Friday, January 19, 2018

Meta-story review of The Last Jedi

Today, on the evening news, there was a report that some of Hasbro’s sales were down and that analysts are blaming it on “tie-in fatigue.” The story went on to unbox a convoluted explanation about fans being fatigued over too many tie ins.

I thought this was an attempt at adaptive justification for something that has a much simpler explanation. I will explain using the The Last Jedi.

Well, there are more than enough fan reviews, chat boards and professional movie critiques presenting endless opinions about what worked and what didn’t in the movie, so I thought that I would do something different. I would review the movie from a Meta-story point of view.

In other words, how did the movie and narrative work from a franchise-driving stand point.

I’m not going to spend time praising the things that we love about Star Wars (and there’s a lot of those in this movie). Instead this critique will unbox those elements that are causing the franchise to stumble from a broader commercial standpoint.

Warning!! Spoiler Alert!! Read no further if you haven’t seen the movie and plan to.

Disaster on Rotten Tomatoes: When it first aired, the fan ratings on Rotten Tomatoes were in the mid to low 60’s. Not great but not rotten…yet. Over the following weeks, the more the audience showed up or thought more about what they’d seen, the more the fan rating dropped. Big trouble! It should go up… As of writing this, the number has hit 49%. Officially rotten!! What happened?!!

Meta-story analysis:  From a Meta-story standpoint, this latest installment is declining at nourishing and expanding itself as a franchise. It’s not some strange idea like “tie-in fatigue.” It’s a problem with what’s happening with the narrative and the world development. Here’s why:

A responsibility to deliver enough newness: With big world properties that live across multiple media and multiple sequels, prequels and timelines, it’s important to give your existing fans and your new audience real surprises and continual expansion of story, character and world.

Continual new human ideas need to flow through the story. Ideas that are useful for the new changes your audience wants in their lives now and tomorrow. Those ideas are hard to craft well but when done right, the audience wants to use them and the new visual elements are one of the most profound ways the audiences owns those ideas and takes them home to explore and expand on them. Rich new visuals also signal that the franchise is moving forward. 

Scant newness: For a while now, the Star Wars saga has significantly under-delivered on newness of world and elements within it. We travel to new places but those places are often full of vehicles and things that feel very tired, very “been there done that.” 

Example: The newer, larger, walkers. Just putting gorilla-style knuckles on what is largely the same design and same gestalt We’ve seen in quite a few of the movies now, just feels old. Was this done to employ much of the existing molds for the toy company? Where was the visual imagination that could have delivered an exciting new take on these dreadnaughts, a new visual idea that would use surprise to re-awaken that sense of institutional and relentless power at our doorstep? We are 10 movies into the franchise after all...

Surprise opens the mind to faster and deeper adoption of the ideas in the moment. Lack of surprise deadens that adoption and then the audience invests less in the franchise.

Use the permission Luke!: In a universe as vast as the Star Wars universe, with multitudes of alien races and the vast timeframe to stretch across, this franchise should have full permission to visually experiment and yet it seems bolted into its visual canon.  Where does this come from? There are more than enough images, toys, collectibles, published stories, games and beyond to enjoy the past visual work for generations yet to come. There’s no need to treat this franchise’s past like it should define its future. Re-invention and risk are critical to continual franchise health.  Visually, this movie doesn’t rise to that challenge.

Respecting some Canon is very, very, important for your fans but too much can be handcuffs for evolution or expansion. In big world properties, mythology bloat is inevitable. Over time, the canon becomes so thick it stifles evolution and it needs to be trimmed back from time to time. The devil is truly in the details here. If you’re going to change canon through narrative repositioning, or do a full on ret-con, how well you do it and what you replace it with had better be truly excellent.

Off-hand discarding of Canon, or worse still, badly conceived redefining of key elements to make them less important, can backfire as it did in this movie. Change but change well.

