I spent 11 1/2 years at Google (2005 - 2017). I did lots of things that I was actually hired for, but I also did my bit to bring some culture to the place. Not Star Wars or Harry Potter, either. Everyone’s read about “the 20% project” and thinks that all Googlers have one, to pursue their passion, create billion-dollar projects, yada yada yada. This is BS, by the way — very few Googlers actually work on a “20% project” one day a week. But I did have some interests, and this is one of them. Now I’m going to tell you how we pulled off the weekly movies.
If you’ve worked at a large company for any length of time, you’ve learned to cringe at the term “corporate bureaucracy.” You might sympathize with the hero of Ikiru, the movie by the great director Akira Kurosawa (a movie that inspired Vince Gilligan to make Breaking Bad).
Takashi is a faceless government bureaucrat diagnosed with terminal cancer, who, up to now, has been happy to keep his head down, follow orders, and never rock the boat. But now, seeing his impending death, he resolves to push his final project past an endless parade of buck-passers: a teensy park on a street corner in a Tokyo neighborhood
His life’s penultimate task requires him to patiently endure being sent from one department to the next, all of which just want him to go away. Just as Walter White in Breaking Bad “broke bad,” Takashi breaks good. He finally gets something through the bureaucracy!
When I joined Google in 2005, the “movies” mailing list had regular messages to the effect that “we ought to show movies here!” But everyone wanted someone else to do it. No one had any clue whom to ask, and if you did ask someone, they’d claim it wasn’t their department. At best, they’d put it in their queue and get to it someday.
But What Movies?
This is a good place to talk about taste.
When I started at the University of Illinois, I foolishly thought I’d have time for extracurricular activities, and I joined the Daily Illini (DI). I covered the Champaign city government and had a few bylined articles, before I realized that writing for the DI was only for English majors. Engineering students had no time for that.
At the DI, they told me “Roger Ebert used to work here!” I said, “Who?” He already had a column with the Chicago Sun-Times. Now he’s the most beloved critic of all time, one of the very few to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Roger is my idol. May his memory be a blessing.
I’m so proud that I got to meet Roger at a book-signing and tell him that story about hearing his name first at the DI. We swapped a few names of people from the DI whom we both knew.
Roger was a champion of good taste, without being snobbish or elitist about it. He despised formula Hollywood movies and treasured movies made with genuine human feeling, while being as open as anyone else as a well-made action, horror, rom-com, or feel-good movie.
Here he is on Casablanca:
Seeing the film over and over again, year after year, I find it never grows over-familiar. It plays like a favorite musical album; the more I know it, the more I like it. The black-and-white cinematography has not aged as color would. The dialogue is so spare and cynical it has not grown old-fashioned. Much of the emotional effect of Casablanca is achieved by indirection; as we leave the theater, we are absolutely convinced that the only thing keeping the world from going crazy is that the problems of three little people do after all amount to more than a hill of beans.
And one we never showed at Google just because it’s three hours, Hoop Dreams:
A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.
Hoop Dreams is, on one level, a documentary about two black kids named William Gates and Arthur Agee, from Chicago’s inner city, who are gifted basketball players and dream of someday starring in the NBA. On another level, it is about much larger subjects: about ambition, competition, race, and class in our society. About our value structures. And about the daily lives of people like the Agee and Gates families, who are unusually invisible to the mass media, but have a determination and resiliency that is a cause for hope.
And he could write a put-down like no one else could:
Watching Mad Dog Time is like waiting for the bus in a city where you're not sure they have a bus line.
Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo makes a living cleaning fish tanks and occasionally prostituting himself. How much he charges I'm not sure, but the price is worth it if it keeps him off the streets and out of another movie.
So my simplified version of “should this movie be shown at Google?” was just “did Roger like it?” The test would not be “would the average Googler like it?” That’s the same as asking,“Is it science fiction, Lord of the Rings, teen-age comedy, or Harry Potter?” I don’t care. The average Googler sees enough of that already.
