Writing the Hedgehog and Riding the Accelerator

July 29, 2009

Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

Lemme ‘splain my complaint:

During my long hiatus from social media (isn’t it funny how three months is a long time in this world …), one thing I did manage to accomplish was reading Good to Great by Jim Collins.

For those of you not familiar with the author or the book, Jim Collins looks at Fortune 500 companies that were poor or average performers for 15 years, who then turned themselves around to be extraordinary, by having 15 years of significantly-above-market performance.

Naturally, as one reads a book like this, one thinks of himself and how this will impact his life and his career and his business.

The Hedgehog Concept

The Hedgehog Concept is one of the main principles of the book.  Though the analogy is kind of dumb, the concept is simple and important:

  1. What are you deeply passionate about?
  2. What can you be the best in the world at?
  3. What drives your economic engine?

These three things comprise your company’s Hedgehog Concept, the idea being that everything you do should fit into this concept.

Phillip Morris is a great example.   Tobacco companies are not highly regarded in this country, so they’ve had a lot to deal with, and yet, they’ve managed to outperform the general stock market in spades.  The reason:

  1. The people who work for the company are deeply passionate about the product – cigarettes.
  2. That’s where they started, that’s where they made their money, and that’s what they could be best in the world at.
  3. Even through all of the “progress” that’s been made against tobacco, when Phillip Morris looked to diversify as a defensive measure, instead of just taking on any and every random opportunity that came their way, they defined their niche very clearly: “sinful” products like beer and junk food.  Because that’s what fit into their economic engine.

Writing the Hedgehog Concept

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Certainly, it’s what I’m passionate about, it’s what drives my economic engine, and it’s something that I could, at least theoretically, be the best in the world at.

The Technology Accelerator

Here’s where it gets interesting.  Later in the book, Collins talks about technology as an accelerator rather than a business model in and of itself.  During the Internet bubble, any company with “dot-com” in the name was instantly worth millions of dollars, even if they didn’t actually sell anything or have any plan for making money.  Those same companies disappeared the second that bubble burst, whereas the companies that used technology as an accelerator and applied it to their hedgehog concept endured.  The prime example here was Walgreens, which, for example, started filling prescriptions online, thereby advancing their already-well-defined hedgehog concept of hyper-convenient drug stores.

Riding the Accelerator

So now here I am, a lowly self-employed contract freelance writer.  Trying to figure out how the hell to use technology to accelerate my hedgehog concept when, quite frankly, I haven’t yet mastered some of the other practices (e.g., culture of discipline) required to make my hedgehog stand up, so to speak.

And yet, as I was reading the book, it became painfully clear to me.

Every industry is full of dinosaurs that fight the wave of change that is inevitable with the growth of new technology.  The entertainment industry is no exception.  Whether it was “talking pictures,” VCRs, TiVo, or the Internet, at each step there was a new opportunity for growth as distribution mechanisms became more cost-effective and widespread.  And yet at each step the networks and the studios have fought it like crazy, for the sole reason that they can’t imagine changing their business model to include these new technologies. (And these are the people we’re trusting with developing our creative content?)  The classic example was the Betamax case, which went all the way to the Supreme Court to determine whether VCRs, which allowed for recording of copyrighted material, should be outlawed.  The Supreme Court ruled for the defendants, and boy are the plaintiffs glad they lost – since video purchases and rentals quickly became a key component of their business model and they made more money than they ever had before.

With the rapid growth of technology, it’s becoming more and more obvious that another sea change is under way, and the current model for film/video content release will not remain the same for much longer.

In the last year we’ve seen an explosion in certain experiential technologies for movie blockbusters.  Whether it’s The Dark Knight on IMAX or Up! in 3D or Harry Potter with vibrating seats, people are willing to pay $13-$20 for an experience they can’t get at home.

However, I get the sense that people are losing interest in paying $10 apiece to go see a romantic comedy, when they can wait 3 months and watch it on DVD for a buck.  And although I have no evidence to support it, I suspect that people are starting to lose interest in paying $50/month for cable, when most of the shows they want are available 12-16 hours later on Hulu or on the station’s individual website.  Shows like Homestar Runner are offering you all their programming completely free of charge, and then make millions off merchandising revenues.

Add to this Moore’s Law, which says that data storage capacities double every 18 months, it’s only a matter of time before we could fit every movie and TV show ever made into a box that sits under our televisions or next to our computers.  What then?  How will we get our content?  Will television, complete with reruns and commercials still exist?

I don’t know.  John August freaked out about this back in January, and received 65 comments in response, and you can read the conclusion to this heated debate here. But this all brings me back to the complaint I started with: Why the hell are we listening to famous screenwriters when they tell us how to break into screenwriting?

For example: I’ve heard at least a hundred times that if you want to work in the film industry, you have to move to L.A., at least for some period of time.  And I’m finding that statement harder and harder to believe.  The world is so much smaller a place than it was even last year, before the Twitter explosion, and that was long after Diablo Cody won her Oscar from Minneapolis.

Technology is changing the world so completely, if we start to apply it to our hedgehog concept, I think we have to learn to take with a grain of salt everything we’re told by an earlier generation of artists, who were dealing with a completely different world than we are now.

That’s not to say that they’re wrong, mind you, or that we should all start writing webisodes instead of screenplays.  Remember, Phillip Morris still sells cigarettes (albeit under a new name, Altria) and Walgreens still has brick and mortar drug stores.  But I think we have an extra opportunity to exploit the things we’re passionate about, before blindly jumping into a game for which the rules have definitely changed.


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