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Why We're Pushing Crap - The Watchtower of Destruction: The Ferrett's Journal
April 7th, 2011
09:42 am


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Why We're Pushing Crap
montecook has a great essay today on Working Toward Failure - specifically, "What is it like to work on something you know is crap?" His example is Stan Lee's Governator comic, about Arnold Schwarzenegger, and among many other correct things he says this:
"The best they can hope for with this thing is to be as successful as the Mr. T cartoon back in the 80s. But really, it has no chance even of that. Back then, kids had some idea of who Mr. T was, and they might have cared about him a little bit. But kids don't know and don't care who some old guy from 30 year old movies is, and the fact that he was a governor doesn't exactly put him in the same league as Spider-Man, Harry Potter, or Spongebob. It's got about as much chance as launching the Mr. T cartoon today would have."
...after which, he proceeds to talk about his experience working on things that he knew weren't going to work, but someone in the company was pushing for it - and so there he was, finding ways to work Dragon Dice into RPG product. But as he says, "It's better to know that you're working on garbage with your eyes wide open, collecting a paycheck so that you can later work on something good, than to actually think you're producing high art only to discover later that it's garbage."

What I wanted to talk about is the flip side of that coin: you're a buyer for a major chain, with a set budget and only so many products to purchase. You decide what gets sold in each physical location. And here you are, in charge of books and looking straight in the eye of the Governator, damn near convinced it's going to flop. Buying this piece of crap means that other, more worthy, books, will not be available for your customers to buy. So do you pass?

...you do not.

Once you get a certain level of bureaucracy in any business, you start to see a strange rule coming in: better to have a failure with good reasons than a missed success. Which is to say that your decisions are always going to be second-guessed by the executives above you (even if they say they back your decision at the time you make it). And there are four basic scenarios that can happen with The Governator:

1) It flops, and you bought nothing. This is your most probable scenario. You look like a hero. Well done.

2) It's wildly successful, and you went big on it. Weirdly, you get little credit for this. It was a wildly-hyped thing on the cover of Entertainment Weekly! It has Stan Lee! And Arnold Schwarzenegger! Everyone knew it was going to be a smash! Of course you went big, that's your job. You get a minor pat on the head and then everyone forgets you exist.

3) It's wildly successful, and you bought nothing. This is a very bad place to be as a buyer/merchandiser. Suddenly, your competitors are cleaning up, making money while you're not. And now your bosses come around, dripping with hindsight: Really, Jenkins? they sneer. That property was wildly-hyped on the cover of Entertainment Weekly. With Stan Lee. And Arnold Schwarzenegger. And somehow, you managed to miss out on this free money they were handing you? You now look clueless, a fool, for the very thing that they hired you for - your ability to see the Next Big Thing Coming and capitalize on it. Your next raise looks very meager. This one bad decision will be brought up over the next fifty decisions you make.

So what do you do? Well, there's always door #4:

4) It flops, and you went big on it. Thing is, your bosses will be okay with this. That was wildly hyped in Entertainment Weekly! you'll say. It had Stan Lee! And Arnold Schwarzenegger! And though, yes, the company's down however many hundreds of thousands of dollars thanks to your poor decision, your bosses will look at all of these extenuating circumstances, and shrug, and go, "Well, it certainly looked good." Your place in the company remains constant. Well done.

(You might say, "Well, why not split the difference and go small on The Governator? Just put a handful of copies in, just enough to cover your ass if it breaks big?" And you are correct, this is the sane maneuver. But any huge property also has an advertising budget, and the publishers will offer to buy endcaps and in-store posters and all sorts of free cash... If you buy enough to make it worth their while. After all, they argue, if there's only two copies in the store, the customers won't be able to find it! So you're pressured into "Go big or go home.")

The end result is, weirdly enough, that your bosses are happier if you flop with good reasons than if you pass and it turns out to be a hit. In retrospect, those reasons for it succeeding become obvious, the kind of idiocy that only the brain-dead could have overlooked - and then nobody trusts you. Your power dwindles. You get a rep.

