Cargo Cults, Kevin Smith And The Difference Between Connecting And Going Through The Motions

from the it's-called-authenticity dept

I've noticed an interesting thing lately when talking about business models in the internet era. Critics of those business models like to brush them off as "this is nothing new," or "yeah, yeah, we all know how to do marketing gimmicks or personalized promo." On Monday, when we wrote about what Kevin Smith is doing, we got a few comments along those lines -- stating that "four walling" is nothing new. In fact, even Kevin suggested this, in talking about what Bob Weinstein said to him after the event on Sunday.

I actually think there's more to it than that, and that the difference is important, so figured I'd do a separate post about it. We've talked a lot about cargo cult science and how lots of folks make a huge mistake in just copying the superficial "stuff they can see," rather than the core, underlying reasons of why something works. If you don't recall, the basis of cargo cults, I'll let Richard Feynman, who coined the term explain the basics:
In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas--he's the controller--and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.
This kind of thing happens all over the place, and certainly in many of these discussions. It's easy to dismiss the various models based on just a superficial look at them. "Taking a movie around as a tour? Why that's just four-walling and it's been done for ages." But that's the same thing as looking at the setup on those islands and wondering why the planes don't land. What makes the planes land is the stuff you don't see and which aren't replicated in a paint-by-numbers fashion. What makes this work is not just the fact that they're taking a movie around to theaters. Just as what makes musicians special offerings work is not just that they're "personal promo." It's the other part of the equation which underlies all of that: the connecting with fans bit.

And, no, none of this means that everyone has to "connect" in the same way. Kevin Smith does it by living on Twitter and in doing his various podcasts, Q&As, etc. Others connect in different ways, with different tools. Some connect every day -- others only show up intermittently. Again, as with the cargo cults, connecting with fans isn't just "use Twitter/Facebook/whatever," it's about actually figuring out a way that works for that artist and his or her fans. It's about being authentic and true to those fans. When you do that, and you combine it with quality content and a plan that makes sense, it's amazing what you can do.

But if you just look at this as a paint-by-numbers answer to "what is the business model," you're going to fail. And that includes even some of our favorite tactics, such as using "free" as part of your strategy. As we've said time and time again, give it away and pray is no business model. Nor is just setting up "tiered" offerings. Those can work amazingly well also... but, again, without the connecting, who's going to buy. Taking a movie on tour is great... but without the fans clamoring to see it, then that's useless as well.

So mock these things, if you'd like. Or brush them off as "not new" (as if something needs to be "new" to work). But don't dismiss them because the superficial elements have been done for ages, if you're not looking at everything else that's happening to make the superficial stuff work. The answer to new business model development is not "well, we're using Kickstarter/Topspin/etc." Those are useful tools, but they're really there to enable something bigger. The answer to connecting with fans is not "but we've got a Twitter account." Again, that's a tool. The trick is to use those things properly, to connect with fans in an authentic way, which makes them want to support what you do. The tools can help you do that, but it takes a lot more than just "four walling" it to make the planes actually land.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2011 @ 10:02am

    Trying to make people with MBAs understand this is going to be hard. The whole premise for selling kids on getting MBAs is that you can automatically be an expert in any business. No one wants to hear “even with an MBA, you still need to understand the SPECIFIC business you are in” because that takes time and imagination. It takes insight and is hard to teach and thus hard to box and sell. It seems especially true in the creative businesses. The executives there seem to really have a love/hate relationship with their industry. They love the wild profits it can turn out, but gosh darn it, it isn’t predictable enough. They want a formula that they can take with them from company to company so they can get rid of the "talent" because they are high maintenance (ie they have their own mind). They are only interested in superficial copying because if they really cared about making art, they probably would be an actor or writer or director or someone actually CREATING instead of ordering around those who create. There are the exceptions, executives that really understand and care about making something new, but they seem to be few in number. So good luck getting them to admit this- they will deny for a long time because it is what they WANT to be the truth.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    Ben, 26 Jan 2011 @ 10:15am

    Great post

    Great post... love it when you talk about business models and love it more when people find interesting and effective analogies/metaphors. I wouldn't be surprised if next time I have to present to anyone about anything I use the Cargo Cults analogy, because it's interesting, attention grabbing and widely applicable. :)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Nick Pepito, 26 Jan 2011 @ 10:33am

    So glad that you took the time to make the point that while many are criticizing WHAT Kevin Smith is doing and HOW he is going about it forget that he is talking directly to his fan base. Kevin Smith has worked years on developing a dialogue with his fans that very few people have. He has opened up his life via Podcast going on 4 years now generating an entire network, live Q&A's, hockey tournaments, etc...

