10 Mar 2017
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The Business of Lego Batman

Lego Batman producer Dan Lin offers an inside look at the role of a modern Hollywood producer

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Dan Lin (MBA 1999) is the Hollywood producer behind the hit films Sherlock Holmes, Gangster Squad, and the Lego Movie. Lin’s most recent film, Lego Batman, opened last month and was the top grossing film in the country for three weekends in a row. He spoke with associate editor Julia Hanna about everything from his approach to a film’s business plan, to the challenges of managing internal growth on his teams—and how the Lego Movie is like The Avengers.

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Julia Hanna: We all more or less understand what actors and directors do, but the role of a producer is a little more mysterious. I just wonder if you could talk a little bit about what you do as a producer and why it's so fundamental to producing a successful film.

Dan Lin: I think the best way to describe the role in business terms is the producer starts out as the CEO, and ideally I become the COO over the course of the process if I hire the right director. And what I mean by that is the producer starts out with the original idea, puts together the whole team, so it starts out with the idea, in this case of The Lego Movie. He goes out and gets the rights, so gets the intellectual property rights, secures the rights for that, secures the financing for the movie, and puts together what's called the package in Hollywood, which is the writer, the director, the actors, the script. The producer then puts that all together, then he or she hands it off to the directors who become the creative leaders and I become the support, the right hand so to speak.

So in the case of Lego, we put it all together. And we cast it with my directors Lord and Miller, and then they became the CEOs of the project and I am the COO and I support them along the way. But what's really the job is to oversee a production from start to finish. But really, when you're deep into the production process, to hand over the keys to a director and then continue to work with that director and the whole production crew all the way through final delivery of the movie.

Hanna: What do you like about that work? Do you think it's particularly well suited to MBAs? Do you use your MBA skills in what you do?

Lin: Yeah, I mean, it depends on which part of the process. There's so many different parts of the process, but certainly I use my MBA skills at HBS. The class that I remember the most is my lead class that Nitin Nohria actually taught, because every day is about lead. How do I manage-- in the case of The Lego Movie, we actually have 1,000 people working on the movie in all different parts of the world from Los Angeles to Sydney to Denmark and even to Lego headquarters in Connecticut. So it's how do you manage this process.

And you're like a CEO. You can't micromanage every part of the process, because there are a lot of things that are out of my control. So it's how do you set a vision? How do you hire the right team and empower them? And when problems come, how do you properly troubleshoot and get the team together to solve it? So those are kind of the, I would say, the MBA type skills that come into play.

And as much as I don't like to talk about my MBA when I'm making movies, the truth is every movie you have to view as a business proposition. It is show business. It's not show friends. So the movies that we make have to make money. And so when I'm pitching this idea to Warner Brothers I make about a Lego Movie, I have to have in back of my head of course I'm pitching a creative vision for the movie, but I also have to pitch what's the business proposition? How are they going to make money? How are they going to get an adequate ROI on this? How much investment is it? And how quickly can they recoup that investment?

In the same token, I've got to talk to the rights holder, in this case the Lego group. And they own the rights to the movie. They own, obviously, the rights to the brand, the Lego brand. And it's going to impact them in a very, very big way. This is not a subbrand. This is not a Ninjago movie, or a Bionicle movie, or Chima movie. What I asked them for The Lego Movie was their core brand. The success or failure of the movie is going to impact their brand in a major way. And so certainly the business issues come into play.

Hanna: You've worked on a number of different projects. You have the Lego franchise, and then you have a movie like It, which is a little bit more of a one off. Can you talk a little bit about the differences between working on those projects?

Lin: Yeah what with The Lego Movies, I have to view it as a franchise. And they're just not one off movies. And I'll talk about The Lego Movies and also Stephen King's It. But in the case of The Lego Movies, there is a business plan. After the first Lego Movie, I pitched a business plan of basically the LEGO Universe and how we're going to expand this universe. And so my pitch was basically that we had the team movie in the first movie with LEGO one. So that's my Avengers, so to speak. And then we're going to have spin-off off movies. So we're going to have Lego Batman and we're going to have Lego Ninjago, and then we will go back to the team movie.

So it's almost like the first movie was Avengers, then Batman was my Iron Man, Ninjago will be my Captain America. In The Lego Movie 2, the team will reunite. So there is a real business plan in place. And the success and failure of every movie affects the franchise. So you can't just view it as one movie. You have to view it as the entirety of the franchise. And you view that on both a business level and also a management level, because we are growing people over the course of many years.

You know, we did the Lego Batman movie in 2 and 1/2 years. And that's record time. But you have to realize if I'm going to do four movies, we're talking about probably 12 years of someone's life, someone's career. And how do I, as a leader of the company, manage their growth, manage their both personal and professional growth? An artist may start out as an artist. Then do I promote them and properly train them to be head of story? The next position could be to become co-director and eventually to the director of a movie.

