No, Agile film-making is not making films by committee

 
film-by-committee-new-forest-film-co-2000x2000.jpg

As we have described New Forest Film Co’s Agile film-making process to writers, directors, producers, executives, and commentators in the industry, we sometimes hear the charge that we’re trying to make films by committee. 

We want to lay this misunderstanding to rest, right here, right now, because that isn’t the process at all - in fact, film-making by committee is totally antithetical to the Agile process.  More than that, it seems that the key barrier to understanding this fact is the frame of reference that some in the industry have, and it is this very experience of how things seem to work today that we want to use Agile processes to change.

The thing is, the film industry has a God delusion.  Talent likes to be deified and audiences are sold deification.  It’s how we simplify complex things.  Actors become fêted legends of the silver screen.  Directors become auteur geniuses heralded ahead of everyone with “a film by” credit.  Executives become moguls revered and feared in equal measure.  And yet, for all the pomp and circumstance, William Goldman’s great truism is still widely accepted - that “Nobody knows anything … Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work.  Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one.”  So the Gods know nothing.  What on earth is going on?

At the root of the problem is the fact that the process of making a successful film is full of uncertainty and risk.  It’s complicated (really complicated) to get a film funded and made, let alone get it right, and the interests and tastes of audiences shift, quite often within the time it takes for a film to be created and released.  To solve this problem, big movie companies and studios make portfolios of movies, aiming for the successes to outweigh the failures, in pretty much the same way that a pharmaceutical company develops medicines or a pension fund invests in companies.  And this portfolio model has significant consequences.

Whilst it’s true that great writers, directors, producers, actors, crew members and marketers demonstrably help to make individual films successful, from an economics perspective their talent isn’t actually the no.1 thing - it’s the combined success and failure of all films in the studio’s portfolio that matters most, because that’s what reduces risk, generates studio success and enables continued investment in the portfolio.  Of course, we know that certain great or ‘hot’ actors (and to a lesser extent directors and producers) bring audiences with them.  We know this because their names and faces feature prominently on film posters, and there’s a circularity of importance for the movie industry in generating and maintaining interest in a coterie of bankable talent for that very purpose.  But in a portfolio model the first thing is the portfolio and the second thing is the talent.

At the same time, audiences run their own portfolio.  There’s so much to watch, and you can’t watch everything, so you follow your interests, get recommendations from friends and critics, try some things out, get bored of others, get surprised by something else, and generally try and maximise your enjoyment across all your choices.  You care about talent, of course, because you like to watch films that move you and speak to you, but apart from well-known actors and a handful of directors, writers and cinematographers, most people have no idea of the names of the talented people who helped a make a film what it is, nor do they wait at the end of the film to read the full credits (unless there’s the promise of a post-credits scene). In any event we’re delighted when we find something new that we love: a new actor or director or a new approach to film-making.  Most of us don’t watch movies of only one type, featuring only the same talent. We like a variety of things, and so again, it’s the portfolio that matters.

The crux here is that the studio portfolio is very different from the audience portfolio.  For studios, the power of those running the portfolio is significant and narrow.  Executives only need make a set of guesses as to which films to make.  When their guesses are educated, they’re very likely to be backwards looking, predicting future success from past success, which of course leads to a narrowing of stories told, and a saturation of sequels and reboots.  Talent is useful if it is bankable or if bankability can be fostered.  The way in for talent is very narrow, the selection process is mysterious and open to abuse, and once you’re in there has been incredible tolerance of bad behaviour from the names that bring in the money.  The studio portfolio process results in a hierarchy of decision making that on average leads to successful but samey films, and at its worst leads to the dark world of Weinsteinomics.  Yes, great films are made.  Yes, great talent makes them.  Yes, great originality exists.  But the average outcome is a narrow range of movies on offer, and the worst outcome is despicable inhumanity.

Conversely, the audience portfolio process is not narrow.  We, the audience, are all different.  We have all kinds of interests and backgrounds.  We recognise humanity and we recognise ourselves in all kinds of stories and genres.  Sure, we’re influenced by big budgets and clever movie marketing campaigns, but we also read reviews, check out star ratings and listen to opinions we trust to help make our decisions … and, we tell others if we really like something.  When we don’t like something, we vote with our feet, not least in recent years when we hear about the bad behaviour of bankable talent.  We’re fickle, opinionated, changeable and ever hopeful of coming across something exhilarating, surprising, addictive, moving, memorable.