    If you are a Kevin Smith fan you understand why he had a Hockey stick onstage with him, you understand what he was talking about during his "rant". He was letting everyone else in on what his fans already knew and on-board with.

    Few can pull of what Kevin is attempting, I personally think he will have great success because he has invested years creating a solid foundation. This isn't a momentary whim but instead a plan that has unfolded slowly.

    Kevin lost confidence in the Hollywood and gained confidence in his fan's to support his career. Bold move regardless.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. icon
    Miles Maker (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 10:48am

    Well said!

    I appreciate your insight and perspective on what most have reduced to nothing more than a cookie-cutter strategy. There is truly no rinse & repeat in today's new era of new media and social communication. It's survival of the fittest and those who fail to fit their own mold will be tossed to the wayside like the wrong size shoe...

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous, 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:23am


    Few can pull off what Kevin is attempting


    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. icon
    Jay (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:28am


    An MBA is great. Look at wall street. They really helped our economy.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. identicon
    Matthew A. Sawtell, 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:37am

    Cargo Cults?

    Next thing you will be saying that Kevin Smith is the next John Frum?

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Erin B., 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:39am

    I think that the never-ending demand for a "new" business model from studios et al comes from an inherent mistrust of the customer. Because marketing execs look at the relationship between art and fan as a relationship between product and consumer, instead of a connection, they're trying to form an argument. Advertising is an argument. It's an argument that you-the-consumer need to give up money for a product the entertainment-factory-industry has decided it needs to sell. It's an inherently mistrustful and deceitful relationship, based on fans not only allowing themselves to become but also seeing themselves as strictly customers and artists subordinating themselves to factory heads.

    They have to believe that the only thing that "works" -- the only thing that will convince the maximum number of people to part with the maximum amount of cash for the smallest variety of art product -- is something they haven't tried. Because everything they have tried has been "exposed" or "jobbed".

    Treat art like it's only a business transaction, and you get jaded customers. Jaded customers are less valuable. Treat art like it's, you know, art, and possibilities will present themselves. Not every piece of art can be sold the same way, but screaming about how you want a "sure thing" is idiotic. There is no such thing as a sure thing.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:50am

    Kevin Smith is a bad example to follow in some ways because he makes choices that could be considered against his own best interests. He spends a significant amount of his time on shameless self promotion (and he will gladly admit that he is a media whore), which is time away from the next movie, the next script, etc. The opportunity costs for him to be a whore instead of a productive writer and director are significant.

    Just as importantly, it isn't really converting into the huge numbers everyone hopes for. Smith makes movies that are often called "quirky" or "immature", depending on the film. He more mainstream attempts aren't really clicking with a wider audience. He does okay, not amazing.

    For what it is worth, you could say his movie making is a bit of a cargo cult thing. He does all the steps, all the surface, but they tend to lack that true magic that gets the larger public involved. The fans really like Kevin Smith. It isn't clear that his movies are really the reason.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    Hephaestus (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 11:54am

    Re: Well said!

    Isn't it great!! We have those in the old industry looking for the cookie cutter approach, who were always about nothing but money, in a monopoly that required zero customer service abilities. Now being shown the big scary real world. Where they have to compete on not only customer service piece, but also with all the new things computers and the internet have given us.

    Its like watching a bunch of deer you have shined a spotlight on.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 12:32pm

    Why must a filmmaker reach a massive audience in order to be considered successful? Kevin Smith has a huge fanbase, and he makes cult movies to please that fanbase, and he consistently makes a profit on nearly every film. Why must his movies make $200 million before he's taken seriously? He's doing just fine making $20-$40 million at the box office and doing whatever the hell he wants, and he could go on doing that the rest of his life and be happy.