So in the case of The Lego Movie, Chris McKay was a superstar for us. He was our head of story. He was our editor. He did a lot of different jobs on The Lego Movie. We promoted him on Lego Batman to become the director of the movie. And now he's going to be a producer with me on Lego Ninjago and executive producer on Lego 2. So how do you evolve someone's role as they mature and as they build new skills? That's what I love about a franchise in that I really can see the evolution of someone's career and help support the evolution of someone's career over the course of a minimum of 12 years, which is really a long time.

In the case of It, hopefully it will be a franchise, but there's no guarantee of that. With It, it is a book. It's a very long book, and it's an epic book that we broke up into two parts. And so the first movie is going to be the first half of the book, which is exploring when these kids are teenagers and experience this scary clown that takes over their town and terrorizes their lives.

And if the first movie works well and we hope it will, it properly sets up the second movie, which is laid out in the books, which is 30 years later. They're now adults. And unfortunately, this supernatural force has come back into their town. And they all have to come back and reunite to take down that evil clown again. So it's not a franchise yet. I hope it will be. But it's the way we have to think about movies like It where they're not just one offs. If done well, hopefully they will spawn more storytelling.

Hanna: Interesting. Those two movies you gave as examples are so different really. And I wondered what attracts you to a project?

Lin: It's always the story and characters. I never thought I would be producing a horror movie to be honest. I'm not a horror movie guy. I'm not a horror movie junkie. But what I fell in love with with It were the kids, and the characters, and their camaraderie. And for me, it's basically a version of Stand By Me. It is about a kids going through a tricky time in life when you're a teenager and early teens, and how much your friends mean to you, and how much your friends support you, and how you all go through something bad.

You know, we all go through something bad in life. And how do we team up to fight back? So for me, it's not so much a horror movie, which it is. It's a very scary movie. But for me, the reason I did that movie is because I loved the story of these kids and talks about friendship, and collaboration, and teamwork, and fighting against evil together. That was really why I did It.

In the case of The Lego Movie, it was I just loved the theme of imagination and creativity. And I loved playing with the toy as a kid. And I love playing now with my kids. So ultimately for me, it's story, it's characters. What's the theme of the movie? What's the message I want to say with my movies? And I don't want it to be text. Ideally, I want it to be subtext so it doesn't feel like the movies are preaching to you.

But I want movies where you walk away, and you're still talking about those movies, and there's something meaningful about them. And end of the day when you grow up, you'll remember The Lego Movie and hopefully it will be some kid's favorite movie when they were growing up just like Indiana Jones is my favorite movie or Star Wars was my favorite movie, or in the case of Stephen King's It, I'd watch the miniseries as a kid. And I found Tim Curry's performance to be terrifying. But for someone to watch It and grow up like, oh, you know what, that was an iconic movie of my youth. That's what I'm trying to do.

Hanna: So there has to be a personal connection. How do you find projects typically?

Lin: All sorts of ways. I mean it's hard to describe one particular way. In general, it's not the way you would expect. The traditional route in Hollywood is for people to send you projects. But with me, when I look back on my history, the movies that turn out the best were ones that I self-generated, whether it's I found them through reading a magazine. In the case of Gangster Squad, it was when I was reading an LA Times article and saw a movie in it.

In the case of Lego, it was playing with LEGO with my son Miles. And then my friend Roy Lee, who produces the movie with me, tipped me off that he had a connection to the LEGO company. With It, it was one of my employees who brought the idea to me in talking about the book and how iconic it was. So I have a team of people. I have a team of 10 employees that work in film and TV. And we're constantly talking about stories, and things in the news and current events, and reading new books and new articles. So we're constantly going through material. And certainly people send us material. But oftentimes the best material is stuff that we have found on our own.

Hanna: That sounds like so much fun.

Lin: It's fun, but-- at a good time, it's fun but you have to realize that I think we probably look at a hundred piece of material and maybe we'll pursue 10 of them. And of those 10, maybe we'll set up one of them. And of those, very few actually get made. So it's a numbers game. And it's really daunting when you look at the actual numbers. So it is a lot of work to get to the jewel at the end.

Hanna: Now you've been in the movie business for about 18 years. No doubt a lot has changed. Can you talk about that a little bit? Are there some things that are mostly the same and what is very different, I guess, is what I'm wondering?

Lin: I think everything has changed. I mean, I started in the film business right after HBS. Actually even before that. My summer internship between my first and second year at HBS was in the film business on Warner Bros working for Lorenzo di Bonaventura, who was the president of production at the time. When I was coming up in the business, there wasn't any green light committee. It was really just the chairman of the studio decided what he or she wanted to get made. And he would hear input from everyone and make a decision. And now very much it's all committee oriented. The chairman still has green light authority, but he really relies on his committee to give opinions.

When I first started out, there were a lot more producers on the Warner Bros lot. There were a lot of producers. It was just the studio was making a lot more movies. And as a result, there were a lot more producers and a lot more executives. And now the studio makes a lot less movies, maybe almost a third less movies. And as a result, there are fewer producers and fewer executives to service those movies. So that's a big change as well. And then lastly, distribution has changed tremendously.

