Trusting Creativity: How Hollywood Found Its Way

By , Creative Director, Hanson Dodge

In The Case for Creativity, James Hurman comes to a compelling, albeit simple, conclusion: The more creative your advertising, the harder it will work and the better your business will perform.

More interestingly, though, the predictor for which advertising will have the most significant business effect was a measure that had nothing to do with effectiveness at all, but rather how creative the campaigns were, as judged by top creatives in the industry. In fact, according to several studies cited in his book, campaigns that win the most prestigious creative awards, are almost always the campaigns that perform better on every measure across the marketing dashboard, including long-term sales and brand health.

Hurman makes the case that you should—contrary to what has become taboo in some circles—always aim to win top creative awards with your work. Not for your own glory. And not for bragging rights or self promotion. But because it puts creativity at the forefront of the every conversation. If you do that, as evidenced above, you’ll connect with people and inevitably get the business results you’ve been looking for. (For more on this see Give, to Get the Most Out of Your Ad Campaign by Chris Buhrman, ECD at Hanson Dodge, or buy Hurman’s book).

The following is a case from a parallel industry (and universe) that for a while stopped trusting in creativity as a driver for business results. Until, thankfully, for all of us, they did once again.

A Sure Thing in Hollywood

Hollywood is a strange place for all sorts of reasons. But in this case, it’s strange because sitting in the drawers of producers, movie execs and directors across the city are—by their own admission—treasure troves of unique, creative, amazing movie scripts that are currently not being made. And in most cases, they never will. 

Why? A lot of reasons. The scripts are deemed too outside of the mainstream, or they don’t have a solid three-act structure that mass audiences are used to, or maybe they work great on paper but “might be hard to translate to the big screen.”

But the real truth is (just like in advertising) the people putting up the funding want a sure thing. And often times (just like in advertising), they want to know it’s a sure thing before anything even happens.

As a result, what we now see coming out of Tinsel Town are “formula” movies. Reboot after reboot, movies adapted from best-selling romance novels, “proven” genre flicks, non-stop prequels and sequels; any movie with a built-in following and “predictable" sales. And it actually can work, but only in the short term.

But Hurman cautions against taking this nearsighted view. He demonstrated that although uncreative advertising can, in fact, raise sales in the short term, it will also cost much more in the long run and eventually hurt long-term brand health and market share. And, not surprisingly, we’ve seen this play out in the movie industry.

Take the superhero movie craze. After seeing great success with movies like The Dark Knight and Spiderman, DC and Marvel, respectively, started taking every last comic book and graphic novel out of their sealed cellophane sleeves to turn into a feature film.

Today, the formulaic superhero movies coming down the factory line, like Batman vs. Superman and Suicide Squad are costing a lot to make, getting blasted by critics and consumers alike, and are not making the money projected in the “formula.”  Even more telling, the movies that defy these proven formulas and do something different—like for example ignoring the long-held idea that an “R”-rated superhero movie will never sell—are the ones making the most money (See: Deadpool; Logan).

But thankfully, all is not lost.

Trusting Creativity Again

To combat the string of cookie-cutter blockbusters, a young Hollywood producer had an idea. He knew there were creative, unique scripts collecting dust all over town—scripts that industry pros admittedly loved, but for the reasons mentioned, were not getting made.  

So, a few years back, in hopes of preventing the eventual Fast & Furious 12, he asked all of his contacts to rank the best screenplays that have yet to be green-lit. He aggregated the data, ranked them and posted them online in what would come to be known by the industry as The Blacklist.

You may ask, what strange, non-relatable, not-right-for-mass-audience movies were atop the list? You’ve probably never of heard of them but here’s a few: The Social Network, Juno, Slumdog Millionaire, Little Miss Sunshine, Argo, The Imitation Game, Spotlight, The King’s Speech, Whiplash. The list goes on.

What do these movies have in common? Critical acclaim, top award nominations and wins in several categories (including Best Screenplay and Best Picture wins at the Oscars) and, of course, none of them fit the prototypical mold. By the way, they also made money. Why? Well, one, because they were great scripts that became damn good films. But also because when critics and everyday people alike talk about a movie, and if said movie is nominated for the big awards, then everyone goes to see it. Seems so simple.

Just like the top advertising awards, The Blacklist was top creatives in an industry ranking the best work. The irony in this case is that the people who were ranking the scripts were some of the same people who could easily get the movies made. They knew deep down how great these stories were but at some point along way they either gave in to the business “formula” or stopped trusting the sentiment that creativity always wins.

That was then. Today, after the success of the movies that previously topped the The Blacklist, it’s now the go-to for actors, directors and producers looking for the next great film. What’s more is there’s a monumental shift in thinking taking place across the industry. The production company, Lionsgate, for example, is applying a few simple rules to making movies: work with talented people, protect their vision, don’t try to please everyone and always embrace things that are different; as Paul Fieg, Lionsgate co-president, put it, “give the audience the pleasure of discovering something new.” And with that, they are now 70 percent profitable. Business results by focusing on creativity.

All it took was a little reaffirmation from industry peers for everyone in Hollywood—including even those looking for a “sure thing”—to start listening to their collective gut, and start trusting in creativity again.

Whether we’re talking about movies or advertising, creativity is, and always has been, the best tool for increasing sales. So find creatives you trust, and start trusting them to be creative. In the long run, it will pay off.

Joe Ciccarelli, Creative Director, Hanson Dodge

A brand strategist turned creative director, Joe Ciccarelli blends his background in understanding people, culture and trends with an ability to get the most meaningful ideas used in the most creative ways. Otherwise, he’s a writer, storyteller, avid reader (of both treasure and trash), a musician, a learner and a teacher. Holding degrees in Communication and Sociology as well as Master’s degree from Marquette University, Joe also serves as an adjunct professor in the school’s Advertising Department.

Subscribe to Active Insights