Entrepreneurship and the Auteur Theory
| Peter Klein |
I’ve been reading Jack Mathews’ The Battle of Brazil: Terry Gilliam v. Universal Pictures in the Fight to the Final Cut, a fascinating — if absurdly one-sided — look at director Terry Gilliam’s struggle to get his 1985 film Brazil distributed in the US. Mathews tells the story as a noble crusade by a brilliant, iconoclastic, visionary filmmaker against the evil studio system, run by corporate toadies who care only about making money, even if it means destroying the artistic unity of the filmmaker’s creative vision. Gilliam had “final cut” rights for a version released in Europe, but his US distributor, Universal, demanded substantial edits, which Gilliam refused to make. Universal, led by Sid Sheinberg (who comes across heroically in documentaries about Steven Spielberg’s Jaws), was completely within its contractual rights to insist on these changes, but the result was a very different film that has been lampooned by critics. (The Sheinberg version was canned and an alternate Gilliam version eventually shown in the US after a long, ugly, public battle between Gilliam and the studio.)
It’s great reading for those interested in movies and the business of making movies. But there’s an interesting entrepreneurship angle as well. Most film critics, including author Mathews, accept the auteur theory of cinema, which sees movies as the highly personal products of a director’s creative vision. The studio approach, which treats moviemaking as a collaborative enterprise designed to make money, is anathema to the auteurs. The case is usually made with familiar anecdotes: 24-year-old Orson Welles had final control over Citizen Kane and created one of the medium’s great masterpieces, while RKO destroyed the follow-up Magnificent Ambersons (and all of Welles’s subsequent films). The studios thought Star Wars would flop, and after George Lucas made his zillions he decided to finance and produce his subsequent films on his own, without studio interference — the dream of every auteur. American art-house darlings like Robert Altman, Peter Bogdonavich, Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, etc. are always portrayed as fighting to keep Hollywood from turning their edgy, original films into bland, corporate drivel pitched at suburban soccer moms.
As Paul Cantor and others have explained, however, the auteur theory is bunk. Moviemaking is, in fact, a collaborative venture, and many of the best films are studio pictures created by large teams — the best example being Casablanca, which was essentially written by committee. Or, as Cantor puts it: “Just three words: Francis Ford Coppola.” (The Godfather films were studio pictures; virtually everything Coppola did since, with the partial exception of Apocalypse Now, has been a disaster.) And take George Lucas: Does anybody think the problem with the prequel trilogy was too many people standing around saying, “George, you can’t do that”?
Consider the parallels with entrepreneurship. The typical narrative pits the visionary entrepreneur against the establishment — incumbent firms, banks, family members, etc. — who tell the entrepreneur it can’t be done. (Think Fred Smith’s legendary college term paper, Ken Olsen’s supposed dismissal of the PC, etc.) As with cinema, we have lots of examples. But think of the selection bias; what about all the radical innovations that would have flopped had they not been wisely rejected by the corporate office, bank, or VC? We accuse these idea filters of frequent Type I error but rarely worry about Type II error.
Much of the entrepreneurship literature treats funders the way the auteur theory treats movie studios and their corporate owners. Their job is to provide whatever resources the auteur-entrepreneur demands, then get out of the way. They shouldn’t have any residual control rights. They don’t understand the creative vision. They care only about short-term profits. Etc. But, of course, without funders, movies wouldn’t get made, and entrepreneurial ideas would remain just that — ideas. All creative ideas require resources, and resource providers are an integral part of the creative process, whether in art or in business.
NB: for more on the parallels between entrepreneurship and the creative arts, don’t miss the upcoming Cultural Bricolage conference here at the University of Missouri.