So, unless you have a company that genuinely accepts that the price of "saving all that cash on several obvious flops" is with "being late to the party for the occasional big bestseller" - which is rare - then you go with #4, trying to buy as little as possible, flopsweating, knowing that this is probably not going to work but hoping against hope that it will.

This "better to have a failure with good reasons than a missed success" ass-covering rationale is, I suspect, why Hollywood is as dysfunctional as it is. A large number of people involved in the process are not necessarily concerned with making good films: they're concerned with having good excuses. Hey, this film had Tom Cruise! And Cameron Diaz! In a snappy action film! And so when Knight and Day fails, they can jab at the selling points and hammer home that hey, nobody could have predicted this. They did everything that was expected of them, and it failed. Who knew? And so their power is preserved, and nobody gets into trouble.

And the little films, the ones that could be good, don't get funded because they don't have good excuses. Sure, it's groundbreaking! But "groundbreaking" means "When it dies, you have nothing left to stand behind." Better to go with Tom Cruise.

It's kind of sucktacular. And you can get around it in one of two ways: either have a corporate culture that encourages missing the boat on "obvious" projects, or have unerring instincts that never ever choose wrong. Which, given William Goldman's old axiom of "Nobody knows anything," is a tough gig. Almost no one can do it, and those who can are legend.

(Or work in a field where you don't have to commit to merchandise until you see how it sells - what's it cost Amazon moneywise to put up a .GIF promoting it, and stick it at the top of the searches for a while? Nada. The e-merchandisers can sit back and see how it sells, and not have to worry about moving 50 copies of a hot product to that store in Tucson.)

And if you don't have one of those options, well... you're gonna be workin' on Dragon Dice at some point. And hoping that you pull it off, knowing that it'll be okay if you don't.

(11 shouts of denial | Tell me I'm full of it)

[User Picture]
Date:April 7th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
I enjoyed the "flopsweating" pun more than is probably entirely healthy.
Date:April 7th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
And sometimes, you spend most of your time at work fighting ideas that will make lots of money but are actually actively evil. I learned some valuable things from that last job: 1. A corporation will never ever let a revenue stream go, no matter how unethical the source and 2. if you actually *say* "that's evil" during a meeting, you will never hear the end of it.

[User Picture]
Date:April 7th, 2011 09:54 pm (UTC)
I've fought that battle myself.
Date:April 7th, 2011 03:56 pm (UTC)

Not just entertainment

This happens in tech all the time - much easier to convince management to use "Product A" (slow/heavy/etc, but with a well known brand name and good marketing) than "Product B" (much better fit, but not as well known) as a component in your system. So you end up with bloated inefficient systems, but you have solid CYA. There used to be a saying in IT purchasing - "No one was ever fired for buying IBM". The brands have changed, but the principle stands.
Date:April 7th, 2011 04:46 pm (UTC)
Hello first comment here from me (I even made an account to comment!). I've been lurking this blog for a few months after Jamie Wakefield made me realize that that Ferret guy who was the second best writer at MTG.com had a blog.
Totally agree with you in this, I want to add that I think this is the reason most of recent hollywood movie plot are so look a like. When they find a story that they like they do it again and again and again because if it worked once who can fault them to do it again....
P.S. sorry for my English, not native speaker here
[User Picture]
Date:April 7th, 2011 05:24 pm (UTC)
Maybe the artists involved with this project will engage in subtle sabotage along the lines of this classic Batman/Joker battle: http://www.comicbooktidbits.com/BATMAN%20BATTLES%20JOKER.htm

Date:April 7th, 2011 09:12 pm (UTC)

Heh, I've worked in different parts of the food chain for that process... I worked at a game store when Dragon Dice first came in and sold the crap out of them (being female at a game store in the '90s = easy sales). But the people I sold them to were the people who bought pretty much every new thing that came in, so I didn't feel that bad about it (okay, maybe a little).

