Business Lessons from ‘La La Land’

Ah yes, ‘La La Land’ — that rousing 2017 version of the feel-good musicals of the 1940s, nominated for twelve Academy Awards, actual winner of five Academy Awards: Best Actress, Best Director, Best Original Music Score, Best Cinematography, and Best Production Design.

Yes, the movie that has performed better than anyone expected and is now approaching $400 million in global receipts on a budget of merely $30 million. I don’t care who you are, that’s smoking hot ROI.

But besides a great flick, I wondered if there might be some lessons learned that we can apply to everyday business. Whether you toil away in La La Land on the West coast or the Big Apple on the right side of the continent (or on another equally interesting continent), maybe there’s something of use here for you.

Warning, if you’ve not seen ‘La La Land’ yet (and if not, what are you waiting for?)… possible spoiler alerts ahead.

Lesson #1: The Story is The Story

Hollywood seems mostly to give us recycled stories drowning in CGI and woefully lacking in plot or feelings. Explosions and bullets punctuate scenes as if they are required eye candy for the viewing public. Characters are little more that one-dimensional props designed to move us from one explosion to the next.

And then comes ‘La La Land.’

No explosions or CGI-induced hysteria. It’s a simple story about what happens when two lives intersect… When people chase their dreams and fail, and fail again. When people fall in love, and when the pursuit of their dreams pulls them apart in a way that is equal parts thrilling and painful.

The movie connects with people in a way that few others have. Evidence of the connection the movie has built with movie-goers: the sites from the movie are (rather organically) becoming tourist attractions.

Simply put, the story of ‘La La Land’ is the story of two people: their hopes, dreams, failures, love, and loss. The story isn’t about CGI or explosions. The story is the story.

It works the same in business and life. Business isn’t merely a transaction. It’s about relationships. It’s about stories. Our clients want us to know and appreciate their story. Every business was started with a hope, a dream, a story, a journey… and our clients love it when we love their story. They love it when we care… when we join their story for a little while. We owe it to our clients to listen, to learn, and to be enthralled with their story.

Likewise, our colleagues all have stories to tell. Each of them with dreams and aspirations, and yes, even failures and defeats. Because they’re human (we best not forget it), and because we’re human (we best not fail to show it) — we ought to care. We need to listen to our colleagues’ stories, embrace them, and weave them into the fabric of our shared experiences.

And when we’re selling, let’s not forget that the hard details of the contract might be akin to the CGI-crafted explosions of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster. Alone, they mean very little. But the story is what really counts. What’s the story of how we’ll help our clients succeed? What’s the story of our partnership? How does our story mesh with the story they’re writing each day as they pursue their mission? Beyond the facts and figures, beyond the tables and the exhibits, beyond the contracts and the SOWs, beyond the terms and conditions… the story is the real story.

Lesson #2: Take the Chance

Lionsgate is the studio that took the chance on ‘La La Land.’ It wasn’t a comic book remake. It wasn’t a relaunch of one super hero or another for the 13th time. (Thankfully!)

It was (gasp) a musical! And (double-gasp) it was an original musical. It wasn’t bringing to the silver-screen (again) Les Miserable or Phantom of the Opera. It was a simple tale of Mia and Sebastian and how their lives intersected for a brief time., of how they loved each other, and always will. Lionsgate took a big chance. They made a strategic decision to work with less-established, more innovative, and perhaps more creative movie-makers… and the gamble is paying off big-time.

So it is in business. While some may pursue the same tired formulas time and again, others will find the profitable niche, the unique angle, and take a chance in a new direction. There’s another term for this: Leadership.

Does anyone doubt we’ll see a few attempts by other studios to go to market with old-style musicals remade for 2017? Undoubtedly we will, and just as certainly they will crash and burn as poor imitations of an original. Audiences can spot the difference between leadership and imitation-ship.

In business, someone will find the new direction, the better approach, the more profitable formula… and it will have risks… it won’t be a certainty… and when it succeeds, it will be called leadership. At first, the critics may deride the risk-taking. When the success rolls in, the analysts will praise the innovative thinking and creative leadership.

But in the words of Mia (Emma Stone) in her brilliant audition song, “Here’s to the ones who dream, crazy at they may seem… A bit of madness is key, to give us new colors to see. Who knows where it will lead us, And that’s why they need us.”

Take the chance, my friends.

Lesson #3: Your Best Will Likely Be Good Enough

You don’t have to be world-class in your field to succeed. Rather, you have to invent a new best for yourself, and be that very best, and that very best… will likely be good enough.

Music critics (of which I am not) will tell us that Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone’s singing in ‘La La Land’ was uneven and not up to the standard of professional singers. Maybe the dancing wasn’t top tier. Perhaps Ryan Gosling’s piano playing wasn’t world class. But for three months, the leads learned to sing, dance, and yes, play the piano (Gosling reportedly practiced the piano two hours a day, six days a week) all of which gives the film a certain genuine authenticity that is hard to fake.

Quite literally, they created a new best. And then performed at their best. And their best, was most certainly good enough.

Isn’t this true in our business affairs as well? Few of us are world-class (dare we admit it?) I’m not. Perhaps you’re not. But success is not predicated on that. Our job is to do our very best, to create a new best, and then to perform at that best, and that, my friends, will be quite enough.

It was for Gosling and Stone. It was for writer and director Damien Chazelle. It was for Justin Hurwitz, who created and brought to life the music of ‘La La Land.”

I’m quite sure your very best will also be quite enough for you as well.

Still haven’t seen ‘La La Land’ yet? What are you waiting for?

I think you’ll see these few lessons, and maybe a few more.

Just don’t try to claim it as a business expense with the IRS. You’re on your own with that one.