When I first started out, it was really theatrical, was king. Home video was a big deal. DVDs were a big deal in really propping up the market. And now DVDs are not really that relevant. And it's all online and digital and streaming. And distribution now-- I just made my first movie with Netflix. So I'm making big movies with Warner Bros and I'm making middle market movies with Netflix, because people now are able to get what they want when they want it, which wasn't the case when I first started the business.

Hanna: Can you tell me about your movie with Netflix?

Lin: Yeah. The movie with Netflix is called Death Note. It's based off a Japanese manga, which is a Japanese comic book and was very successful. It had I think three or four live action movies off of that manga. And we just shot it in Vancouver. And it's going to come out on August 25th, but it's my first streaming movie.

Adam Wingard, who directed the movie called The Guest, directed the movie. And it stars Nat Wolff. So we're just really excited about it. It is an unusual kind of movie that is a good fit for Netflix in that it's slightly off center. It's definitely weird. But it's subversive. It is a subversive take on a superhero movie. It's almost like an anti-hero movie. So we'll see how it does. But I'm excited about the way it turned out.

Hanna: That sounds really cool. I was thinking about movie theaters and the fact that not so many people go to the movies in theaters anymore although I still do. I guess I'm old. But I remember my first movie theater experience. It was in 1971, so I'm dating myself. And it was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I just kind of wondered what are your movie theater memories if you have any. What are some of your strongest memories?

Lin: For some reason I was in New York for Jurassic Park. It may have been because I was interning at Citibank in New York. But I remember seeing it at the Ziegfeld theater. So I remember that so vividly and the feeling that I had in that theater. And I love that theater in New York. Also, when I grew up in a small town in New Canaan, Connecticut, I remember seeing Richard Donner as Superman for the first time. I remember that vividly, I was with my parents.

I remember seeing Star Wars also in that small theater. And it's just the small details I remember like they didn't have movie tickets the way that we have now. They had little red stubs. I remember my parents buying a ticket and then when you come in, they'd tear off half the red stub and you'd keep the other stub and my parents telling me, don't lose that stub, and this little red stub. Those are the memories. And just going, wow, you know when I first saw Superman fly. A man could fly and see what that looked like. That sent chills down my spine.

And Star Wars, my best friend at the time was named Danny Andrews. I remember going to see Star Wars with him and his family and his brothers, and then how we went to see Empire Strikes Back together. So really fond memories when I think about those movies.

Hanna: Oh. I bet. Do you still go to movies in the theater or do you mostly watch at home now?

Lin: No. I actually really believe in the theatrical experience. I still love taking my kids to the movies. And I think it's still a real event. We go and spend the afternoon, and get popcorn, and love watching trailers. And nowadays the sound system is amazing. So I love what Dolby has done with the Atmos system and hearing 3D sound. If it's a fanboy kind of movie, I love to see it in IMAX. But I know I love the theatrical experience. But also I understand now. You know, it's hard. I have kids and so sometimes it's hard. So I do watch movies at home as well.

Nowadays TVs are so great and you can get so many great movies on Netflix. And so no, I watch most event movies in the theater. But once in a while, just to catch up on my movies. Part of my job is I need to watch a lot of movies. And I need to stay on top of who are the hot new actors and directors. And to do that, I can't go to the theater all the time. And so I do watch movies at home as well. But certainly I love the theatrical experience.

Hanna: That's great. It must be really rewarding to be part of an industry that so many of us are familiar with and enjoy. What are some of the personal rewards of working in movies?

Lin: The personal rewards for me are making something out of nothing. I think that's the thing that's most rewarding for me. So something like The Lego Movie is literally just an idea in my head that I put together with my team and certainly with Lord and Miller's help. And then you go to a theater and you see lines outside the theater and you watch the movie. And then I just end up watching the audience instead of the movie and seeing peoples' reactions and hearing people saying everything is awesome.

You know, in the case of Lego Batman, kids are bopping. We have a music video at the end of that movie and kids are dancing and bopping to the end of the movie and walking out smiling. So for me, there's a real visceral joy in seeing that, gosh, we created something out of nothing. Without our team, this wouldn't exist, and to do that together as a team, you know the real sense of community.

So it's both external and internal. So you watch other people watch your movie and seeing them enjoy it, and talk about it, and dance to it, and sing the song afterwards. And then you love reflecting with your team and doing a post-mortem afterwards and just talking about, guys, we did this together. We got through the toughest odds. In the case of Lego Batman, we made it in 2 and 1/2 years. You know it was really, really tough.

And we had a very high bar with The Lego Movie. And some people think the Lego Batman movie is even better than the first movie. I think they're just different movies so it's hard for me to judge. But it makes me so happy that that's even part of the conversation, that we scored A minus CinemaScore on the movie. And we had 91% or whatever it was, I mean very high score on Rotten Tomatoes. You know it was hard to follow up The Lego Movie. I think we did it well in our own way. And that's really satisfying.

Skydeck is produced by the External Relations department at Harvard Business School and edited by Craig McDonald. It is available at iTunes or wherever you get your favorite podcasts. For more information or to find archived episodes, visit alumni.hbs.edu/skydeck.

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Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1999, Section F

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