Overly heavy canon is more like a long time valued employee whose time it is to retire. The elements need to be moved from the story respectfully and with affection versus rudely and uncharacteristically. Again, this movie did the latter (I’ll explain where) and its just one of the ways it popped the audience right out of the story.

Every time you disrupt or weaken the story, you weaken the connection of the meaning and usefulness to the audience and this is what drives usage and franchise success!! 

Character consistency: In Star Wars, we have literally grown up with the characters as they’ve gone from young world hoppers to aged sages and galactic institutions. That means we KNOW who they are as if they were family members. The Last Jedi wrote behaviors for some of the most foundational characters of the franchise that just don’t play as true and even betray some of the key reasons we love them. Yes, there’s a Hollywood adage that goes something like “kill the baby.” What is meant is that crafting great story often means giving up something you hold precious in order to achieve the unexpected. What it doesn’t mean is that long standing characters can be thrown away unceremoniously.

Luke: Here is the character who started it all. A flawed and naïve boy who grew to take on the greatest evil in the galaxy and prevail because of goodness, heart and tenacity. Yes, there is human truth in disillusionment that can come with age but, the motivation that would have been needed for Luke to decide to kill a sleeping student was way outside of his character truth.

Additionally, the life we found him living was absurd and full of very strange narrative choices that left the audience feeling creepy. Whose idea was the unsettlingly cheesy sequence of milking a giant rubber lactating alien walrus during one of his rants?

We invest in fictional heroes the same way we do in real heroes. We don’t want to feel creepy or upset at behaviors that just don’t make sense for someone we invest our beliefs in. You can’t unsee or unhear those things so you can do real damage to your franchise. That doesn’t mean your characters and heroes can’t go through gigantic ups and downs and swings from dark to light. Doing it in ways that run counter to that character’s truth are the problem.  

Yoda: His appearance in this movie seemed only to be a device to burn the reliquary of the Jedi books. His laughing and bizarrely joking demeanor at doing so with little setup or reason for being in the story trivialized this beloved character who is the living and breathing metaphor for the balance of the force.  It was strange for a quirky character whom, in the past, we’d come to deeply trust.

Chewie – why was he even in the movie? He had no significant role as in past movies. He was little more than a chauffeur. Utterly removable. This character has been the franchise’s powerful metaphor for unquestioning loyalty and friendship, Battlefield brotherhood and egoless strength. None of those beats were serviced. What a terrible demotion. Like Luke, he was given a cringy sequence when he was about to eat that cooked Porg. It smells of ewoks but with an attempt at creating a meme-worthy moment that didn't work

Plot efficiency - When in doubt, leave it out: Characters or elements put into a story as a device to make certain plot points happen are often the weakest characters and elements in the movie. Broadly, the rule is to subtract these elements from the story and continually tighten the narrative and the logic of how it all moves forward. This is because characters with no depth or lacking any motivation that has been credibly built, are characters we can’t connect to, we aren’t scared of, who simply don’t move us. The more you have in a story, the flatter your story gets and eventually, your audience leaves not knowing why they really didn’t care, or worse still, didn’t like it.

Unfortunately, The Last Jedi was absolutely bursting with unneeded or under-motivated character appearances. Additionally, so many of these characters had bits and chads of set-up stories from previous movies that were either ignored in this movie or when the payoff arrived, it was lightweight or trivial.

Supreme Leader Snoke:  Here is a character that the story didn’t invest in letting us get to know and therefore fear. He had virtually no background, died in a surprisingly incompetent moment, but more importantly, he was not a dangerous idea. Being just a Megalomaniac makes THE most boring bad guys. Great bad guys actually have a viable and dangerous idea they represent. This idea is usually of greatest threat to our central hero. In this movie, that idea was Ben/Kylo Ren’s. That worked very well but then Snoke needed a deeper reason to exist.

