Tag Archives: Harvard Business School

Spielberg: 1, Harvard: 0

Hollywood used to know what Americans wanted.

Then came the new diversity of moving-going taste and preference. Hollywood was in trouble.

In the words of Tom Hanks:

“Nobody has any idea why people are going to see a movie. Nobody knows what’s going to be a hit or what’s going to be irrelevant. There are no new models. The new paradigm in Hollywood is that there is no new paradigm.”

Hollywood made a fateful decision. It gave up figuring out what people wanted or might like. It resorted to “shock and awe,” aka the blockbuster.

Hollywood said, in effect, we will give you story lines so fat and familiar, stars so big, effects so special, and marketing so inescapable, you will be FORCED to come see our movies.

steven_spielberg_masterclass_cinematheque_franc%cc%a7aise_2_croppedThe strategy worked…for awhile. Then trouble set in. About 3 years ago, Steven Spielberg warned,

“There’s eventually going to be an implosion—or a big meltdown. Three or four or maybe even a half-dozen megabudget movies are going to go crashing into the ground, and that’s going to change the paradigm.”

There was a sharp intake of breadth through all those beautifully capped and polished teeth. Could the end be in sight? Could Hollywood’s make-shift strategy now be coming apart? Could it be time to return to reading American taste and preference instead of trying to force it?

It was a critical moment. The industry was poised for change.

Spielberg had opened the conversation.

And a Harvard Business School professor stepped up to slam it shut.

In Blockbusters: Hit-Making, Risk-Taking, and the Big Business of Entertainment, Professor Anita Elberse argued that Hollywood should continue to produce “a smaller number of expensive products aimed at mass audiences, rather than a larger number of cheaper ones aimed at selective niches.” “Forget the worry-warts,” she seemed to say, “You had it right the first time!”

Elberse declared:

“The future of blockbusters in the entertainment economy shines bright.”

BusinessWeek called her the “Harvard professor [who] knows why the bloated blockbuster will never die.”

The Spielbergian conversation stopped right there. The Harvard Business School had spoken. Return to your battle stations, everyone. Keep making blockbusters. You are good to go ever bigger and blockier.

That was three years ago.

The numbers for the summer of 2016 are in. And the results are clear.

Spielberg 1, Elberse 0.

In a piece called Hollywood’s Summer of Extremes: Megahits, Superflops and Little Else, Brooks Barnes delivers the bad news, noting

“a cavalcade of summer disappointments, including “The BFG,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows,” “The Nice Guys,” “Ghostbusters,” “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Independence Day: Resurgence,” “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Warcraft,” “Ice Age: Collision Course,” “Hands of Stone,” “Star Trek: Beyond” and “Now You See Me 2.”

One particular blockbuster was particularly disappointing: Ben-Hur cost Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Paramount Pictures at least $150 million and failed to shock or awe anyone.

The summer of 2016 was bad news for several players including Warner Bros., Sony, Universal, 20th Century Fox, and Paramount. All suffered smaller or zero profits.

With it’s deep regard for the social sciences, we might have thought the Harvard Business School would have seen this coming. Some things are obviously short-term plays; short term because self destructive. And indeed it now looks like the blockbuster approach is consuming itself. Barnes quotes Doug Creutz: “There are now so many sequels that they are cannibalizing each other.”

What’s new and especially alarming about the Barnes’ essay is the possibility that people are now just done with blockbusters and to this extend with Hollywood.

Barnes describes the last hope of the film biz: those people who go to the movie theater and only then decide what movie to see. Could it be that Hollywood has destroyed even this precious, last group of enthusiasts? Perhaps now that all movies are blockbusters and that all blockbusters are the same, “blockbuster exhaustion,” aka “Hollywood exhaustion,” has set in. And this would mean that Hollywood’s shock and awe strategy has damaged the entire movie ecosystem, alienating even the deepest loyalists, the ones who sustained the industry through thick and thin. If this is true, the crisis is deeper than we thought.

What now? It’s time to put Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm back on the table. Have we learned anything in the interim? I don’t mean to be mean, but with the benefit of three years hindsight, we might say that Elberse’s book actually looks like a block buster in its own right: a large, relatively unthinking gamble on an idea that was already dead. We may not know that the new paradigm is going to be. But it’s pretty clear we can’t go with “same old, same old.”

The tragedy of Elberse’s book is not just that it was wrong. Anyone writing well with good intentions is entitled to be wrong. The tragedy is that Elberse’s book arrived at the very moment the industry should have been responding to Spielberg’s call for a new paradigm.

