Podcasts On Failure And Bad Apples

Been catching up some random podcasts lately, and there were two totally unrelated ones that both caught my attention and seemed worth mention.

The first, was Kevin Smith’s “SModcast” that he does with his long time producing partner Scott Mosier. I started listening to Smodcast a few months back, and while there are times it goes off the rails a bit, when it hits it’s really quite enjoyable. It’s one of the few “non-professional” (i.e., radio shows turned into podcasts) I can listen to. Back when the wife was away for nearly two months back during October and November, I used the time to catch up on some of the movies I hadn’t had a chance to see in a while… and that included those in the Kevin Smith and Judd Apatow world… So, I ended up renting both Clerks II and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and then soon afterwards saw (in the theaters) Zack and Miri Make a Porno and then Role Models.

I actually ended up liking all four movies… and listened to the director commentaries on the two rentals. On Clerks II there were actually three different commentary tracks — including one that they had actually recorded originally as a podcast while Clerks II was in the theaters, telling people to take their iPods into the theaters to watch the movie a second time with the “commentary” playing. I thought that was pretty neat.

On the night I saw Zack and Miri, I drove down to Sunnyvale and got dinner with Teck before heading over to Cupertino to catch the movie. I was listening to the last SModcast that Smith & Mosier had done before Zack & Miri and it was pretty amusing (all about the real history of Christmas, which they were discovering in real time via web searches during the podcast). However, at the end, they mentioned that the following week, they were going to do another podcast while watching Zack and Miri — even though they said people shouldn’t bring their iPods into the theaters this time (apparently, theaters freaked out when people did that the last time, which is stupid, but that’s a discussion for another day and another place). They were in pretty good spirits. Zack and Miri was getting fantastic reviews, it had performed wonderfully at various festivals, and many were suggesting that it was going to be Smith’s first truly mainstream hit.

So, after seeing the movie (a week after opening), I kept checking for the podcast of them talking while watching the movie, figuring it would be fun to hear what they had to say. But there was nothing. A week went by. Two weeks. A month. I even checked to make sure the podcast RSS feed wasn’t broken. I went to Smith’s website where he archives the podcasts, and saw lots of folks asking where the latest SModcast was… And still nothing.

Finally, in mid-December, a month and a half later, they put up the next SModcast, called “Talking the Cure, Part 1: In which our heroes ramble about what went wrong.” And, that’s pretty accurate. I don’t follow the movie business that closely, so I had no idea, but the movie underperformed expectations… by an order of magnitude. People were expecting the movie to bring in somewhere in the range of $15 to $20 million or so in the opening weekend, eventually bringing in somewhere around $60 million or so. But apparently opening night it brought in… $2.2 million.

It seemed to have left Smith a total wreck, unable to do very much for quite some time (hence no podcast). And, in fact, much of the podcast itself is basically a therapy session for Smith (towards the end, he realizes this, and they have a silly attempt where Smith asks Mosier if this is what real therapy is like — Mosier has been to a therapist, Smith has not). Smith is incredibly open in describing what he went through — in a way that you almost never hear from someone who has “failed” in some way or another. In a world where we’re used to hearing people play up the good, and downplay the bad, it’s refreshingly, and almost stunningly open.

Unfortunately, they never fully explain what happened, though from the beginning they keep promising to tell the whole story of why the movie flopped. They drop some hints, but at the end of the “therapy” they basically realize that it wouldn’t do any good to reveal the whole story. Their main anger, though, is in the fact that they did everything right: created a great movie the way they wanted to do it, and it got fantastic reviews and had great responses at various festivals.

But someone else screwed it up.

They don’t ever explain exactly who or what, but hint at a few things… Basically something happened at the studio level — and the only thing they really mention was that it opened on October 31st, better known as Halloween. Not surprisingly, that’s a pretty bad night to open a movie, because teenagers have something else to do that they can’t do any other night.

And that brings us to podcast #2. It’s the This American Life, also from that same week in December, and the “theme” is Ruining it for the Rest of Us. It’s about the concept of the “bad apple” ruining things for everyone else. And, as sometimes happens with TAL, the opening bit, before the actual “acts” may be the most interesting. It’s all about the research of Dr. Will Felps, who has done research on “bad apples” and whether or not they destroy teams. And, his preliminary research has found, they do. Dramatically so.

I won’t repeat the details of the experiments he’s run, but it’s amazing how much of an impact a bad apple can have on group dynamics, leading to failure. The only case where a team was able to “overcome” the bad apple, was where one of the members of the team was an incredibly strong leader, able to keep the team focused, and minimize the impact of the bad apple.

And, this leads Ira Glass and Felps to the same point of thinking that I came to while listening to them: am I ever the bad apple in a group? The answer, undoubtedly, for pretty much everyone is that, absolutely, at some point, you are. Felps admits that the research has resulted in him changing his own behavior significantly. He had a habit of teasing people, but the research effectively showed that what he thought was building camaraderie was actually making people no longer want to work with him.

It’s never fun to dwell on the concept of failure or the cause of failures, but between these two very, very different podcasts, it was an interesting look at how failures can happen… how to deal with them when they do, and, in some ways, how to look for ways to avoid them. The combination seemed pretty powerful to me, even if it doesn’t lead to any necessary obvious conclusion (other than try not to be the bad apple — or get rid of them if you find one — and don’t let your movie open on Halloween).

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