When Failure Looks Like Success, Then What?

Tom Peters

Last week I pondered several lessons from the making of Francis Coppola’s $50 million gamble, Apocalypse Now. A more recent epic, The Bonfire of the Vanities, offers additional, hard-to-swallow food for thought.

Tom Wolfe’s immensely popular book pilloried the greed-strewn ’80s. Last year’s film version was meant to do the same, and Hollywood’s cognoscenti drooled in anticipation. Warner Bros won the book’s film rights and chose Brian De Palma, a director almost of Coppola’s stature, to lead the way. De Palma was coming off a big win with The Untouchables. All the stars were aligned, no?

No! Reviews were abysmal. Audiences jeered. The film opened in almost 1,500 theaters, but closed after a few weeks, having grossed just $10 million on a $60 million investment.

The reasons? It took Wall Street Journal movie reviewer Julie Salamon 400 pages to explain, in her book The Devil’s Candy: The Bonfire of the Vanities Goes to Hollywood. Timing was one problem. Wolfe’s book was prescient: Soon after publication, Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken, and friends imploded. By the time the movie appeared, the Wall Street story was old news.

Casting decisions also blew up in De Palma’s face. Commercially obsessed Warner was pushing for stars, stars, stars. The key role of Wolfe’s tough, fiery Jewish Judge Kovitsky was cast with a stately African-American, Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman. And Bruce Willis, for $5 million, became a most unlikely dissolute British reporter. In fact, Warner meddled endlessly. (Some observers have laid the entire blame for Bonfire at the feet of Warner’s intrusions.)

But wait. Features of the commercially successful Apocalypse Now apply almost equally to Bonfire. Both projects were awash in unanticipated consequences. Both films were oft delayed and grossly over budget. Both directors were visionaries, willing to push the limits. Both were perfectionists and risk takers—it was clear to De Palma that his career was on the line. And so on.

Further, there were sound—or at least politically correct—reasons for each and every one of De Palma’s rotten-in-retrospect decisions. For example, he had an actual judge (Wolfe’s real-life role model) read for the Kovitsky part; though a stunning success, the jurist didn’t get the part. De Palma feared that an amateur couldn’t cope with the tedium that marks filming. Also, in Wolfe’s version, all ethnic groups emerged with egg-smeared faces. But the movie treatment ended up painting the whites as sympathetic characters; only the blacks were left looking bad. Thence the decision to have a “good” African-American—i.e., Freeman—as the upright judge.

Traditional businesses and movie-making are looking more alike. One more new book makes the connection clear: Swoosh: The Unauthorized Story of Nike and the Men Who Played There. It too, is about luck (lots), timing (phenomenal), art (the running shoe), crass commercialism (the magic of Michael Jordan’s $20
million endorsement), and a larger than life personality—Philip Knight, the Nike founder who is part autocrat, part visionary, part perfectionist, part improviser, part participative manager. My examination only led to more dismay.

Clearly, innovation has never been so important. With jillions of new products (e.g., 13,000 new entrants graced U.S. grocery store shelves in 1991), being special is more difficult than ever. But how do we get from here to there?

Confusion aside, Apocalypse, Bonfire, and Nike hold important lessons:

– Companies must sponsor a significant portfolio of major “tries.” For example, Warner Bros. counts on just five hits out of some two dozen big new shows a year.

– Mad visionaries/autocrats, with huge psychological (and financial) stakes, are a must. Most will fail. But even their failures will be instructive. Non-apocalyptic blandness has brought most big corporations to their knees.

– Key corporate projects must be largely independent of one another and only loosely linked to the “parent.” Each must be allowed to develop its own personality. Woe betide to the big corporation that fetters important ventures to its sluggish, predictable “culture.” (Hint: IBM and GM take note.)

– Understand the difference between the “studio” (focused on finance, marketing and distribution) and the “project” (dependent on the energy, integrity, vigor—and prickliness—of the key individual).

There’s an easy first step to “getting” all this. Submit yourself to the sort of regimen I did. Absorb business literature’s equivalent to good fiction—e.g., rich, real-world depictions of great and ugly achievements. And venture far beyond your field. If, for example, you don’t think modern-day biotech, food, medical equipment, chemicals, computers, and materials are like the movies,
you’re really in for a rough ride!

(C) 1992 TPG Communications.

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