Our rule was “We want to show good films.” That’s all. This had certain consequences for us, as you’ll see.
A Digression: Should You Beg Forgiveness?
“It’s better to beg forgiveness than to ask permission” is a common aphorism. If you ask for permission to do something, you’ll never get it, but if you just do it, at worst you’ll get a slap on the wrist. Many people have said this, but one of my favorites is the computing great Grace Hopper (who didn’t originate this quote):
Maybe that would be the answer for movies?
File a Ticket
On the music-makers mailing list, a constant topic was the grand piano in the lobby of Building 42. It had a sign asking you not to play during business hours, because it would disturb people working. Every couple of weeks, someone would say “why can’t we move it someplace you can play all day?” Opinions would be offered, no one had the authority to do it, the thread would peter out, and then in a week or two, we’d do it all again.
Google had a “ticket” system. If you needed a desk moved, a new computer, your old computer upgraded, a toilet fixed, or whatever, you filed a ticket. Someone in Facilities scanned the incoming tickets and dispatched them to the right person for action. Supposedly an employee once filed a ticket saying “please put a pony in my office.” (He didn’t get one, in case you’re wondering, although one hears conflicting stories on this.)
So one day I filed a ticket, “Please move the piano to the Building 40 lobby.” Someone in Facilities moved it. Done! So easy! I didn’t announce it to anyone.
One Friday afternoon, I was sitting in the TGIF meeting, and someone came to the microphone and indignantly asked why the piano had been moved. Sergei was surprised and asked “Someone moved the piano?” I held my breath in fear that someone would point me out as the culprit! No one did. It stayed in the Building 40 lobby for a long time, and then got moved to various other places. I never needed to beg forgiveness.
It didn’t seem like “just do it” was the solution for movies, though.
They cost money. Contrary to what some people think, everything is not free on the Internet these days. The movie industry is not going to let what happened to the music industry happen to them.
You can’t just take a home DVD and show it at work, or the lawyers get annoyed. There is such a thing as Public Performance Rights, or PPRs. It doesn’t matter if you charge money or how many people attend; if you show it at work, you need PPRs.
You have to reserve a room big enough for everyone to see it.
You probably can’t show it during business hours, because people do have work to do.
The movie has to be publicized. Emails tend to be ignored because everyone gets so much email, so physical posters need to be put up in high-traffic areas.
Merely showing a DVD with decent sound, even in a high-tech conference room, is not as easy as you think; there are infinitely many ways to screw it up. Google’s conference rooms are designed for holding meetings, not for showing movies.
Of course, some people do “just do it” and beg forgiveness, and they can indeed get away with it for a few weeks, but eventually the lawyers put a stop to it. Lots of product teams or informal groups show one or two movies and don’t tell anyone, but this isn’t like that; this would be weekly.
Getting People to Help
The first problem is getting helpers. It’s too much work for one person. Also, other people’s ideas about movies really are valuable, even if you have a lot of good ideas yourself. I’m sure that Roger Ebert’s film festivals showed largely his own ideas, but I’d bet that even then, he discussed them with his staff.
The other problem with something like this is, lots of people say they’re interested, but when you need them to actually show up and do something, they’re nowhere around. They have a meeting; they have a shuttle to catch; they can’t make it but they’re really, really interested. Fine.
To exercise leadership, you have to be flexible but firm. If someone says they want to help but never show up: sorry, they just forfeited the right to a voice. At the same time, the people who do show are partners, not underlings. They want to help because they have strong ideas about movies and those ideas are somewhat compatible with yours. If they’re willing to put skin in the game and show up, you have to listen to them.
I had two other “directors” to start. After they moved on, there were others, until I was the only original one left. There were maybe 10-15 different people in the 10 years I was there, and my question for selecting new people was simple: “do they come to the movies?” Followed by, “can I stand them?”
As we kept showing movies, there were certain people who attended a lot of them and seemed reasonable in the after-movie discussions. Those were the ones who became “directors.” My recollection is that I always asked them first, although you might see a comment at the end claiming that I drafted them. Don’t believe it.
