French Hours

With "French Hours," you can boost efficiency -- and eat all the croissants you want.

Hollywood works. If you're ever foolish enough to shoot a movie, you'll discover something amazing: Everyone does his job.

People show up on time. They do what they're supposed to do. The boom guy doesn't criticize the best boy; the assistant director doesn't call in sick. Everyone on a movie crew knows that for freelancers, entire careers depend on not screwing up.

So if the system is so terrific, why does it cost $50 million to make a mediocre film and $100 million to make a terrible one?

One reason that movies cost so much is that the very same work rules and union policies that let a film crew run like a well-oiled machine also impose a hefty tax on flexibility. You might want the key grip to help hold the boom, or the lighting team to come in a few minutes early to set something up, but they won't. They won't be nasty or intransigent, but they just won't go the extra mile. The rules are crystal clear.

This applies even to lunch. At a certain time, after a certain number of hours, the set shuts down. Lunch is served. Not just a granola bar. Lunch. It's astonishing how well fed everyone is on a movie set.

After the mandated lunch break, everyone gets back to work, but the loss of time and momentum is huge. And you can't make it up by staying late. If you stay even a minute past the cutoff point, everyone gets a significant overtime bonus.

While this rigidity serves a purpose, it underscores a critical thing about work in the movies (and work everywhere else). If we get too comfortable, if everything is business as usual, it can be hard to create something remarkable.

This system is so ingrained and so universal that I was stunned when I heard producer, writer, and director Joel Schumacher talking about "French hours," likely named for a French filmmaking technique that is partly responsible for the very good -- and very cheap -- movies that get turned out all the time in France. French hours are simple: If every single person on the set agrees, you can film a movie without lunch breaks. They serve food (just as much, and probably croissants too) all day long. People eat when they can. The production never slows down. Things move quicker, and efficiency is much higher. The shoot changes to an emergency footing, and the team gets it done as quickly as they can -- while still maintaining quality.

Schumacher filmed the thriller Phone Booth this way. The entire shoot took 10 days. By contrast, the more average film Almost Famous took 92 days. Not only did the esprit de corps and sense of urgency of French hours allow Schumacher to meet his timetable, but they also produced a better movie. The tension in the performance of every actor is palpable. Nobody looks as though he just had a big plate of ziti.

So here's the big question: What does it take to institute French hours on your project? Not just the lunch thing but an entirely different attitude from the whole team.

Every once in a while, a project comes along that allows everyone to step out of his role (manager, employee, gofer, leader, financier, paymaster) and join the team. People read the script for Phone Booth and decided they were willing to suspend the rules in order to make a movie they believed in. In 1985, I was part of a team of 40 that worked 20 hours a day for a month to launch five software programs in time for Christmas. It saved the company, galvanized the organization, and changed the life of every person who worked on the launch. No, we wouldn't do it again. Yes, we're delighted we did!

French hours work if you can follow four simple rules.

  1. Every person must want to do it, and there has to be an alternative job if anyone chooses not to.
  2. You can't do it all the time. (Google comes to mind.) If everything is equally important, if every day's exigencies require you to come in early, skimp on lunch, and hang out late, then you've bought into a career that could quite easily eat you alive. Your team will be unable to rise to any occasion, never mind the important ones.
  3. Everyone on the team has to be reminded of the uniqueness of the situation (and the team) on a regular basis. French hours work best when the urgency is in sync with the project itself.
  4. You have to stop. All at once. You can't tail off. Instead, as my friend Elly Markson says, "You must end on an up." Hit your milestone, call a meeting, congratulate everyone, and then end it.

Too many organizations are stuck in the day-to-day. Time to find a special project, order the croissants, and make something happen.

Seth Godin's new book is Free Prize Inside (Portfolio, 2004).

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2 Comments

  • Grinrat

    You forget one very important detail, that americans tend to "forget" regarding french hours: instead of workig a 12 hour day, like in "regular hours" the french work 7 1/2. The way US producers practice their version of this is still 12 hours, and thus I call that "slavery hours" 

  • This is a very late reply but anyway!

    The French do not work 7 1/2 hours!! Far from it! I live in the North of France and many "cadres" (executives) work 8, 9, 10 hours a day.. 8.30 to 18/19 in the evening with an hour for lunch. I'm presuming you've never lived in France and are just making stereotypical comments.