Maz Kanata: An interesting character lightly set up in The Force Awakens as being somehow involved in Luke Skywalkers journey through the underground. What an interesting set up! We had no payoff of that set up in this movie and only saw her in a desperate broadcast that was clearly just to give us a push in the direction of a specific code breaker. Really unnecessary and not terribly respectful of the setup previously given the audience. Set ups are an immediate question that comes rushing back into the audience’s head as soon as they see the character again. Instead all that interest was spent on being merely expository…a plot device.

DJ (Benicio Del Toro): This codebreaker was a character that I’ve heard a lot about since the movie aired. Folks I’ve spoken to usually quirk an eyebrown and say something like “whats with that guy?” In essence, another plot device to play a reversal/betrayal to magnify the stakes during the battle with the last of the resistance.  Because of the weight of that betrayal, the character should have been built much deeper to carry it. As an example, how much better would it have been if it were one of Rey’s parents whom had abandoned her? (something that was yet another anti-climactic throw away moment when revealed). Add to the weight on her shoulders and give her a real reason for her crisis of belief rather than just some words from an evil guy.

Captain Phasma: Cool silver suit. Always walking on during ominous music in these movies. No real back-story. No real meaning or ideas…and then she’s dead by a miraculous come back from Finn and we don’t even get to see the great actress we know is under the suit? A real miss on all cylinders. You won’t sell more silver storm troopers unless there’s a character reason that moves us to want them. As I write this I worry that the next movie will see her not really dead but now hideously scarred…and mad…and still no reason to exist in the story.

Rey in the pit beneath the island: Nothing happened! Luke gave us a quick set up that the pit was strong with the dark side and when she goes down into it against Luke’s warnings, nothing understandable happens. No great metaphors, no foreshadowing that makes powerful sense, nothing of consequence that has any real impact on the story. Without this sequence the movie would not have changed one bit.

Looking for the codebreaker on the gambling planet: this entire sequence seemed gratuitous and unnecessary when crafting a character for profound betrayal could have, and should have, come from within the closer circle of characters in the story. We had to endure a seemingly impossible jaunt to an almost comically conceived of vegas-on-redbull planet when it all could have been done tighter and with far more painful and personal results. This one seemed a combination of plot convenience and unmotivated world building. Great world building always means each location is more than a host for the action. It is a new part of the meaning of the story. Dagoba is where Luke finds the strength to commit to the training…

Rules of Magic: Magic always has to have rules and limitations. Harry Potter does it so well and as a result, we feel the characters struggle to learn it, use it, master it and ultimately succeed even in spite of it. The force is a form of magic.

The Last Jedi just throws all of that out the window in exchange for the concept of finding “extraordinariness” within yourself just when you need it most. For me, this is perhaps one of the most disappointing takes of the more recent Star Wars films. Luke, Darth, anyone and everyone who can use the force in any capacity, have a long and profound journey to find it within themselves, train in its use and control, and even learn how to use a light saber. This takes a lifetime for most but at least several intensive years (and movies) for the deeply gifted.

Rey: So now we have a hero who never has to train and learn, who simply has the force grow and respond to her exactly when she needs it. Lightsabers leap into her hand on command, amazing skill in wielding it is automatic and even making enormously heavy rocks float are all possible without significant training. What this does is undercut our belief that she has achieved “worthiness.” We all know that exceptional is something that takes a lot of very, very, hard work so including that truth is critical to stories with any sort of magic or the magic becomes a form of deus-ex-machina (a god that descends from heaven to fix whatever is wrong). In essence, we are delivered a hero that is not useful to us as proof of an idea. This makes all the business that flows from her and her experience far less successful.

Leia and sudden manifestation of the force: You can’t have the first and only time a character uses magic be a moment the story turns on without some form of setup or foreshadowing. By having Leia pull herself from the vacuum of space, back into an airlock, using the force, when we have never seen her do so before is just that kind of moment. Yes, she’s Luke’s sister. Yes, the rest of the writing for her was good in this movie, but there was no cost or effort in the magic’s use and no real meaning either. Consistent with this movie’s reoccurring mistake of not putting narrative weight behind many of their choices. Again, doing a great job of telling a story with inspiring, believable, human struggle, triumph and truth is the foundation of sustaining a great heroic franchise.

