Hollywood's recent flops result of new idea drought

ON EXCELLENCE

January 09, 1995|By TOM PETERS

Sony just wrote off a whopping $2.7 billion on its investment in Columbia Pictures. The proud Japanese giant discovered that mastering Hollywood is no walk in the park.

But it's not just Sony. Industry insider Peter Bart puts his finger on the issues in "That Sync-ing Feeling" (GQ, November 1994); it's one of the best analyses of innovation failures I've come across.

The problem Bart unearths: mimicry. When Wyatt Earp got hot in Tinseltown, Disney put out "Tombstone"; Warner released "Wyatt Earp."

When flesh-eating viruses became the rage, Warner launched "Outbreak"; Fox countered with "Crisis in the Hot Zone." And so on.

Few of these look-alike films, puny or giant budget, succeed. "If there's a lesson to be elicited," Bart writes, "it is this: Whenever several studios jump on the same bandwagon, it's usually headed in the wrong direction."

Bart offers several plausible explanations, starting with "bureaucratic self-protection."

When an idea draws a competitor's attention, he says, the safest course for a studio is to copy it (officially called "parallel development" -- a euphemism for "blind imitation," Bart snaps). At least, he adds, the studio exec "can argue that everyone made the same mistake."

"Intellectual inbreeding" is also rampant. Hollywood has become increasingly insular, Bart observes; everyone "reads the same scripts, does lunch at the same restaurants and even works out with the same trainers." Yet another theory blames the me-too epidemic on packs of aggressive agents, who hype an idea and then ignite bidding wars among studios for copycat versions.

Finally, Bart cites the studio's newfound love for modern management methods. Compared to the czars of Hollywood's early days, today's execs are better educated, better informed and far more professional. Witness their "fierce reliance" on market research; data from test screenings, Bart notes, are used to determine "key elements of a picture (even its ending), ignoring the instincts of the filmmaker."

Though studio chiefs in the profitable old days were a rough-edged lot, they were blessed with a saving grace. "They trusted their gut rather than corporate research," says Bart. "They were accustomed to risk-taking. . . . Most important, they were hopelessly, relentlessly, idiosyncratic -- a characteristic that devastated many careers but that also lent a wondrous unpredictability to studio products."

Hollywood's roughness was gradually polished, though as late as the '70s, business was still "conducted in an offhand, even an anarchic style. . . . The mood of that era was to thumb your nose at the rules." The upshot: "When you went to the movies then, you never quite knew what awaited you. A 'studio film' could range from 'Midnight Cowboy' to 'Harold and Maude' to such tried-and-true fare as 'The Sound of Music' or 'The Dirty Dozen.' "

What ails Hollywood also ails packaged goods, financial services and almost any other industry you can name. Keynoting the recent InterBev94 trade show, new Coca-Cola President M. Douglas Ivestor begged his colleagues to "stop being sheep and start fighting private-label sodas with innovation and creativity, rather than price cutting."

So what's the answer? Stop hiring MBAs? Quit doing market research? Erase the spreadsheet software and toss out financial models? Limit personal trainers to one CEO per industry?

Not bad ideas. But not likely to happen, either. You could add some sparkle to your hiring process (I've often argued for that) and grant more autonomy to subordinate units. But these, too, are tepid responses to a monumental problem.

Much more is required to get an industry out of the doldrums. In Hollywood's case, maybe the new Spielberg-Geffen-Katzenberg combine will make a difference, but don't bet your bottom dollar on it. In beverages the answer may be more Snapples, in software more Intuits, in telecoms more McCaws. Though all three have been (or are about to be) gobbled up by larger competitors, they may nonetheless have served an important purpose -- shaking up the reigning slugabeds.

Though it's possible to point to many successful rule-breakers today, even in Hollywood, the undeniable fact is that we continue to pay an awful price for the narrow view encompassed by so-called professional management.

Furthermore, the price escalates as talented new competitors from around the globe provide increasingly good products -- and thus reveal the weaknesses of our plethora of copycat products and services.

"Nothing is black and white in present-day Hollywood," Bart concludes, "and that's part of the problem: Too much is gray -- a deep, dignified, stultifying corporate gray." And it isn't only Hollywood!

Tom Peters is a syndicated columnist. Write to him at Tribune Media Services Inc., Suite 1500, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Chicago, Ill. 60611; (800) 245-6536

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