Replicate “The Oscar Effect” to Improve Performance, Output, and Cultivate a Self-motivated Workforce

Published on
July 31, 2017
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Altering your leadership and management strategy in order to build the tensile strength of your team, increase efficiency, productivity and profitability, and automate better outcomes, may seem like a daunting prospect, yet if you use the right approach it’s fairly easy to accomplish.

As a manager of A-list feature films overseeing in excess of $2 billion in product and leading more than 100,000 employees in the very fluid and high pressure conditions of film production where I routinely led 100-person crews on $200,000 shooting days that often included dangerous stunts and working on location in places like the Everglades, state prisons, city rooftops, or the streets of Paris, I noticed some elements inherent to filmmaking that work to create a self-motivated workforce, and these elements are adaptable to virtually any business.

Late one night after stepping out of a restaurant in Providence, RI, as I walked toward my hotel I noticed that all of the commercial buildings around me were completely dark, except for one.


I counted up from the lobby, and sure enough it was our fourth floor production offices with the lights on. Counting over from my office, I concluded that it was the wardrobe designer working late. I knew she worked on a flat, weekly salary, so she wasn’t being paid overtime. I also knew that no one had “told her” to stay late—she was doing so on her own volition. This type of diligence and drive is not atypical in filmmaking—it’s actually commonplace.

As a frontline manager of large work crews, and knowing that employees with a strong work ethic are critical to the success of every business, I asked myself, Why is the wardrobe designer working late of her own accord, and why is this normal in the film industry? Especially in light of the fact that employee disengagement and lack of motivation is extremely prevalent—and costly—resulting in a $500 billion loss in revenue annually in the US alone. As a manager, I was well aware that unmotivated, disengaged employees also decrease workplace cohesion and fluidity of workflow, lower the quality of the goods produced or services rendered, and cripple innovation—not just degrade profit.

But that night in Providence, when that wardrobe designer was capping off a long workday with a long work night with no external mandate to do so, I deduced that there had to be specific, unique factors in the film industry that foster this type of extreme self-motivation. Later, while walking through the lobby of my hotel, I recalled walking across another hotel lobby in Memphis, TN where I discovered our production designer in tears because she was worried that she might not have the set she was creating of the interior of the United States Supreme Court ready in time. We’re talking the Supreme Court here–gigantic marble columns, judge’s bench, press gallery… It took more than four years to build the original—she had two weeks to replicate it—and the thought that she might need an extra day brought her to tears.

I asked myself, Who stays late of their own volition? Who cries when they can’t meet a deadline? Especially since most managers in the larger business environment are banging their heads against walls trying to figure out how to motivate employees just to do what’s expected.

As I thought about it, I was able to isolate four very specific factors inherent to filmmaking that helped explain this high level of individual employee engagement to not just do a good job, but to excel.

First, filmmakers work in a small, closed industry based on a gig economy, which means we are dependent on the quality of our work in order to get future jobs. That mandates reputation building and requires positive peer recommendations—a huge factor in motivating a high level of effort.

Second, the behavioral science behind intrinsic motivation predicts that when employees are offered new challenges that lead to growth and self-development, it increases motivation more than concrete rewards like salary increases. Each film project offers a staggering array of unique challenges, novelty of experience, and opportunity for growth.

Third, it’s a lot easier to slack if the quality of what you do isn’t directly attributed to you personally. In the film business, key personnel know that their work will be subject to very public scrutiny—after all, our work appears in theaters and on television with our names on it. It doesn’t get much more public than that.

Finally, the Oscars and other industry awards offer very public, industry endorsed, recognition for excellence. Those awards leverage and propel careers, translating into more projects in the future, which lead to higher pay, more creative opportunity and more recognition.

That night in Providence I labeled these four elements the “Oscar Effect,” understanding that taken together, they are a management “superfecta.” Because of them, I am able to work under the assumption that most of my workforce (film crew) will kill themselves to excel at their jobs—which makes my job as a manager much, much easier.

Many managers at companies where employees work on commission or have stock options, bonuses, or competitive promotions often have similarly self-motivated employees. But many managers face the exact opposite scenario—they are managing a workforce that is not self-motivated to perform at the highest level. In fact, many managers find—and the data supports this—that most employees—and most managers—are highly unmotivated. So no matter what your business, you can help yourself and your bottom line by creating your own version of the Oscar Effect.

After all, what could be better than taking control of what is a global issue of employee disengagement and lack of self-directed motivation, and turning it around at your company as a means to improve both profit and innovation?

By rethinking the internal dynamics of your managerial strategy you can fundamentally change the work ethic of your staff—and you can achieve this by changing some small things that lie in that management superfecta.


  • First replicate elements of the gig economy by creating a feeling of ownership of, and accountability for, the quality of what you produce in the entire workforce.
  • Embed novel experiences and growth opportunities for all employees.
  • Structure a systemic way to emphasize pride in work.
  • Provide some degree of public or industry level scrutiny—not on the scale of the Oscars of course, but just enough to get everyone’s attention

If you think about it, as a manager of cross-functional teams—in a greater business environment where nearly 75% of cross-functional teams are dysfunctional—having a highly motivated workforce who want to excel, work late, and fight for additional assets or time to do so, is an enviable position to be in.

Tom Reilly is the author of The Hollywood MBA: A Crash Course in Management from a Life in the Film Business (St. Martin’s Press, 2017). He is a member of the Directors Guild of America, and a Distinguished Lecturer on film at Brooklyn College.