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5 strategic business lessons from 2017's Academy Award nominees

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In the summer of 1987, my best buddy and I left the Deep South for Hollywood.

We went in search of fame and fortune in the movies.

We wound up burning popcorn at the Mann Theatre in Tarzana.

Full Metal Jacket, The Untouchables and Beverly Hills Cop 2 were popular that summer. So were Robocop, Predator and Dirty Dancing

Related: 25 best insurance movies

We worked double shifts to pay the rent and often found ourselves star struck. At the concession stand, we met Pat Benatar, members of the Jackson 5, and Michael Winslow, the actor known as “the man of 10,000 noises.” You probably know him from all of those Police Academy movies. I knew him as the guy who made a fire alarm noise when I served him popcorn the color of coal.

I felt bad about burning the popcorn, but mainly I was homesick. My buddy and I wrote increasingly forlorn letters each week to our families back home. We called the letters “Tales from La La Land.” We didn’t make it very long there. We were back home just in time for the fall semester of college. 

Flash forward 30 years and our pet name for Hollywood has resurfaced: La La Land is one of the best picture nominees.

Although Hollywood sent me packing for home, I’ve never lost my love of the movies. I write about business topics now, but I’m often looking for that intersection of film and commerce. So in these next pages, I offer five strategic lessons to learn from this year’s Academy Award nominees. 

Related: 25 best business movies


Starring: Amy Adams,  Jeremy Renner,  Forest Whitaker

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

What’s it about: Aliens have landed! The aliens have landed! Military regimes around the globe want to blast twelve alien spheroids back to kingdom come, but a linguistics professor (Amy Adams) wants to break their code not their spaceships.

Why watch it: For the Amy Adams performance. Her character slowly understands things, information that the audience begins to piece together as well, in heartbreaking fashion.

Interesting factoid: Octopuses, whales, elephants, and spiders were all sources of inspiration when it came to creating the aliens, Abbott and Costello.

Business lesson: The art of communication. Of all the movies I watched this year, Arrival connected with me the deepest on a business level. So much of the financial services industry hinges on clear communication, being heard, but also being understood, and the chasm we all have in communicating with one another is palpable in this film.

Memorable scene: I have to be careful here to not give away the ending, but it’s a moment where the linguistics professor has a conversation in Mandarin, and, as the saying goes, the die is cast. 

Memorable quote:

Dr. Louise Banks: “Purpose requires an understanding of intent. We need to find out: Do they make conscious choices? Or is their motivation so instinctive that they don’t understand a ‘why’ question at all? And biggest of all, we need to have enough vocabulary with them that we understand their answer.”

Related: 5 ways to go above and beyond for your clients

Manchester By the Sea

Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler 

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

What’s it about: An uncle is asked to take care of his teenage nephew and serve as his guardian after the boy’s father dies.

Why watch it: The strong bonds that form. They don’t come easily. Instead, they take their time to knit together. It follows that these relationships are more like real life than the stuff of movies.

Interesting factoid: This is the first film distributed or co-distributed by a streaming service — in this case, Amazon — to get an Oscar nomination for Best Picture.

Business lesson: Mentorship. One of the common threads I hear from advisors is their belief in mentorship programs. So many advisors point to a mentor as a huge reason for their success and they are committed to returning the favor by mentoring other advisors.

Memorable scene: The scene around the ping pong table where a gang of rowdy guys are having a bit too much fun and single mom Randi Chandler (Michelle Williams) breaks up their party and shows the guys that one woman can have as strong a voice as ten men.

Memorable quote: 

Patrick: “You don’t want to be my guardian, that’s fine with me.” 

Lee: “It’s not that. It’s just the logistics.” 

Patrick: “All my friends are here. I got two girlfriends and I’m in a band. You’re a janitor in Quincy. What the hell do you care where you live?”

Related: 8 ways to attract millennials to insurance

La La Land

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, Rosemarie DeWitt 

Directed by: Damien Chazelle

What’s it about: Boy meets girl. Boy and girl look for their muse and struggle with the choice between a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.