Sacrificing good sustainable logic for great moments:  Weaponizing light speed changes the entire struggle.  I was blown away at how cool the moment was when Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) turned her ship around and went suicide-lightspeed right into the First Order causing unimaginable damage!

Then I began to think about what this does to the entire series. It changes everything. Once you weaponized something of that much power, everyone would use it…a lot! Get as many ships as you can and robot-light speed them into the First Order strongholds and vice versa. No ground war, just super powerful space missiles. I could almost guarantee that the next movies won’t even address this but there it is.

Also feeding the boys business: In the past, the Star Wars franchise has been a very broad-based, multi-generational and dual gender phenomenon. I applaud leaning into equalized roles for male and female actors in the new movies. About time!

That being said, The Last Jedi has somewhat taken its eye off the ball when it comes to keeping the boys business fed with heroic characters they want to inhabit as well.

This is important because there’s a very big difference between what audience shows up for a movie and who buys into all the play, game and lifestyle goods afterwards.

Male heroic model? So what male characters in the movie can I really aspire to be in a major heroic way? Yet again, Finn seems to only be in the story to be saved. Poe has potential but ultimately, he’s used primarily for scaling the stakes of the movie through his frustration. Luke…well we’ve talked about him. Net/net, there’s a very important discussion for the next movies about finding and representing important, new, male-heroic mythology that is thrilling and competitively aspirational.

There’s lots more to talk about but this blog post is already the longest one I’ve ever posted. 

In closing:

It’s hard to hurt big, multi-generational franchises: There is a great deal of evidence across other franchises that big, multi-generational franchises can grow dramatically, reinvent the visual, and even get it wrong and then get it right. This is important, because when a franchise delivers gigantic sums of profit to it’s parent company and all the companies who pay a lot to license that franchise, it can become too precious and second-guessing can cause all kinds of decision-making that is unhealthy to the creative process of shaping the next chapter in the story for an audience that is continually changing. There are ways to cope with these pressures and I'll save that for another blog post.

The Star Wars franchise has reached the point where I believe it needs to be carefully (and a little dangerously) evolved for relevance and world-newness as well as tighter and better structured character storytelling. I believe it’s all do-able and if it’s done right, we can all forgive a stumble or two on our favorite epic mythology. The upside for the franchise is still there but it’s not to be mined…it’s to be reshaped.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Comiconomy: Why Stories Are The New Power Brands

I have been attending various comicons for well over 25 years now. In those early days, I could look around and see mostly super-fans and serious collectors. Boy have things changed!

Geeks-R-Us: Several years ago we began interviewing folks we’d meet there to find out more about who was attending, what they loved, why they loved it and what they did with it. What we found was that geekism had gone very, very mainstream. Folks from every walk of life and income level were very well represented. Lawyers, Contractors, Sports figures, Fast Food workers, Corporate executives were all in attendance and their families we’re often just as passionately involved!

Story Natives: Comicon was only one of the Pinnacle Experiences they attended and in fact, the commitment to the stories they loved was vastly more profound than a once-a-year cosplay day with friends and family or some collecting. (more on pinnacle experiences in a future post). Millennials and their families, in particular, use stories like natives, having been the first generation to grow up soaked in stories that they controlled (ah kids and VCRs).

The broader audience at large has discovered what super fans have always known. There’s real meaning and powerfully relevant ideas in great stories and they are fun and very, very, useful to use in today’s daily life.

Useful Stories: This democratization of fandom was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how the audience was now “living into stories.” By this I mean when someone uses a story for far more than entertainment.

The story becomes a singularly profoundly and personally useful wellspring of ideas, ethos and life-aesthetic to explore and express who they are and what they want to say and do.