Time to get the debate going again. And there’s no time to lose. Careers, fortunes, and an entire industry hang in the balance.

Vocal fry, and what we can do about it

maxresdefaultMany people have remarked on the inclination of some young women in the US to use “up-talk” in everyday speech.

You’ve heard this, I know. It’s that rising tone at the end of a sentence that turns an assertion into a question. So “I stand by what I said” becomes “I stand by what I said?” I have written about it here.

More recently, people are talking about the “vocal fry,” so called because the last word of an utterance is made to sound like bacon frying. The Kardashian sisters use the vocal fry a lot. Indeed, they’re seen to be largely responsible for its popularity. “I stand by what I saaaaid.”  See this treatment by Faith Salie on CBS Sunday Morning.

Here’s Lake Bell (pictured) on both up-talk and the vocal fry. See the 1:34 mark of this Youtube clip. (Also, please, see Bell’s recent film In A World which is, among other things, an examination of how Americans talk. Very funny.  Highly recommended.)

I assumed that both up-talking and the vocal fry were artifacts of a sexist culture that continues to diminish women by encouraging women to diminish themselves. Up-talking is clearly an act of self diminishment.  But when I thought about the vocal fry a little more, I began to wonder whether if it  couldn’t be seen as an effort to correct up-talking.

After all, up-talking makes us sound eager for other people’s approval.  But the vocal fry makes it sound like we couldn’t care less. We believe what we’re saying.  If people agree with us, fine.  If they don’t, that’s fine too. The vocal fry could be read as an expression of self possession, a certain detachment, a confidence that banishes fear of disagreement or disapproval.

And this would make the vocal-fry an improvement on up-talking. This is not to say that the vocal fry doesn’t have problems of it’s own.  The fry might be read as evidence of confidence but it doesn’t make us sound like a rocket scientist.  It’s like we have over-corrected, going from over-eager to too blasé.

So how about this?  We need a conference, organized by and for powerful women, who gather to define the problem, discover strategies to address the problem, and muster the resources necessary to launch a solution.

I am acting here in my capacity as someone who likes to think about how anthropology can make itself useful (aka “service anthropology”).  So with this post my work is done. I’m happy to participate in the conference, but, really, organization should fall to someone else.  Forgive my presumption, but Lake Bell has taken the leadership position, so I wondered if she isn’t the natural leader.

Presuming even further, I sat down with my wife Pam and  friends Cheryl and Craig (Swanson) and we came up with this list of the kind of people who might be appointed to the organizing committee.

Joan Allen, actress
Paola Antonelli, Museum of Modern Art
Ric Beinstock, documentary filmmaker
Lake Bell, film maker
Carrie Brownstein, Sleater-Kinney, Portlandia
Wendy Clark, The Coca-Cola Company
Emma Cookson, BBH NY
Nancy F. Koehn, Harvard Business School
Leora Kornfeld, Schulich Business School
Nicole Maronian, M.D.
Indra Nooyi, The Pepsi-Cola Company
Shonda Rhimes, Scandal
Gillian Sankoff, linguist
Amy Schumer, comic
Marta Tellado, Ford Foundation

[None of these names is used by permission.  I wanted merely to suggest the kind of people who might serve on the committee.]

A celebrity lab by celebrities for celebrities

518px-Judy_Greer,_Comic-Con_2010I read somewhere recently that Judy Greer has  a way to categorize her fans.  So when she sees them in public, she can tell who she’s dealing with.

Perfect, I thought.  It’s about time celebs turned the tables.  We spent a lot of time talking about them.  They dominate TV, many magazines, and much of the chatter on-line.  It’s about time they started studying us.

A celebrity lab by celebrities for celebrities would be a good idea for strategic, entirely self-interested reasons.  However much it may feel like their celebrity is inevitable, fame is something conferred by the fans.  And what the fans give, the fans can take away.    Ask Alec Baldwin, Gwyneth Paltrow or Matt Lauer.

Celebrities could start with a typology of fans.  And there is a lot to categorize.  Some fans are deeply scholarly.  They can recite the biographical details, film titles, dialogue.  Some merely prize a particular film character.  “I loved you in A Walk on the Moon!”  Others just happen to be in love with the Star Wars or the Spider Man franchise and you are sudden, irresistible opportunity to make contact.  Still others are merely excited because they are in the presence of someone famous.  Distinguishing one from the other would be a good thing.  Having a strategy for each of them would be better still.