Getting Rights to the Movies
OK, so let’s say you know vaguely that there is such a thing as Public Performance Rights, but have no idea who hands them out or what they cost. Fortunately, we have Google to research things like that! If the cost was completely insane, then it would be a big corporate problem and we’d have to go before innumerable committees to get the budget. No one wants to do that.
I pretty quickly discovered the Motion Picture Licensing Corporation (MPLC), which offers most of the mainstream Hollywood movies and a lot of foreign and art films, too. I called them. It was an entertaining call.
Apparently Google was not the MPLC’s favorite company! Who knew? The lady I spoke to was sure we already were stealing their movies. She offered a blanket, world-wide license to show movies anywhere, any time, and, she emphasized, this would include amnesty for any of our past violations. There weren’t any of those, but I didn’t see any hope of convincing her of that.
I didn’t even ask how much such a license would cost. Probably a lot.
The MPLC has a lot of movies, but not everything. There are other distributors that carry the offbeat or foreign movies that we wanted to show anyway. After some more research, I found Janus Films. They have what’s usually called “art films.” To name only three:
Perfect! That’s what we wanted. My colleagues found plenty of films on Janus’ list that they’d seen and maybe even studied in school. And best of all, the Janus price for PPRs was very reasonable.
We had more distributors later, but we started with just this one.
The money wasn’t nothing, though. How were we going to get it?
This is Google. Just Ask.
Here’s the secret sauce. Pay attention.
You ask your manager for approval. Even if it’s way outside his “fun budget.” He (or she) might have the attitude that “this is a fun project to improve the company culture for all Googlers” and approve it, knowing that their boss will look at it the same way.
For a lot of the 20-something nerdish people who work at Google, this sort of “putting yourself out there for rejection” inspires nightmares. Maybe that’s one of the benefits of being older: I just don’t care. So I asked. He said Yes. This was the same story with 10 managers in a row during my time at Google. Then there was an 11th, who shall remain nameless but we’ll call him Anurag. We’ll get to him later.
One last thing: as a regular employee, I couldn’t sign and commit Google to anything. I needed a corporate officer or VP to sign the contract. Fortunately, Google had (and still has, I think) a “Chief Culture Officer,” Stacy Sullivan at the time, and she was happy to sign. We were in!
The First Twelve
We picked 12 films to start, on August 23, 2007 (eventually we moved to 10 films per series, so they would fit on the largest sized paper our printers would print).
The best thing about having other smart people help choose the films was that I’d rarely seen more than two or three of a series. I would bet there are at least a few here you’ve never even heard of. Here’s the poster we put up all over campus
This became a major part of our effort. We didn’t want to spend any money on outside artists or printing, so one of us did the poster design, we printed them on 11x17 paper, and Scotch-taped them at high-traffic areas of all the major buildings.
You can get the complete list, right up to 2017 when I left Google, here:
The second series was also all art films. I had another distributor now, Kino Films:
The Passion of Joan of Arc
Diary of a Country Priest
Jules et Jim
Seduced and Abandoned
The Most Dangerous Game
The Wages of Fear
Jules et Jim and Black Orpheus are my two favorite films of all time.
Rashomon drew a huge audience (40 or more)! I guess everyone’s heard of it.
Marge: But Homer, you loved Rashomon!
Homer: That’s not how I remember it.
I won’t list all the films; you can download the spreadsheet if you want to see them.
Anyone can do something like this once or twice (well, maybe not anyone, but lots of people). But life in a big corporation throws you curves. Here are a few:
My expense approval depended on one manager saying Yes. What happened if I transferred, or they did?
I just had to ask each manager. During the time of the club, which was almost ten years, I had ten different managers. All of them said Yes, with the exception of the last, whom we’ve decided to call “Anurag.” But that’s covered below.
The people who helped in the Club were constantly changing. Sometimes they just left Google, or they didn’t want to do it anymore.