Deepest Engagement: When a story achieves this status with someone they no longer have a casual relationship with that story. It becomes part of them and as such, they want to use it in many different places in their lives and they want friends and family to join them in that usage. They also want to personally evolve their own little corner of that story and personalize it with their perspective and elements from their own life story and ideas.

A Safe And Powerful Place: We’ve been watching the worldwide audience move their beliefs, dreams and aspects of self into these fictional stories because they are incorruptible and because they have real ideas and ideology in them. Generations ago, we used to believe the same about Church and State but today, it seems the news proves that isn’t so on a daily basis and trust has dramatically declined in those institutions, especially amongst Millennials.

Relevance for a lot of your life: Aspirations, Belief, Ideologies, usefulness, these are big components of why people buy things! This is especially so in this age where Millennials spend their disposable income filtered first through their values. These factors are also the major reasons why an audience/consumer remains loyal to something!

It is no wonder then that certain well crafted, relevant and meaningful stories become games, toys, clothing, home goods, social expression and so much more for some stunningly broad audiences. Those audiences are finding themselves and the ideas they need in them.

Redefining Brand: Because of their much greater depth, stories have truly become the new power brands because when they get it right, they are more personal, more expressive and vastly more useful throughout all aspects of daily life.

All that being said, consider this before rushing forward to make everything into a story.

Lifestyle adoption is a limited portfolio: Through our Meta-Story research, we have found that millennial families tend to have 2 to 5 stories that they are living into. Each story may have a primary member of the family whom it is most relevant to (and who introduces it to the family) but millennials share deeply with each other and especially want to share in experiences and beliefs with their kids. These stories are a malleable portfolio of ideas and meaning that together defines the individuals and the family itself. They are also rich experiences that help to bond friends and families together in ways far beyond just play.

Powerful and Rare: This is the reason licensing is exploding and at the same time, it is the reason why so few new properties become significant franchises. It’s also why some long-term franchises lose steam as audiences discover they don’t have broader and relevant usefulness to live into. You want to be on that short list of stories that a large and defined group of people and families are living into!! Audiences today constantly edit, re-evaluate and evolve that list of lifestyle stories they are using. Your new story can displace an existing lifestyle story causing it to cool and the audience to lapse their involvement in it. Audiences can also re-engage with that same story if the right narrative evolution is done to keep it relevant.

Net/net, the Story that gives the audience what they need and want in the most relevant and deep/broad way, are the stories that can become one of the few for the many in today’s Comiconomy.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Great Creative Leaders: The Catalyst You Need Right NOW

“In times of great change, we need great creative leaders.”

This is especially true today when the rate of change seems straight up and disruption seems like an uncontrollable hero you need and fear at the same time.

I’m now mumble, mumble decades into my career and consider myself incredibly lucky to still be living the dream. I get to work with some of the most creative people on the planet across entertainment, publishing, gaming and the world of play to help find new ways to think and look at the questions they face that shape the creative answers they are working hard to solve for.

Those charged with creation, invention, innovation and development are all in the business of imagining and making the next few bricks of our path into the future and to do this, there isn’t a blueprint.

It’s a little to a lot different every time and those good at recognizing and creatively altering approach and result become very valuable to their organizations by keeping them fresh and relevant and that equals profitable and growing.

These people face firestorms of change-discomfort, misunderstanding, politics and impatience coming from all sides. When creating and innovating, nothing is guaranteed except change and the fact that your competition is literally breathing down your neck trying to do the same thing only better.

It’s not a job of rinse and repeat even though publicly traded companies are all about predictability and steadily tracking growth. By definition, great creative leaders must become “the outsider, inside,” constantly challenging the larger system to remain open to risk and the unexpected. Conversely, a company will not attract or retain great creative leaders unless their culture and environment embraces having the change conversations this leader will bring to the table.

It sounds pretty high pressure and it is. It is also done brilliantly by a relatively small group of creatives who are lead by an even smaller group of exceptional creative leaders.  What makes these extraordinary creative leaders so good at what they do? A big part of their abilities flows from who they are and the rest comes from what they’ve learned and how they successfully apply it to the projects and the people in their care.

