Lessons learned when Hollywood comes to town
By Joseph Calabrese
Summer living is easy in a moderate-sized Midwest city. There may be more people out and about in downtown during the warm months than in the winter, but that’s about it.
Not so when Hollywood comes to town.
Cleveland played the part of New York City in Marvel Studio’s summer blockbuster movie The Avengers. Marvel contacted the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) in late spring 2011 after working with the City of Cleveland on possible street closures for the film’s action-packed battles. Our communications staff was informed of the exact closures, and filming took place throughout August last year. During that time overturned cars, major explosions with black smoke and actor sightings were normal. Thousands of people flooded in to feel the Hollywood excitement.
At the same time, a transit agency is required to make major behind-the-scenes changes to accommodate film shoots at odd hours, while still operating its regular weekly service.
In the case of the GCRTA, dozens of bus routes had to be adjusted during the day and night and at the last minute for various films taking advantage of Ohio’s advantageous film tax credits. The challenges included operator reroute instructions, internal communication and effectively getting the word out to customers.
Here are a few lessons GCRTA learned while accommodating the filming of a half dozen motion pictures this summer, the largest by far being The Avengers.
Do as much advance planning as possible. This includes selecting team members and affected parties internally, as well as identifying external stakeholders. Operations teams in service quality, the bus garages and in service management (scheduling) worked internally with filmmakers and the City of Cleveland to discuss street closures, additional security and other possible concerns at every step.
Communications and marketing staffs worked closely with these departments within GCRTA, as well as with external entities like the media, who needed to be a great partner in order for customers to receive reroutes and changes.
Laying out needs in advance for extensive movie schedules can help everyone ask the right questions. The same goes for laying out a strategic plan for dissemination of information.
Select individuals in your organization who are key players in each department. Establish an emergency call list for those team members who are available 24/7 in the event of a change or an emergency. GCRTA had individuals on committees representing service quality, transit police, communications, marketing, customer call center, sign shop, bus operations districts and more. Evaluate all the pieces of the business that will be affected and make sure there is a team member from each affected group.
Schedule regular briefings to keep your team updated in case major changes develop. Assign someone to document changes, concerns and updates from each meeting.
Use all communications tools
Use all communications methods and channels possible. GCRTA used Facebook, Twitter, Commuter Alerts, media alerts, website updates, phone calls to media and customer service representatives to tell customers about the changes. GCRTA created a special Avengers Commuter Alert where 700 customers signed up to receive closure alerts via text or email, and changes if they occurred. The sign shop and graphic designers were kept busy with a number of signs to tell customers where to catch a bus if filming blocked off streets and intersections. Additional transit police officers assisted when drivers and pedestrians that needed to be directed to an unusual spot.
If you tell customers to expect a route to change and film crews make changes, stick with what you’ve originally told customers for that day. If filming ends at 2 p.m. but the reroute goes through rush hour, stick with it. Make sure customers know you will do what you say. Remember to tell everyone about any changes as soon as possible, both inside and outside the organization.
Expect the unexpected
Outside filming depends on weather conditions, so the end-date that you were initially given may not be the final filming date. Along those same lines, film crews may ask you at the last minute to add days which disrupt bus schedules, cause street closures and inconvenience customers. If you expect changes will come, then it’s much easier to roll with them. Always keep customers in mind.
There were consistently several movies filmed here in Cleveland, and there were additional last-minute changes and lengthier filming schedules than initially expected. GCRTA employees found that as much as we planned ahead, we needed to understand that Hollywood runs on its own schedule.
Unexpected changes will happen and you need to be flexible with those changes, while consistently communicating with employees, the media and directly with customers.
Ultimately, customers know that a transit agency is helping boost a city’s bottom line, even though they might be inconvenienced along the way.
During filming, GCRTA carried thousands of people to and from work every day and kept up normal business for all customers, just like every other day. Even with Hollywood and tourists taking over, the mission of safe transport was accomplished. BR
Joseph Calabrese is the General Manager and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. He joined the agency in 2000.