After a ‘Summer of Hell,’ Hollywood needs Lean Media

In Hollywood, the summer of 2017 is one that studio executives would like to forget. The Summer of Hell saw a 15 per cent decline in global revenue compared to the previous summer. Slick, heavily hyped blockbusters featuring A-list stars like Tom Cruise and successful franchises like the Transformers and the Smurfs failed to ignite at North American box offices, although foreign sales helped some achieve profitability. 

For other films, there was no foreign knight in shining armor. According to Box Office Mojo, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword grossed less than US$40mn in the US. Even US$110mn in sales in the Middle East, Europe, and Asia weren’t enough to make up the estimated US$175mn in production costs.

Who or what is to blame? Insiders point to too many sequels, or competition from robust home entertainment options, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones. But if you dig deeper, the root issue emerges: studios don’t really understand audiences as much as they think they do. That is, despite all of the high-powered writing, acting, and production talent at their disposal, and the reams of demographic and marketing data available to executives, the studios continue to make movies that largely fail to excite and interest audiences, whether they are in Minneapolis or Muscat.

A lean alternative

 Studios, scriptwriters, and directors might want to consider a new way of developing films, one that uses ‘lean’ concepts from manufacturing and tech startups. Unlike heavy manufacturing or the design of business software, Lean Media is designed to help creators of media works, including film, books, recorded music, news websites, online video, magazines, performance art, and even standup comedy.

Media is unlike other products, in that films or a song have no tangible value, yet drive intangible emotions and reactions ranging from excitement to sorrow. People are willing to spend their time and money on media experiences, and will sometimes go to great lengths to see a performance or binge-watch a special television series.

 In my writings, I have outlined the framework’s key principles:

1. Reduce waste: Employ a stripped-down team structure with just enough people to make something great, and limited approvals from non-creative people.

2. Understand audiences: Focus on gathering audience feedback during the actual ideation and production stages to inform creators, instead of waiting until the official launch to determine whether audiences will be interested.

The leaner teams and audience feedback helps the production team focus its creativity, and develop new media in a way that’s faster, cheaper, and more likely to resonate with audiences.

Lean Media doesn’t mean handing over creative control to test audiences, or holding popularity contests – rather, it’s a way to validate whether or not the creative magic can work and lead to something that audiences truly love. Teams can ignore feedback, or use it as a starting point for internal discussions on how to iterate to the next stage. If the media doesn’t resonate, the team can pivot in a new direction (for instance, by changing the plot of a movie or the angle of a news story). It’s also okay to abandon a work and move on to something else – it may be tough for the team, but it makes sense not only in terms of saving money and time, but also in terms of sparing audiences the pain of a boring or terrible media experience.

Lean Media examples

Lean Media is already used in fields such as video game production. The hit game Minecraft was started by a Swedish games developer Markus “Notch” Persson working with a small group of collaborators, and paying close attention to online feedback from early testers as well as in-person gameplay tests. Microsoft later bought his company for a reported US$2.5bn.

In the television realm, The Simpsons started out as short animated clips appearing during commercial breaks for another live-action comedy show. When the clips were spliced together to entertain the studio audience during costume breaks and set changes, the laughter and applause validated the idea of turning the programme into a half-hour, prime-time television programme. The Simpsons launched as a standalone show in 1989, and is still going strong today.

As for films, focus groups are sometimes used to test marketing campaigns or gauge early audience reaction. But why not have the feedback loops start earlier, and actually inform the creative teams as they develop scripts and start filming? It’s worked before – the cult hit Napoleon Dynamite (2004) was filmed on a shoestring budget of just US$400,000 but grossed more than US$44mn. It started as a college film school project, and was refined through feedback in the classroom and campus screenings before a professional cast was recruited for the feature film.

Among movies that have a better chance of succeeding in today’s box office environment are superhero movies, which often have a feedback cycle going back decades to the comic book era. Smart studios such as Marvel extensively use focus groups to test plots and characters, and aren’t afraid to change course if something’s not working. Marvel is one of the few studios that’s doing something right, judging by its recent track record. Even in the Summer of Hell, Marvel scored the #2 and #3 spots for the season, grossing US$390mn globally for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and US$333mn for Spider-Man: Homecoming. The top movie of the summer season? Wonder Woman, a character that first appeared in 1941 in DC Comics, went on to have a successful TV run in the 1970s and 1980s, and roared back over the summer, grossing US$412mn globally in five months.

Ian-Lamont

Ian Lamont is the author of Lean Media: How to Focus Creativity, streamline production, and create media that audiences love. The book outlines an innovative framework for media managers and creative professionals that can help them make media that audiences love. Follow him on Twitter at @ilamont and @leanmediaorg

After a ‘Summer of Hell,’ Hollywood needs Lean Media
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