.

It is a testament to Zanuck’s creative energy and willingness to introspect that he came back from these harsh experiences to produce “Jaws,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” and many other great movies.