Some Thoughts on How to Facilitate Innovation in a New Medium

I think a lot about how to make sure things don’t suck. I’m worried that Hollywood is going to make VR suck. Remember Myspace? I happen to have been privy to some of the thinking behind 20th Century Fox’s acquisition of that old social network, back in 2006 or so. I remember hearing from excited Fox execs who saw Myspace above all as an eyeball-grabbing marketing channel. Soon Myspace was wallpapered with ads for whatever X-Men movie was coming out at the time. Then Facebook rose up and everybody fled Myspace in droves, in part because users rightly understood they were being aggressively marketed to. I think Facebook has been much more successful because they’ve been able to maintain the illusion that they’re not primarily a marketing platform, even though that’s how they make their money.

Recently I had a conversation with somebody who works in movie production and he told me that it took Martin Scorcese ten years to get The Wolf of Wall Street made. I also recall reading about Stephen Spielberg’s struggle to get Lincoln made. The auteurs of the seventies who are largely responsible for the blockbuster dynamics of the film industry now have to beg and scramble to get studio support for their movies. Meanwhile, reboot after reboot hits the screens, bashes box office records, and the cycle repeats anew.

If you’re like me, you look forward to the fall, the Season of Good Movies. This is when a new Wes Anderson or Tarantino movie comes out and for a couple months there are multiple reasons to visit the multiplex. The reason for this is the Oscars, which still manage to confer prestige on movies as an art form. The Oscars essentially operate as a charity for the parts of the film industry still committed to artistic excellence. This is what happens when a creative industry matures into a conservatory phase.

I think every creative industry itself goes through a life cycle, more or less. The birth of a creative industry is marked by a wild and exciting burst of innovation and risk. Over time, artists in that industry start to notice which innovations work and which ones don’t work, and these innovations become codified. At the time, the close-up in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” an Edison/Porter short from 1903, was an innovation. This storytelling technique soon became just one of the tools in a filmmaker’s tool chest, and today we don’t give it any thought. But someone had to be the first one to think, “Hey, what if I move the camera closer to the actors to show the audience what this shoe clerk is doing to this lady’s foot?”

Techniques that were once experiments become the grammar of a new medium. Then genres become cemented, and imitators seeking to capitalize on the success of their predecessors flood the market with imitations. Then tension rises between the market forces that demand more and more of the same, and artists and true lovers of the medium who demand artistic excellence.

At that point, creative industries turn to institutional or philanthropic support. Take classical music, which survives today primarily through two channels. One is the foundations and nonprofits and wealthy individuals who fund places like Seattle’s Benaroya Hall. The other channel, interestingly, is the world of film soundtracks. It’s still just barely possible, in 2016, to make a living as a bassoon player. And you can do this either because someone wealthy cares enough about bassoon music to pay for its continued existence, or you can get a job with a symphony scoring music for the new Avengers movie.

If the film industry looks at VR like they looked at social media, as another marketing platform or franchise-extension opportunity, they’re going to blow it. In order for VR storytelling to work, on an industry level, artists have to retain as much creative control as possible, as early as possible, and for as long as possible, because they’re the only ones who can actually invent the grammar of this new medium.

One of my favorite stories about creative control is the way the members of Monty Python pitched their show to the BBC. Here’s a clip of the great John Cleese on The Late Show telling Stephen Colbert how they did it. The story gets started at about 4:00.

The kind of creative freedom that Cleese describes is what every artist hungers for, because this freedom is what’s necessary to create something as lasting and great as the Fish-Slapping Dance.

I think this all boils down to trust versus fear. Trust in the artist’s vision versus fear that your division won’t make its quarterly numbers. A fledgling medium like VR must err on the side of trusting artists and giving them a wide margin of error so that they can innovate and push the medium into directions we can’t even conceive. And artists, for their part, must be brave, silly, willing to fail, utterly relentless, and insist on creative control.