Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Customers, Waiters and Cooks

I suspect we've all eaten in restaurants. The waiter hands us a menu and mentions the specials. We order what we want, sometimes asking for a varation that leaves out the onions or replaces the french fries with a salad. The waiter just writes down what we want and the food is brought to our table.

We get the meal that we want. The waiter is happy to bring us anything, as our business keeps the doors open and generates tips. But what about the cook?

The cook has worked hard to create the day's special. He has honed his craft for years in order to create meals that are memorable, yet nobody is ordering the special. The cook tells the waiter to push it harder, but the waiter responds that he doesn't want to alienate the customers. The cook is frustrated. He's not allowed to reach his potential and show what he can do. Instead, he's stuck endlessly frying hamburgers.

I doubt that any of us has ever looked at a menu and asked ourselves what we could order that the cook would enjoy making. We don't go to restaurants to satisfy the cook; we go to satisfy ourselves.

Why am I telling you this? It's because I believe that this is analagous to how the film and TV industries work. The customers are the movie studios or the broadcasters. The waiters are producers and the creative people are the cooks.

For years, I worked in animation studios and never understood the requests that came in the door. From my perspective, the designs were problematic and the stories made little sense. That was my motivation to create a show, figuring that if I created it, I could shape it as I saw fit. I was wrong.

I sat in a meeting with our broadcasters and producers where the broadcaster-customer asked us to "hold the onions." The producer-waiter immediately said yes. I, as the cook-creator, was dumbfounded. The show was significantly different without the onions, but it wasn't even up for discussion. The decision was made and I had to live with it.

I considered the work I created to be a finished product, done as perfectly as I was able. The broadcaster-customer didn't see it as finished at all; it was simply a menu option. The producer-waiter was happy to serve anything that would be paid for.

That's a dynamic that I didn't understand until I experienced it. The restaurant analogy works because we've all been customers. If the waiter forced us to order something or prevented us from substituting, we'd probably avoid that restaurant in the future. And if the cook ever came out of the kitchen to criticize our choices, we'd think he was crazy.

Inside our studios, where we're trying to cook up memorable films, we often think everybody outside is crazy. They're not, but they're operating with the same expectations we have when we go to a restaurant. Our industry is structured in such a way that we're stuck frying hamburgers.

The above analogy isn't perfect; there's a very big flaw in it that I'll discuss tomorrow. A new book about the TV business called Desperate Networks shows why the restaurant analogy doesn't work and why we should think about getting out of the restaurant business.


Anonymous said...

What a fun analogy! At the risk of pushing it too far, I'd say that if you feel like a gourmet chef trapped in a fast food joint, maybe you just need to find yourself a better restaurant to work in.

There are fine restaurants where, as a customer, I expect the chef to surprise me with something original, unexpected, and entirely delightful. In such a place, I wouldn't dream of asking for a substitution. Not just because it would insult the chef, but because I trust that the chef made the best possible choice, and changing it would only make my meal taste worse.

Of course, if your business is about catering to the widest possible audience, I guess it's fair to expect a lot more demand for ketchup than foie gras. ;-)

Stephen Worth said...

When we subscribe to a newspaper, professional news reporters research and write the stories and a paperboy delivers it to us daily. The paper succeeds or fails based on two things... 1) The quality of the news reporting and 2) The dependability of the newsboy.

The professional news reporter is the filmmaker.

An animation director is a professional, whose job it is to produce a program that people will enjoy. If he doesn't do his job, people don't subscribe and the newsboy delivers someone else's newspaper to readers. No creator wants to force his program on audiences. All he asks is a fair chance to present his program to the people the way he feels is best. After that, it's up to the audience to decide if they want it.

The subscriber to the paper is the audience.

Audiences don't know how to make great animation. That isn't their job. They can't tell you what to make or how to make it. They just know great programs when they see them. If you asked audiences in 1938 what sort of cartoon they would like to see, do you think they would say, "I would like Warner Bros to make me cartoons starring a wise cracking rabbit."? Nope. Tex Avery, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones- animation professionals- gave that to audiences without being asked, and they created one of the greatest cartoon characters ever.

The newsboy delivering the paper is the network.

It's absurd for networks to tell filmmakers how to make films. Imagine if your paperboy started telling the professional reporters how they should write the stories that go in the paper! Fred Quimby and Leon Schlesinger didn't tell their directors what to make and how to make it... They told them what sold and left filmmaking to the filmmakers. The networks should do what they are qualified to do... deliver the product and collect the payment for it.

"I've never seen a network revision note that made the show better." -Joe Barbera

See ya

Anonymous said...

A friend of mine who, like Mark, is also a very knowledgable animation historian, came up with another restaurant analogy to Disney under the Eisner reign of error.

He compared Disney Feature Animation to a fine restaurant that specialized in elegantly prepared meals by master chefs. This fare was a long-standing tradition and had garnered many loyal customers with a taste for fine food who kept coming back for more.

Unfortunately, one day the management changed and the chefs were told not to make anything too fancy anymore. Eventually, the management decided they could have all the food cooked at various greasy-spoon diners much cheaper and just brought in each day, thereby providing no further reason to keep the chefs employed and thus let them all go and closed down the kitchen.

While some newer customers didn't care and couldn't tell the difference in quality, long-time clientele bemoaned the end of the wonderful food and gradually just stopped coming altogether.

(Interestingly, this analogy can apply to other businesses too, and I would suggest to my fellow Canadians on this board that we are also starting to see this happen at my beloved CBC. Rabinovitch is the CBC's counterpart to Eisner, and is currently dumbing down this great institution to appeal to the idiotic masses.)

Mike Milo said...

Very well put.

As an animation developer I have too often seen a studio pass on my idea only to buy something almost exactly the same a year later. Or even more likely to take the elements they sparked to and use those in a new show where I can not sue.

Most studio's preferences for what they want changes so often that by the time you actually get to the meeting you set a month ago, their needs have changed and you are back at square one yet again.

How can you possibly know what you want if you change your mind so often?!?! I agree with your statements. Let the artists do what we do best and let the networks just program what we make. Guaranteed it would work out better. Look at all the hits that were creator driven and left alone only to soar to the top. Dexter's Lab, Cow and Chicken, Sponge Bob, Fairly Odd Parents, Powerpuff Girls, Ren and Stimpy, I was a Teenage Robot, Beavis and Butthead... the list goes on.

All of these films were done as shorts without much executive interference and they have gone on to be huge hits.

Even Pinky and the Brain and Animaniacs was the vision of one man. And he wasn't a "suit".

Case in point: Cartoon Netwrok launched their network on this policy and since they have scrapped it their ratings have gone down while Nickelodeon has continued the "short" approach and is consistantly number one.

Bottom Line:
If you can't physically MAKE a film you should not be dictating how it should be MADE even if you did take that one writing class in college.

Just my 12 cents.
great blog by the way!