    You'll find that the most respected filmmakers in America have all created their own little sandbox to make films in, and most of them operate with smaller budgets. Kevin Smith has his fanbase. Robert Rodriguez works independently out of Austin. Woody Allen abandoned his sandbox in New York for England. The Coen Brothers and Paul Thomas Anderson have built little shelters within the Hollywood community. This is how they maintain artistic freedom, and Kevin Smith is lucky he doesn't have to bow down to the Hollywood marketing machine to make his films.

    Meanwhile Hollywood tools like Michael Bay and Tony Scott keep making films with only massive box office as a measure of how good they are.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. icon
    Jay (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 12:41pm


    I was with you until this:

    "... Kevin Smith is lucky he doesn't have to bow down to the Hollywood marketing machine to make his films. "

    Luck = Opportunity + Preparation.

    He's paved his own way. I think saying he's "lucky" not to be in the system when he's outright bucking it is a undermining your argument a little.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. icon
    pringerX (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 1:23pm

    In short, there's no exact way to do it "by the book". The new business model has a set of goals (Connect with fans, Give a reason to buy), and it can require a lot of work and/or creativity to achieve those goals because there are no universal methods. I suspect this is why for many, clinging to old business models is easier, and it works in the short run.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2011 @ 3:31pm


    To everything there is a season-a time to make movies, a time to be a whore...he can’t make movies ALL the time (this is what happens to authors who must write a new book every year-they get burnt out)
    Seems like the publicity he makes when not making films helps him when he does.
    BTW What are “huge numbers” his last films made over 20 million profit. That seems pretty huge. Is it avatar? No. But why must everything be Avatar? So many movies I loved when I was younger would not have been made today because they aren’t made for opening weekend. Also, since when is “quirky” bad? Since when does everything have to be amazing? His work is amazing to a smaller group of people. That is one of the themes discussed here…the possibility where we are moving into a era where more people can connect with smaller audiences rather than only a select few and a larger collective audience. The fragmenting of popular culture. That doesn’t necessarily seem bad (unless one is in marketing perhaps). It seems that Kevin has true magic for his true fans-if the only magic you are looking for is 9 figure profits, then I pity you for your sad definition of magic.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2011 @ 4:57pm

    Re: Re:

    What are “huge numbers” his last films made over 20 million profit. That seems pretty huge.

    Not correct. Film cost 30 million to make, grosses about 50-60 million, if you include all worldwide and DVD sales. But the 30 million doesn't include marketing, promotion, and all those other things, which can be a very large cost on a world wide release.

    For a 30 million dollar film, 50 million wouldn't really be much more than break even. That ignores everything from the standard overheads pulled down to gross points paid out on contract. It is very unlikely that the movie showed a profit, and is also very unlikely to have made anyone in the studio particularly excited, considering it was a movie with known stars and all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 26 Jan 2011 @ 5:19pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    A WB receipt was leaked online, showing that the hugely successful movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ended up with a $167 million loss on paper.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17. icon
    Beta (profile), 26 Jan 2011 @ 6:10pm

    in defense of cargo cults

    It's easy to feel superior to the islanders, but I think they were being perfectly rational. They were trying their best to bring the airplanes, using everything they knew. If aliens came to earth, and we saw them opening up portals to other worlds by dancing around on stilts waving ostrich feathers and chunks of dry ice, by golly I'd try doing the same thing! And when it didn't work I'd conclude that I was missing something vital and I'd go watch the aliens some more.

    That last part makes all the difference. An islander who just keeps up the ritual -- or stops thinking about airplanes -- is like a movie executive who dismisses "four-walling" as old news -- or stops thinking about Kevin Smith. It's mental laziness, hubris and dishonesty.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2011 @ 5:01am


    The AC knows Kevin Smith is in denial. He really doesn't want to be a media whore, it's just an act. The AC knows.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 27 Jan 2011 @ 8:42am

    Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Yes. That is because they allow too many "pre-points" on the movie, essentially willing out percentage of the gross to people rather than percentages of net.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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