Monday, July 20, 2015

The layoffs at Pittsburgh Filmmakers

Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts is an icon in the arts and culture scene of Pittsburgh. It is a source of unique film viewing at one of the three theaters it operates (Harris Theater, Melwood Screening Room, and Regent Square Theatre); a photo development, film editing, and digital editing facility for artists; a major player for the Three Rivers Arts Festival; and an exhibition space and educational resource for artists and arts’ enthusiasts alike. These goals are clearly executed through their mission.

Lately, though, Filmmakers/PCA has also been an organization that has been subject to scrutiny after a layoff of around one-fourth of their entire staff in June 2015—a direct result of a cash-flow problem due, in part, to unforeseen capital expenses and major software upgrades (expenses of which totaled around $150,000), but also due to director Charlie Humphrey’s “overly optimistic estimates” of the success of Filmmaker’s new photography and filmmaking intensive programs.

The programs seem to appropriately align with Filmmakers’ mission, but then why was there a $168,000 deficit due to the lack of enrollees during these first two years of the program?

This is where, I believe, The Coherence Premium, by Paul Leinwand and Cesare Mainardi comes well into play. The first half of Filmmakers’ plan seems sound: they had already determined what they were good at, they developed those capabilities, and they created a program to push them forward. But it became clear that they were not catering the program to the right marketplace. The 8-month (two semester) program tops out at a tuition rate of $17,000. No federal loans are available; no official degree (except a “diploma”) is obtained at the end of the program; and the classes are often as lengthy and ‘intensive,’ as the name of the program states, as many grad school programs.

The last question asked under the header “The Power of Coherence,” (p. 3) asks: “What are we going to sell, and to whom?” I believe that Filmmakers had a solid understanding of what they were selling and to whom, but failed to realize that a lot of their “whoms” included artists with previous educational experience, students who were already enrolled elsewhere in BFA or MFA programs, or people who were interested but simply did not have the means to shell out $17,000 within eight months. 

“Focusing on one way to compete and a system of differentiating, mutually reinforces capabilities often requires hard choice… It means resisting the temptation to leap into a hot new market where your capabilities system can’t help you or to pursue (especially in boom times) easy profits at the expense of strategic focus” (p. 6-7). In a world where higher education facilities, especially in Pittsburgh, did not already exist, Filmmakers may have had success with their Intensive programs. But with the institutional competition, along with Filmmakers lackluster marketing strategy and low presence on social media, high tuition rates that match some private university MFA programs, and reportedly low staff morale and “dysfunctional” work environment, Filmmakers shows a number of ways in which it did not entirely think through the motivations behind the program. They lacked the “coherence” necessary to make the program a success—from initial planning all the way through to implementation.

Filmmakers hopes to bring back those it laid off in the fall, depending on an upswing in enrollees in the Intensive program; but after laying off their entire marketing department time will only tell what might actually happen.

Leinwand, Paul and Cesare Mainardi. The Coherence Premium. Harvard Business Review. June 2010.
O'Driscoll, Bill. In the wake of massive layoffs, concern over the future of Pittsburgh Filmmakers/Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. Pittsburgh City Paper. 17 June 2015.

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