A Hollywood Shocker: The Return of Originality

Looking for a place to escape the grinding heat of a stifling midsummer day? Just this past weekend, the latest Leonardo DiCaprio thriller Inception opened in an air conditioned theater near you, an epic science fiction tale of corporate espionage and psychological intrigue.

Surprisingly, though, it wasn’t the global mega-star DiCaprio who generated the most industry buzz about the film. Instead, it was Christopher Nolan, the man who single handedly served as its writer, director, and co-producer, who drew the admiration of the Hollywood elite.

Just a few months ago, the Academy Awards was also dominated by a pair of films (The Hurt Locker and Avatar) that featured original screenplays, including one (James Cameron’s Avatar) that generated more industry buzz about its visionary writer-director than its actors and actresses. Is it possible that originality is on the comeback trail as an esteemed trait in Hollywood? And perhaps in other consumer product and service industries as well?

Knock Offs and Sequels

Hollywood, of course, has always been known as a land of endless repetition, a place where adherence to time-tested characters and themes often defines the business strategies of movie studios. The legendary Marilyn Monroe, for instance, was initially groomed by Twentieth Century Fox to serve as its replacement sex symbol for the maturing Betty Grable; she was not encouraged to pursue serious acting roles. And the practice of spinning off film sequels did not begin with Star Wars; as far back as the Great Depression, William Powell and Myrna Loy’s The Thin Man was extended through five relatively uninspiring sequels after it was initially nominated for a Best Picture Oscar in 1934.

Nevertheless, Hollywood has also progressed through extended cyclical periods when legendary directors dominated the big screen with original films that expressed highly personal statements and beliefs. The golden age of silent movies in the 1920s, for instance, featured original works by the classic comedians Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd. And the great cultural upheavals of the 1960s and early 1970s inspired a newly naturalistic form of film-making by directors such as Martin Scorcese, Roman Polanski, and Francis Ford Coppola.

Is today’s trend towards original screen plays a temporary blip on Hollywood’s radar screen? Or is it a leading indicator of a long term emphasis on personal vision and creativity? Interestingly, the emergence of this very trend in other consumer sectors may offer evidence that originality is indeed becoming a cultural phenomenon.

It’s Not Just a Phone … It’s an iPhone!

Consider the mobile cellular telephone, for instance. Many analysts believe that Google’s Android software is comparable to Apple’s iPhone system, and yet the iPhone continues to establish trail blazing sales records. Why is this so? Well, when we purchase an iPhone, we believe that we are acquiring a product whose every detail has been personally crafted by Apple CEO Steve Jobs, from the placement of the iconic home button to the manner in which our finger tips flick icons across the screen.

Likewise, consider the once mundane world of home decor and furnishings. Years ago, we might have been content to allow professional painters to purchase our wall paint from hardware stores, and our interior decorators to acquire fluffy bathroom towels from wholesale outlets. But today, we purchase our own paint and towels from Martha Stewart, confident in the belief that she has personally selected an array of original product options that is ideally suited to meet our needs.

Is the aura of personal and original craftsmanship in these products a real phenomenon, or is it merely a belief induced by clever marketing campaigns? Although the truth may lie somewhere between these two possibilities, the desire for authenticity among American consumers is undoubtedly real.

Serving A Need

When American business leaders sense a need, they inevitably strive to serve it. But can we expect our titans of commerce to succeed in these endeavors? What business strategies might they adopt to serve this need, and then to profit by catering to it?

Most works of striking originality and creativity are not developed by team consensus techniques or by focus group tests, but instead emerge from the vivid imaginations of individual artists and bootstrapping entrepreneurs. Thus, we might anticipate a renewed emphasis on the classic venture capitalist’s business model, with investors scouring the nation and the world for new screen plays to turn into films, new prototypes to convert into products, and new personalities to transform into household names.

In other words, we might well anticipate a resurgence of the entrepreneurial business focus of the American baby boomer period, a time that witnessed the rise of small regional firms like McDonald’s and Walmart to global dominance. After all, whenever Americans grow weary of the tried and true, they inevitably search for the Next Big Thing in interesting and unusual places.