Here’s my list of qualities that many of these great creative leaders have in common.

They are natural born teachers – Brilliant creatives who must direct everything aren’t leaders, they are an auteur, individual creators who weave whole cloth. Great creative leaders know how to inspire and impart (idea, questions, methods of thought, new perspectives). They seem to be walking insight factories and are superb at redefining the question in order to get a better/newer answer.

They expect newness and reject fashion or artifice – Being able to do this marks the difference between those who deliver market-leading results versus trying to anticipate the market (which always means second place at best and often just too little too late).

They require and recognize excellence – Those who work for great creative leaders feel the bar is set high and that they are expected to clear it. They also feel that those leaders can see the contributions at every step of the process and that they recognize and appropriately celebrate when excellence is being achieved.  One of the more destructive problems a creative leader can cause is not being in touch with who is contributing what and to what level.

They protect the creatives that work for them – Creation of any kind is a very difficult and iterative process that is easy to send into vapor lock. Too frequent reviews and comments from too many people (especially those who may not be trained in that process) is one of the most caustic environments any company can create for innovation and creation. Great leaders know how to passionately defend and protect that environment and the creatives that work for them within it.  They can often be seen as too sensitive or touchy to other parts of the organization but that is a small price to pay for a creative result that can drive your company to big success.

They foster a fearless culture – There is success and then there is learning. Failure and creating ideas that don’t rise to the need are a very important part of finally reaching excellence. Great creative leaders support highly iterative processes that learn to hold onto discoveries that work and set aside egos to move beyond the parts that don’t. They don’t Punish for smart risks that don’t exceed on the first try. This has become increasingly difficult in today’s culture of speed-to-market processes but the great leaders know that “haste makes poop.” Creation is not manufacturing. It’s making something unique once. After that, depending on what’s been created, then it gets manufactured or repeated.

They don’t need to be the center of attention – Volumes have been written on the demeanor of great leaders and much of that is true with creative as well. Generally, as corporate fashions go, we’re still detoxing from 20 years of “the culture of celebrity” where corporate hiring works more like casting a movie (big stars = box office insurance). Leadership is actually not a title. It’s a gift that those who lead assign to you in belief that you can inspire, direct and manage those who work for you. These leaders often have strong personalities but the good ones also raise up those they lead.

They provide a clear overall scaffolding yet embrace individual process – The true nature of creativity is that the process is as individual as a finger print. One person may do visual research and make connection no one thought of. Another begins with stories and finds a newly relevant thread to build upon and yet another brings new meaning to additive collaboration and is brilliant in writer’s rooms or brainstorm sessions. Great leaders learn who they are leading and supply the big process and interaction arcs that allow creative individuals to uniquely function and contribute within that envelope. The alternative is deeply destructive to creativity…proscribing the same process to be followed by all creatives. I always find it shocking just how many companies do this because it’s easy and trackable and gives those who aren’t involved in the creative process a handbook.

They are the best outward facing cheerleader of the work – All the other skills and qualities listed above mean little if the person who has them can’t create advocacy and support for his people and the amazing work they are doing. There is also an aspect of the outward facing interaction that is critical to supporting the growth of any idea beyond the initial team. Inspiration of others! No small part of being a great creative leader is the ability to “translate” the vision, the work, the process and the result, into terms that the rest of the organization (or other partners) can support and interact with. More than ever, creative results aren’t standalone efforts. They grow to include many other expressions of that result created by other stakeholders both internally and externally. Many of those stakeholders will add to, expand and extend that initial vision creatively themselves.

Net/net, our industries of entertainment, brands, products and experiences, are all facing continually accelerating change. Looking first to the health of your creative wellspring is job #1 in a long chain of making something around which your company can succeed. Find, Empower or Promote the right creative leader and profoundly engage with them to shape how that process can be made more rigorously rich and results more unexpected and yes…disruptive.