Why watch it: The music, the song and dance. La La Land is a throwback to the films of the golden era of film when characters were faced with problems or obstacles and they dealt with it by breaking into dance, allowing themselves to be swept away by the beauty of music.

Interesting factoid: La La Land equaled the record for most Oscar nominations, with 14, tying the record previously set by All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997).

Business lesson: Listen to your muse. You got into this business for a reason. Never lose sight of that. Something drives you to help people create and keep a nest egg well into their retirement years. Hold onto that passion that brought you into the industry in the first place and use it to help your clients reach their dreams.  

Memorable scene: The final dance sequence, one of the most beautiful and perfectly choreographed scenes ever caught on film.

Memorable quote:

Mia: “Maybe I’m not good enough!”

Sebastian: “Yes, you are.”

Mia: “Maybe I’m not! It’s like a pipe dream.”

Sebastian: “This is the dream! It’s conflict and it’s compromise, and it’s very, very exciting!”

Related: Peak Performance

Hell or High Water

Starring: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges

Directed by: David Mackenzie

What’s it about: Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his brother (Ben Foster) decide to rob banks so they can raise enough money to pay off the reverse mortgage that will forfeit their recently deceased mother’s ranch.

Why watch it: Jeff Bridges. “The Dude” is a revelation in this Oscar-nominated supporting role. His Texas Ranger character is facing mandatory retirement, but he is not content to fade away into the dustbin of history. This last case gives him a newfound purpose, a second chance to figure out why he became a ranger in the first place.

Interesting factoid: The phrase “come hell or high water” typically means “do whatever needs to be done, no matter the circumstances.” It also refers to the “hell or high water clause” in a contract, usually a lease, which states that the payments must continue regardless of any difficulties the paying party may encounter.

Business lesson: A family thing. The Howard brothers are pushed to their limit financially. What they do, taking the law into their own hands, is wrong, but the love they have for one another is a powerful reminder of what matters most to people, ensuring that their loved lones are taken care of.  

Memorable scene: The beautiful scene between Bridges and his partner that starts out as playful banter, but then becomes a commentary on land, family, and the pull of greed.

Memorable quote:

Tanner Howard: “Maybe we should hit another branch.”

Toby Howard: “You know, you talk like we ain’t gonna get away with this.”

Tanner Howard: “I never met nobody get away with anything… ever, you?”

Toby Howard: “Then why on the hell did you agree to do it?”

Tanner Howard: “Because you asked, little brother.”

Related: Starting relationships in a changing world

Hidden Figures

Starring Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons

Directed by Theodore Melfi

What’s it about: A team of African-American women mathematicians who served a vital role in NASA during the early years of the U.S. space program.

Why watch it: For the history lesson. I love discovering bits of our history and heritage, and this tale of women who were known as “human computers” is both educational and inspiring. 

Interesting factoid: Kevin Costner’s third film about the Kennedy Administration. He previously appeared in JFK (1991) and Thirteen Days (2000).

Business lesson: Believe in your team. You’ve done the hard work in researching and hiring the people who work for you. You can train them, guide them, but at some point, it’s time to take off the training wheels and let their talent shine. You believed in them enough to hire them in the first place so believe in them now as an integral part of your team.  

Memorable scene: The wonderful moment where Katherine (Taraji P. Henson) works out the flight trajectory of the rocket (all in her head) for the stunned NASA brass.

Memorable quote:

Karl Zielinski: “Mary, a person with an engineer’s mind should be an engineer. You can’t be a computer the rest of your life.”

Mary Jackson: “Mr. Zielinski, I’m a negro woman. I’m not gonna entertain the impossible.”

Karl Zielinski: “And I’m a Polish Jew whose parents died in a Nazi prison camp. Now I’m standing beneath a spaceship that’s going to carry an astronaut to the stars. I think we can say we are living the impossible. Let me ask you, if you were a white male, would you wish to be an engineer?”

Mary Jackson: “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.”

See also:

A dozen ways to be your company’s most valued employee

These 3 questions will make you a better advisor

The best movies for business professionals

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