There is also, of course, a dark side, fans who may or may not harbor ill intent.  Some make a great noise but are essentially harmless.  Others are stalkers in training.  And still others are so dangerous, the right thing to do, the only thing to do, is to take cover as quickly as possible.  Early warning here would be inestimably valuable.

The celebrity could assume that everyone they meet in public is a nut job and armor themselves with beefy security guards.  But in fact public appearances, even impromptu ones, are part of the job, the way you renew your celebrity.  Really, the celeb has no choice to expose him or her self to interactions with the public.

So celebrities really need a way to tell who they are dealing with, on sight, in real time.  This person I see before me, the one grinning ear to ear and making a high pitched sound, is this a goof ball or a psychopath? A typology would help.

I got to see celebrity at work when I was the chauffeur for Julie Christie for the filming of McCabe and Mrs. Miller.   She was so famous at this point that Life magazine had declared 1965 “the year of Julie Christie.”

One afternoon, Julie and I were in a candle store.  We happened to be standing beside some guy who couldn’t decide whether his gift candle should be lemon or lime.  Julie volunteered that the lemon might be quite nice.  The guy turned to thank her for this advice but as it dawned on him that the speaker was the most famous woman in the world, he found  he had no words.  He walked out of the store, both candles in hand.

This is the best case of celebrity.  Your charisma protects you from contact, smoothes your path, charms your existence.

But there were other moments when people would come up to us and barge into Julie’s personal space.  I didn’t quite know what to do.  You couldn’t tell whether this was a friend she didn’t recognize or a hostile she ought to fear.  Scary as anything.  And there would be this unpleasant moment when we would have to wait for the person to throw off a little more information, so that we could figure out who they were and what they wanted.  And in that several seconds, we were vulnerable.

So some system for identifying strangers and a set of strategies for dealing with them would have been a very good thing.  Go, Judy, go.  And if you need a team of anthropologist to work on this problem, call me.  I could put together a set of teaching materials and conduct a lab.  It would be like teaching in the Harvard Business School classroom again except I wouldn’t have to memorize anyone’s name.  

Local history as a potluck potlatch

Thousands of communities in the US nurture a community within the community. This is all the people who care about local history.  

And there is the community within this community.  That’s all the things the community knows, or thinks it knows, about itself.

Most of these local history societies stage a speaker’s series.  They invite someone who is, say, expert in the civil war to come share their knowledge in a 40 minute talk, with drinks afterward.  It’s convivial and interesting.  If the gods are kind, the speaker knows her stuff and how to communicate it.  

There is another possibility.  Call it Potluck or Potlatch.  In this event we canvas and compile the historical knowledge of locals in a real time event.  Everyone brings what they know and shares.  

The way to run this is in the manner of a Harvard Business School classroom, drawing people into the discussion and organizing information as we go.

Naturally, we would want to begin with the declaration that we have the utmost respect for formal history and professional historians, and that we won’t ever want to challenge or diminish this kind of history.

But we also want to say that we want to see how much history we have in our community that qualities as “living history” and “informal knowledge.”

There is after all a larger trend that says our culture is moving from passive recipients of knowledge to active participants in the assembly of knowledge.

And in any case, the local historical society has always had an extra-academic purpose: a chance to meet and engage with your neighbors in shared enthusiasms.  

Community-assembled history would give me a much more vivid sense of my neighbors than the sometimes dreary process of watching them as they listen to an expert.  

There are several potential problems with this scheme.  One is that local blow hards will try to commandeer the proceedings, grasping it as an opportunity to show how very knowledgable they are. But it is up to the person is leading things to step in and gently encourage them to give way that others might participate!

The far graver problem is that the community would encourage and perpetuate local falsehoods and misconceptions.  All part of the fun.  Everyone wants to be credulous and scrupulous in equal proportions.  (This too is a trend.)  No one should come to a local history potluck / potlatch with the idea that the history will be definitive.  No one should leave with the conviction that they have certain knowledge.  

The idea is to share and to celebrate what the community believes to be true about itself. Everyone is free, indeed they are encouraged, to repair to their studies, consult the masters, and determine just how much false currency circulates in their home town.  

I propose the HBS model but of course there are lots of ways of solving the problem.  The idea is to have a facilitator who is good at drawing people out, getting historical assertions up on the board, leading the discussion as a discussion, gentling stick handling the puck away from the blow hards, making everyone feel welcome, and otherwise making this bonfire of knowledge burst into flame.  

If someone says, “Sir, how dare you trivial with something so sacred as our history,” you may reply, “History is much too important to be left to the historians.  This is a living trust, richer when shared, aerated and given voice.”