What’s all this got to do with Agile film-making and whether it amounts to making films by committee?  Well, what the Agile process demands is that we ask audiences for their reactions to what we’re making as soon as possible in the development of a film (we call this Discovery) and all the way through the making and marketing of a film (we call this Delivery).  And it’s on hearing about this process that some industry incumbents say that asking audience members for their opinion will result in the film being made by committee, and the idea diluted.  The reaction is not surprising because, on the one hand, the process is a direct challenge to the hierarchical portfolio system.  It immediately calls into question who’s in charge, who gets to make decisions, and it immediately describes a wider, more open, less backward-looking method of decision making.  It pricks egos.  It narks narcissists.  It threatens the Gods.  On the other hand, the idea might suggest that whatever the audience wants the audience gets … that the film will be averaged out to please everyone and no-one … that it’s an abdication of responsibility to ask the audience what they think rather than giving them what the film-maker or the studio wants to give them. 

Let’s be clear then.  Firstly, yes, what we’re saying is this process is an absolute challenge to the the existing hierarchical decision-making in the industry.  Secondly, no, the idea that Agile processes which ask audiences what they think somehow side-lines decision-makers, or somehow reduces or blunts creativity, or somehow results in ideas being averaged, is just plain wrong.

What actually is the Agile way of doing things, then?  It’s not difficult to explain.  It’s simply that whatever your film objectives are, you ought to check the likelihood that you’ll achieve them right from the beginning, and all the way through.  The objectives are yours, not the audience’s.  And this is important because it means that someone needs to define what objectives the film has (implying a combination of commercial, creative, and ethical judgement), and someone needs to take responsibility for trying to meet those objectives. 

In other words, there needs to be a decision-maker. In fact, for a singular result to occur, we need a singular decision-maker - who is, of course, the director (although a director within the Agile process needs to be more involved across the entire lifecycle of the film than is currently common, something we’ll write about in a subsequent post).  The important thing to realise here is that the Agile process is doing the reverse of deposing the director in favour of some kind of committee: it’s requiring the director to take on more information and decision-making responsibility, not less.

So how does the director make decisions in an Agile process?  The Agile requirement is to check that decisions are good, and fundamentally that means that the director needs to propose ideas and talk to other people about them.  And in order to not fall foul of the William Goldman problem, these people cannot just be writers, producers and movie executives - these people must include the film’s team and crew, and - crucially - the film-going audience, because the people who do know en masse whether a film moves or speaks to them, who run their own film and television watching portfolios, are the people who we hope will pay money to see the film, or choose it over other things to watch, or will like it so much that they’ll tell their friends about it.  So, if the film is eventually going to be presented to an audience, and audience reaction is the ultimate arbiter of success, Agile film-making simply suggests that you check in with your audience as you develop and distribute the film, and use their feedback to make better decisions.

In story selection, there’s one clear way that the movie industry has always asked the audience, and that’s where movies are adapted from existing, popular, books.  The audience test has been passed, at least from a story perspective, and the movie industry is prepared to spend very good money to acquire the rights to stories that have passed that test.  And so they should.  It makes absolute sense.  Agile film-making simply says keep doing that.  Keep testing yourself as you develop, produce and market the film.  In development, there’s also a part of the industry where testing a story is commonly employed, and that is within animation studios.  Ed Catmul’s insightful book Creativity, Inc describes the evolution of Pixar’s approach to movie development testing. They iterate story through a writer / storyboard artist pitching process, then go through 3-6 months’ worth of prototype presentations with the company’s Brain Trust (formed of their top writer-directors).  There are two big reasons why animators have embraced a more Agile process.  First, because the process of animation is so time-consuming that nobody wants to go to all that effort without an untested outcome.  Second, innovation in animation has been driven by tech innovation, and tech teams are aware of, and commonly run Agile.  We argue that every film-maker should go to the same trouble, and furthermore, as new technologies (and, in particular, AI) continue to advance what can be done in film, the proportion of movies in the future that might be classified as ‘animation’ (however realistic they may look) is only going to increase, and quite naturally, Agile ways of working are likely to become the norm.

We will continue to describe how Agile processes can be put to work to make better film and television in subsequent posts.  We don’t know all the answers.  We’re going to continue to test and learn and improve forever, which is important to realise, because Agile isn’t just about making a great thing, it’s about constantly improving the way the team makes that thing too.  But, for now, please let’s lay one thing to rest.  Agile is not film-making by committee.  It is a process run by a single decision-maker who is responsible for checking whether their decisions are achieving their goals or not.  It’s a creatively freeing process, enabling any idea to be proposed and tested without restriction.  It’s a way of testing new stories, new talent and new ways of making films that haven’t been seen before, and knowing whether they will work or not because they’ve been tested on an audience and the audience loves them.  It’s how to reduce risk and increase the chances of success.  It’s a way of making better films, and making films better.  It’s completely practical and sensible, and it has no God delusion.