The last thing I expected to do as I headed down to Austin last week for the SXSW Interactive Festival was to see a film. As a marketer, the fact that SXSW is actually a huge Film and Music festival is a point that I have often easily forgotten. Amongst the sea of startups promoting everything from "social weather" apps (that let you share your mood when it rains), to new indestructible iPhone cases – it is easy to get lost in the hype.
But on Sunday morning at SXSW, I made my way out to the Paramount theater for a world premiere of a film that probably seemed a bit out of place at the festival anyway. A filmmaker named Gotham Chopra was premiering his new documentary called Decoding Deepak about following his father, spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, around the world for a year. I admit, I am personally connected to Gotham and his family so I probably would have seen the film regardless of how it was. You have to support your friends. The thing is, I didn't expect it to be quite so good. I didn't expect to takeaway the most profound marketing lessons I learned at SXSW not from any panels or sessions, but from a documentary. And I certainly didn't expect to see it twice in three days. But I did.
Rather than try to summarize the film, I'll let you watch the excellent trailer below. Go ahead, I'll wait till you're done and then share a few of the marketing and business lessons I took away from the film below:
In a word, the film was brilliant … on several levels. Not only do you get a sense for the real person behind the myth of the spiritual celebrity that Lady Gaga calls "the most influential person in her life," but you take a journey through what it took for him to become this icon. Despite it having been more than a week since seeing the film – some of the leadership and marketing lessons I took away from it are still fresh in my mind:
- Don't shy away from the truth. Every post-film question the audience asked after the premiere seemed to focus on whether Deepak felt the film did a fair job of portraying him. He wasn't always the hero, but the film was accurate and it was honest … and to his credit, Gotham Chopra shared that his father didn't ask for any edits or revisions after seeing the final cut.
- Be a guide, not a dictator. The thing about a spiritual guru is that sometimes people expect them to live by example. Deepak, however, is not a vegan (or even a vegetarian), he isn't fanatical about meditation and sometimes he doesn't have all the answers. Yet if people want to live a more extreme version of life, he doesn't steer them away from it. His leadership helps guide without prescribing. In a world where plenty of people want to tell you what to think, who to marry and what to believe … his powerful message is that you can believe what you want to believe.
- Go beyond your niche. The easiest thing to do with a film like Decoding Deepak would have been to launch it to a "friendly" audience of celebrities who already love Deepak Chopra and would easily tweet away about it to their millions of followers. That's the usual formula for something like this. Instead, Gotham Chopra chose to premiere the film in Austin at SXSW in front of a tech-savvy, mostly less spiritual, definitely less religious audience. It was a risk … but if the film could stand on its own in front of a "real" audience, then the message could go far beyond Deepak Chopra's own considerable fan base.
- Share a personal story. Businesses in general are tragically bad at being personal or letting the personality of their people come through. In fact, many have policies in place to prevent it. In a film, however, telling a personal story is super important to have the audience invest emotionally. Throughout his exploration of his relationship with his father, Gotham Chopra takes us into his own journey as a father, his son and how his family which has grown up in the spotlight manages to still make it work. His struggles are human, and his journey is believable.
- Don't take yourself too seriously. Perhaps the most important lesson I took from the film was from a moment when Gotham and his father are in a train station in India. They are looking at a newsstand with several books and none of the more than 60 titles that Deepak Chopra has written are there. It is a brilliant reminder that even when you have amassed millions of followers and become a spiritual leader to the most famous and influential people alive … you can't take yourself too seriously. In our world filled with outsized egos from people who are little more than Twitter-famous, this may have been my favourite lesson from the film.
During the Q&A session after the film premiere in Austin, Deepak Chopra mentioned that he was sitting near the back of the theater and noticed that no one left during the film. When the moderator asked him why he thought people might leave, he said simply, "documentaries can be boring." They definitely can – but Decoding Deepak is different.
Whether you are interested in learning more about the evolution of the larger than life spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, or just want to take away a few great insights to improve your business or your career … this is one film I highly recommend actually going to see in the theater as soon as it comes to a screen near you. You might even want to see it twice.