Logistics goes to Hollywood

Next week the Oscar winners will be announced. And you may be asking yourself: “What do the Oscars have to do with logistics and the supply chain?

The first thing that comes to mind is that they have a lot to do with it. I was once on a small film set for a music video, and the director said to me: “You would make a great production manager!”. And after googling what a production manager does in her/his life, I realised that the director was referring to the project management and logistical organisation skills necessary in making a film. You have to manage suppliers, contracts with workers, relationships with many different professionals. You have to schedule every activity, manage delays, in short, a considerable organisational effort.

But it is not these aspects that I wanted to talk about today, even though they are exciting and certainly deserve a closer look. Instead, I wanted to talk about how logistics and the supply chain are shown on the big screen!

When I started university, the dean of the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Genoa gave a speech to the freshmen in which he basically asked: “Why do Hollywood people make TV series about doctors, lawyers, artists and not engineers? Do they think we don’t do interesting enough work?” The answer is probably yes, as 15 years have passed since that speech and the only engineers I’ve seen on a TV show are Howard Wolowitz, the aerospace engineer and researcher on Big Bang Theory, and all the nuclear engineers in Chernobyl, HBO’s historical drama about the infamous nuclear disaster. It has also been pointed out that both Breaking Bad and Narcos actually deal a lot with supply chain and distribution network issues (a theme already present in the 2000 movie Traffic). And yes, I know that the world of TV series is full of hackers, robotics experts and geniuses of deduction. Still, you will understand that this is not what the headmaster was expecting.

Photo by Nathan DeFiesta on Unsplash

If we move on from engineering in general to logistics and the supply chain, we find even fewer references. Evidently, it really is considered one of the most boring fields of all. This is not how Ken Loach, the famous British filmmaker with a strong social commitment, thoughts. He chose a logistic topic for his latest movie, “Sorry, we missed you”, released in 2019. The film tells the story of a delivery driver who has to face not only a family drama due to the loss of his previous job because of the economic crisis of 2008, but also all the problems related to deliveries. So we see the protagonist struggling with a large number of deliveries to be made in a limited time, missed deliveries, rude customers and finally even suffering a theft.

Apart from Ken Loach’s film, we can say that couriers are certainly the most prominent logistics stakeholders in movies. Perhaps because they were among the first to understand the importance of good product placement as a marketing tool, there are many films where we see well-known courier brands. In Cast Away with Tom Hanks in 2000, the main character not only works for FedEx but when his plane crashes, a series of packages from the same company fall with him, in which he will find some objects that will make his life easier on the desert island (including the famous Wison). The 2004 film I, Robot starring Will Smith also shows FedEx robots delivering packages in 2035. One of the main scenes in 2008’s Eagle Eye sees Shia LaBeouf and Billy Bob Thornton chasing each other through a vast DHL warehouse. DHL was also present in 2006’s Mission Impossible III. Tom Cruise pretends to be a DHL driver to cross Rome without being recognised.

Moreover, about ten days after discussing my master’s degree with a thesis on freight trucks’ traffic following the insertion of a new Maersk container platform, I went to see Iron Man 3 (2013), and what do I see? The final scene with a barrage of autonomous Iron Man armour hurtling over and under cranes, gantries, and stacks and stacks of containers on a container ship. Whose? But Maersk’s, of course.

Finally, however, I would like to mention my personal top 3, the films I put on the podium and always quote my lessons on logistics.

Photo by Myke Simon on Unsplash

In third place is Lord of War (2005), the opening of which summarises in two minutes a supply chain from producer to consumer. The sequence is shocking as the scene shows the manufacture of a bullet that is first sold legally, then illegally and ends up killing a child. But as in the case of Traffic, we have to think that also those supply chains exist and that to detect this kind of crimes, we need not only a control structure referring to the police, but also a system of greater control of the supply chains, especially now that they are becoming increasingly digitalised. Therefore, the topic is an excellent opportunity to talk about blockchain, cyber-security, and reliable service providers’ choice.

In the second place, I place Monsters Inc. from 2001. I have never seen such a large and well-managed automated warehouse as the doors warehouse in this cartoon. The company organisation level and the “risk management” problem faced by the two main characters are also excellent.

In the first place, maybe because I am an incurable nerd, I put the final scene of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark in which Indiana participates in a meeting to decide the fate of the ark. The decision will be to put it in a safe, secret place. Indiana is not convinced, and someone told him: “Our best men will take care of it”. In the very famous following scene, we see an old warehouseman pushing laboriously and unwillingly a little cart with the ark on it, now boxed up in an infinite warehouse of boxes all the same, in which it is suggested it will be lost forever in the shelves.

The warehouses are always shown as magical and obscure places where we get lost and lose things (which is likely to happen in reality without good management software and a good organisation of stocks). Simultaneously, the supply chain is often treated in its aspects more related to illegality, the underworld’s infiltration, and the transport of illegal goods.

Not exactly the vision that we would like to give, since we have made these topics our work, our research and our passion! Personally, however, I can’t stop noticing, in every new film I see, how these topics are treated… in the end, research is a bit of an obsession. Even if the films’ point of view on our research topics is not always what we would like to see, we are still happy to “recognise” them, even if only as extras, on the big screen.

In short, we’re a bit like my old engineering dean!

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