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If Silicon Valley ran like the Film Industry

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china town.jpg

If you’ve never worked in the film business, then it’s hard to understand why it is the way it is. Which is why I like to help people understand the film business in the context of start-up culture, because only then can you really understand it for the crazy insanity that it is.

If the start-up world ran like the film business, this is what it would look like.

Imagine you’re a successful founder with a couple of modest exits under your belt would have an idea for a new business. You might have a business plan. Just as likely you only have a pitch. You might have a few lines of code, but it’s understood that there will be no functional prototype.

You would go out for your A round of financing and ask for $50 -$200 million to make the idea into a product, with a commitment of an additional $50 – $300 million to market it. You would do this with a straight-face, by the way. 

Of course, it would be understood that you have no plan for an MVP – minimum viable product. Sure, if you get your funding, there will be a lengthy development process where people are writing scripts that are not seen by customers, mood boards created that will look nothing like the final project, and a host of other variables that cannot be market tested. And speaking of market testing, there will be some test marketing done before release, but we all accept and know that it will happen long after the point of no return for the product’s success has passed.

Finally, it will be accepted that it will be as long as 2 years before anyone will know whether investing in your business will work or not. But investors spend the money regardless despite knowing that, if it bombs, there will be no underlying IP other than the product itself as proof of the investment.

Seems crazy, right? But here’s the thing. Every VC and Investor would think that makes perfect sense and choose to invest or not based upon the quality of the pitch (or business plan) and your track record. That’s right, if they liked your or thought you were a good bet, they’d make the investment and commit as much as hundreds of millions of dollars to your idea. Just reinforces your belief that the film industry is out of control bunch of loonies, right? And they are.

But I always like to remind people of this story by William Goldman about the scoring of the classic China Town. You know, the movie that regularly makes every film critics list of must see films? In his book, “Which Lie did I tell?” Goldman tells the story of the first screening of China Town. He shares that the first preview, with the original score was a disaster. It wasn’t until Jerry Goldsmith came onto the picture that Goldman writes, “It was like you couldn’t see the movie with the other score, and now you could, and I thought, ‘Omigod, we may have a chance…”

I always like to share that story because it helps to explain why the movie business is so insane. There are just seemingly endless obstacles that the creative industries face. When it comes to making a film – even a classic like ChinaTown – the score, one of the final elements in the process, nearly ruined the movie. Great acting. Great script. Great direction rendered meaningless by one bad creative decision. There are countless examples to match this – every film maker has heard and/or experienced them.  

So the next time you find yourself remarking at how stupid those Hollywood people are, remember the story of China Town. It won’t necessarily make you feel any better about that appalling film you just endured. But it may help you to understand that, until we have the technology to screen films while pushing new scenes in real time, there’s not really any better way to get them made. And that amazing movie you just watched – maybe you can have a better appreciation for just how unlikely it really is that it came out the way it did.

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