Once we were showing movies, there were certain people who came to a lot of screenings, and stuck around afterwards to discuss the movies. Some of them were invited to become Directors.
Limited film choices
As great as these films are, Janus and Kino only have a limited number of films available. I’d already struck out with MPLC, but fortunately there’s another distributor that also carries the Hollywood studios’ catalogs, Swank Motion Pictures.
Swank was much more reasonable to deal with, and they became our mainstay over the years. Most of the films in the later series came from them.
Reserving a suitable room
This was a constant struggle. We’d have a fantastic room, like University Theater in Building 40, and then it would get repurposed for some other use. Many of the large conference rooms were not available in the evenings, or they were near a cafeteria where the noise spilled over.
You might think that all rooms would be available at 7:00 pm, but you’d be wrong; we were constantly being displaced by some kind of community event.
Using the audio & video
Most conference rooms had a podium with a screen and a microphone. So it should be easy to just plug in a laptop and start projecting, right?
Wrong. We learned to always get there early and do a sound check. Even if we had it set up right, a week later someone might have screwed up the sound again.
The after-movie discussions
One of the things we could do that you don’t do in a movie theater is stay afterwards and talk about it. The longest discussion I can recall was probably not for the movie you’d guess; it was for Animal Kingdom (the original Australian one, not the lame American remake). Another great movie you should watch.
Choosing the movies
We chose 10 movies at a time, in an in-person meeting. If there was a new Director (let’s call him “Craig”), I would always open by saying “Craig, give us a movie!” If you’re new to the group, we’re showing your favorite movie right away.
Discussions were always fun. If you had a movie that the other Directors hadn’t heard of, you needed to present a case for it. We started with a rule that two of us had to have seen it, but that pretty quickly became impossible.
We had a few “speed reviewing” sessions at my house, where we’d watch 20 minutes of a movie that none of us had seen, and vote thumbs up/down on it.
In a couple of cases, we put on a movie that no one had seen, just because it sounded good. One of them, a Japanese movie After Life, was what Peter Lynch, the famous investment manager, called a “ten-bagger” — a movie so wonderful that people write and ask where they can buy it. If you only get one thing out of this article, watch that movie.
People wanting to give us movies
My funding model (get the budget from my manager) insulated us from pressure to show just popular favorites. We got surprisingly little of that. We did ask our mailing list for suggestions, and occasionally even showed one.
What we did get constantly was some variation on “My friend made a documentary on the plight of <some group> in <some location>. Can we show it through the cinema club?” Somehow, it was always a documentary, and it was always free. Documentaries are more popular now, but at the time, no one wanted to watch them.
This was trickier, since you don’t just want to say No and alienate everyone. Instead, we went out of our way to give away all our secrets. We told them how to book a conference room, how to project in the popular rooms, about Public Performance Rights (not an issue for your friend’s documentary!) and invited them to ask for help if they needed it. We noted that we showed films we were passionate about, and we weren’t a Google utility for showing any movie. In a nice way, of course.
The requesters, having that Googler can-do spirit, usually did show it themselves.
I mentioned the 11th and last manager I had, whom we’ve named “Anurag.” In his passive-aggressive way, he wouldn’t say Yes or No, but mentioned several times that this exceeded his entire “fun” budget.
However, Anurag’s manager (let’s call him “Mike”) happened to have previously been my manager, and he had approved it before. So I went over Anurag’s head to Mike, who approved it again. I’m fairly sure this did not endear me to Anurag.
Finally, an MPLC worldwide license
Just when we were least expecting it, some lawyer in the Google San Francisco office bought a global, unlimited license from MPLC, the very thing they’d been dangling in front of me 10 years before. So all the money issues went away and I didn’t need manager approval anymore.
After I Left
I retired in July, 2017, and they carried on without me. I think the pandemic in 2020 put a permanent stop to the in-person screenings, but now they’re doing it online.
I’ve invited all the other Directors to write their own article to follow this one. You may or may not see that (probably not), but maybe they’ll at least add some comments below.
Anurag A and Mike Ho were always a interesting pair.