Chaplin’s World: How accounting can reconcile arts and culture with the world of business

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When business and art collide, there are inevitably concerns that stakeholder interests will undermine creativity and artistic integrity. However, research by Anette Mikes and Felicitas Morhart shows that it is possible to reconcile commercialization with artistic and cultural activities.

 5 min read 

Surprisingly, it is accounting practices that can lead stakeholders with different interests to agree on a mutually acceptable outcome.

MikesAnette Mikes was a professor of Accounting, Control, and Risk Management at HEC Lausanne until 2019. She is driven by a passion to improve our ability to understand and manage pluralistic risk and disaster situations.
MorhartFelicitas Morhart is a professor of Marketing. In her research she investigates how companies can create meaning and well-being for stakeholders through their marketing and branding activities.

The commercialization of arts and culture is a contentious issue. As valuable as arts and culture are to society, many governments have reduced spending on them, creating pressure for more commercial approaches, ranging from museum fees to large-scale for-profit theme parks. There remains, however, a common view that artistic and cultural integrity and authenticity are easily compromised, demeaned, and devalued by the competing interests of business stakeholders and by association with profit and popular entertainment.

“Bean counters” and modern accounting practices can stimulate rather than stifle the creative contributions of project stakeholders

Research by Anette Mikes and Felicitas Morhart, professors at HEC Lausanne, offers a different and perhaps encouraging view. Their analysis of the development of Chaplin’s World in Vaud, Switzerland shows that it’s possible to reconcile artistic and cultural integrity and authenticity with the profit motive. In fact, they find that “bean counters” and modern accounting practices can stimulate rather than stifle the creative contributions of project stakeholders.

“A nice museum”

Charlie Chaplin, with his Little Tramp character, is one of the most famous figures in the history of entertainment. Born in the UK, he travelled to America in the early 20th century, where he began his stellar movie career. A writer, director, composer and actor, he featured in some 82 films, mostly silent, ranging from lowbrow slapstick to bittersweet comedy dramas with overt political and moral messages. He started his own film studio and cofounded United Artists. Despite such success, he was caught up in the anti-communist sentiment of postwar America and decided to move to the Manoir de Ban at Corsier-sur-Vevey, Switzerland, where he lived until his death in 1977.

Philippe Meylan, an architect, and Yves Durand, a designer, are huge Chaplin fans. In 2000, they approached the Chaplin family with a plan to purchase the Manoir de Ban and create a “nice museum”. The family agreed on condition that the museum honour the memory of their father. Meylan and Durand envisaged a museum that would “document the artist’s ideas and ideals”. It would provide an authentic Chaplin experience and feature items personally associated with him.

Sixteen years later, in the spring of 2016, Chaplin’s World opened, a CHF50m entertainment experience with an interactive film studio, state-of-the-art cinema, restaurants, and space for corporate events, operated by Grévin, a subsidiary of theme park and ski resort operator Compagnie des Alpes. Clearly, the project had evolved far beyond its original vision. Yet, the various stakeholders that had become involved during its development were still confident that Chaplin’s artistic and cultural legacy was being celebrated in a suitably authentic way.

Mikes and Morhart’s research involved many interviews and visits over the course of the project and they reviewed over 1000 pages of internal documents. Their studies reveal that an unlikely ingredient—accounting—played a key role in reshaping the creative vision in a way that allowed stakeholders to resolve differing perspectives on how to authentically reflect Chaplin’s persona.

The role of accounting

How did accounting act as such a catalyst? Stakeholders used it as a tool to persuade others. It was also used to bring in new stakeholders at key moments, such as investment firm Genii and leisure-industry giant Compagnie des Alpes, in order to carry out the vision as it evolved. Accounting also helped shape views about the type of consumer experience and authenticity that was appropriate.

Used as a common language, accounting practices provided a shared “context of interaction”

Used as a common language, accounting practices provided a shared “context of interaction” through which differing stakeholder perspectives could be discussed and reconciled, leading to new strategies. Visitor numbers, for example, became a mutually agreed measure of success. From the initial concept study through a benchmarking exercise, feasibility studies, and business plan development, anticipated annual visitor numbers increased from a point estimate of 200,000 to a range estimate of 250,000-320,000. At the same time, the agreed means of attracting those visitors—that is, the type of Chaplin experience required—evolved from a niche high-culture museum to a popular cultural leisure park.

A benchmarking study that included comparisons with Graceland, Elvis Presley’s much-visited former home, suggested the need to diversify the experience, add revenue streams and create a “museum plus park” experience. KPMG’s business plan drew on accounting techniques such as net present values, accounting amortization, and expenses capitalization. The firm’s detailed projections suggested adding corporate entertainment as a revenue stream.

Mikes and Morhart identified several principles that made accounting practices persuasive to such differing stakeholders. First, expert partners should be chosen with complementary, rather than competing, skills. Second, once an expert makes a decision and it has been discussed, other stakeholders should commit to it, agreeing to differ if necessary. Third, elements of accounting practice can provide the objective, quantitative language needed to develop a persuasive common narrative about the project.

Accounting practices also increased the project’s credibility

Accounting practices also increased the project’s credibility, which helped in securing loans and raising funds. Durand himself became more persuasive to potential stakeholders as he steadily accumulated considerable knowledge of accounting and other financial practices.

Chaplin’s World has received positive reviews since opening and appears to have successfully captured Chaplin’s own mix of populist appeal and high culture, doing justice to his memory as intended.

Mikes and Morhart’s study is instructive to anyone at work on an arts and culture project. It demonstrates how accounting practices, when used wisely, can help reconcile perceived conflicts between art and business, bringing stakeholders together without compromising authenticity. Bean counting and artistic integrity can be compatible.

Original paper: Mikes A. & Morhart F. (2017). Bringing Back Charlie Chaplin: Accounting as Catalyst in the Creation of an Authentic Product of Popular Culture. Management Accounting Research.

Featured image by Chaplin’s World™ © Bubbles Incorporated