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Francis Ford Coppola muses on power of instinct in data-driven culture

At the Gartner Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit, filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola discussed the power of gut feel and why he thinks the movie business will soon be taken over by tech moguls.

Francis Ford Coppola may not be an obvious choice to keynote an analytics summit, but that would be underestimating the five-time Academy Award winning filmmaker, winemaker and hotelier. "I'm happy to talk on any topic whatsoever," said Coppola after receiving a standing ovation at the Gartner Business Intelligence and Analytics Summit. "My greatest joy is to learn something, and I love it when people ask me things I've never thought about."

But it was Coppola who did the teaching. He shared his perspective on how to cast a role, what makes for a good leader and how cinema is in the midst of great change. Coppola's insights included this little nugget: In the next three years, companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook and Yahoo ("Yahoo ought to do something," he said) will take on a more prominent role in ownership and film distribution. "The cinema business is going to be owned by different owners who need the content to keep the subscribers coming back," he said.

Beyond the provocative tidbits, the Coppola keynote served an important purpose for an IT crowd. Gartner attendees had the chance to witness a master storyteller at work as Coppola spun a narrative that combined personal successes and failures with big-picture insights.

Spoken like a true romantic: Data isn't everything

At a conference where a data-driven culture is revered, Coppola voiced the contrarian view. The Netflix model for creating and producing shows based on customer data is not for him. "I don't buy it. I don't subscribe to it. And I don't even believe in it," he said.

When a similar method was applied to winemaking, Coppola also rejected the idea. "Listen, you can go to a woman and you can analyze her, and you can get the exact fat content Marilyn Monroe had," he said. "That's not going to make her Marilyn Monroe." For Coppola, art, cinema, winemaking are driven by passion and love -- emotions in his view that don't translate to zeros and ones.

He contends that data without gut feel might shut the door on the most disruptive ideas, citing one of his best-known films as evidence. "When we made The Godfather, it had nothing related to what was popular at that time," he said. "It was totally off the wall. … That's why a stupid kid like I was got the job."

The film was a risk. "It didn't have any support from any kind of data," he said. "And that's what I mean: You have to go with your heart. You have to go with your gut. You take a chance, and you'll have success. That's what I believe."

Coppola said he relies on instinct and his subconscious, which for him sometimes acts like a broken record, repeating the same thing over and over, to help surface a good idea or the right fit for a role. Specifically with casting, he said it's hard not to root for each candidate in the moment, so he gives himself space and time to mentally sift through auditions before making a decision. "You know how you go to a party and the next day, one person you met sticks with you. That's what I do with casting. Who stuck with me that I can't stop thinking about?" he said.

But risks don't always equate to reward -- even for Coppola. After The Godfather, The Godfather Part II and Apocalypse Now came One From the Heart, a musical with a $27 million budget that harkened back to the golden age of studio films. The movie was a commercial flop, putting such a strain on Coppola's finances that he eventually filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. "I was young enough to make it back. And I did," he said.

Nor does his reliance on gut feel mean Coppola is a Luddite. The filmmaker referred to himself as a "boy scientist" when he was growing up, "surrounded by technology, arts and music." When he was a student, he put his skills to use as a stagehand for school theatre departments because "that's where the girls were." And, unlike movie theaters trying to preserve their existence by delaying content distribution to the Netflix-es of the world, Coppola has accepted the shifts in consumer demand. "The bottom line, there is only one person who is going to make that decision, and that's the audience. The audience is going to say I'm going to see what I want to see when I want to see it and where I want to see it," he said.

Tips from the ringmaster

As a director, Coppola doesn't rely on a clearly defined reporting structure, a page he took from the theater world, saying he prefers the term ringmaster to leader. "Everyone is free to talk to me, come see me, send emails directly to me," he said. "That's how I run my company."

Part of his rationale for doing so is because of how much filmmaking relies on collaboration. "Theater has a wonderful sense of ensemble. You work together. You get close to cast and crew. You're like a big family," he said. "Maybe that's something you can learn from entertainment."

Below are three additional Coppola tips that can be applied to IT:

The foundation for leadership? Optimism. Yes, tough problems exist, but "ultimately there are solutions," Coppola said. "Human beings are ingenious. There's always another way, another approach. And that's what I think is leadership -- leading to the light and not to the dark."

When making project decisions, think big picture. Coppola starts making a film by considering the themes, which he sums up in just a couple of words. Doing so establishes a baseline of information Coppola can refer to when he's in the thick of production. "With a movie, you have to make a million decisions a day, and you have to have a rationale of how you're making the decision," he said. Many decisions are made based on instinct, but when Coppola gets stuck, he refers to the themes he outlined before the filming began.

Be inspired; be intellectually curious. The Conversation, a 1970s film that, today, is just as relevant as it was 40 years ago (and, arguably, even more so) started as a spark ignited by Michelangelo Antonioni's film Blowup. "When I saw Blowup, I was just knocked out. And I said, 'I want to make a film like that,'" Coppola said. Experts have been advising CIOs to do the same, to look for inspiration inside and outside of their markets, especially as data becomes a commodity.

Let us know what you think of the story; email Nicole Laskowski, senior news writer, or find her on Twitter @TT_Nicole.

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