Now I work as a video game tester, and for every reasonably good game that I test there are at least half a dozen I test that are crap, many of which are licensed properties. I think one of the things that has to be taken into account is the risk factor - the corps calculate the risk/reward ratio on each title and, most of the time, producing a crappy title using a known engine (the Lego games, for example) and a movie tie-in or other popular license is relatively low risk. It's not about making good games. It's about making money.

As soon as I heard about the Governator comic, I thought "damn, now I'm probably gonna have to test that crap". I came into work and one of the other testers told me he heard they were going to be making games based on it.
[User Picture]
Date:April 8th, 2011 12:40 am (UTC)
Stan Lee went "Big In Japan" over the last few years, grabbing a fair amount of attention from some of the cross-over types in the American anime/manga community who are also fans of western superhero comics.. his comments on the projects (Ultimo, a Shonen Jump serial manga and Heroman, a TV anime series, both featuring teenagers with fighting robot partners) are funny as hell, as well as showing how out of touch the man is with pop culture, at home and abroad. (I don't have the exact quote, but it was along the lines of, "I don't know if there's ever been a manga about battling robots, but it seemed like a good idea." Yes Stan, it is a good idea.. so good that every year there are at least 3 to 6 robot-shows in Japan, usually with one being yet another Gundam series, and they still get decent ratings)
Now, both of these projects are fairly typical Stan Lee stories, to the extent that we even get an alliteratively named teenage protagonist (Joey Jones of Heroman) fighting almost singlehandedly against an insectoid alien invasion, despite vilification by the media, complete with adult scientist advisor/backup, way-out-of-his-league-but-still-interested-in-him not exactly girlfriend, and dead parents. Also, Stan Lee cameos in numerous episodes. The ratings show that even if he is a bit out of touch, he still has a knack for tapping into some sort of primal level resonance for empathetic and relatable heroes that sell, Because he keeps repackaging the same story over and over and it still sells.
I have to think that the Governator will fail, because the idea is insane and hilarious, but I'll bet that enough of the young adult and middle-aged male demographics watches at least one episode of the animated series out of morbid curiosity or "ironic" consumption, that it will be seen as "succeeding in a niche market" and prove that Stan Lee can make people read or watch pretty nearly anything. And really, Arnold himself is probably still a viable commodity, as I see countless memes that reference him or his films, and I expect that a lot of us are wholly underestimating his continuing media saturation level, even among the 12-16 year old crowd.
All of this makes me think that, maybe the "screw it, go big, be ready to cut a loss, and hope for the best" mindset isn't completely wrong, at least for potential fad products with "Names" attached. Get it right more than once or twice and you've got a "a future at this here company", get it wrong a few times and you're still "a safe player who bets on star-potential", and really, either of those seem like a good place to be in corporate America.
[User Picture]
Date:April 8th, 2011 03:35 am (UTC)
I would watch a governator cartoon non-ironically, but I wouldn't pay for it.
[User Picture]
Date:April 8th, 2011 12:25 pm (UTC)
"ass-covering rationale is, I suspect, why Hollywood is as dysfunctional as it is"

I work in film and I know, read blogs of, and sometimes work with people who are in the main Hollywood film industry. And you're bang on the money - this is exactly the way Hollywood works.

As Jon Rogers put it a while ago, being a Hollywood executive is the most terrifying job in the world.

Your job is to sit there and listen whilst an unshaven guy in a Hawaiian shirt tells you how he wants 100 million dollars to go to Ireland and have people who pretend for a living run away from imaginary dragons - and he can't even show you the dragons. All he can show you is a mop handle, and if you're lucky, a ping-pong ball.

And your job is to be responsible for giving him that 100 million dollars.

Is it any wonder they're bit on plausible excuses?
[User Picture]
Date:April 9th, 2011 07:06 pm (UTC)
Long ago, I came to the conclusion that Personnel didn't have to be right, they just had to be able to prove they weren't wrong. So anything interpretable as negative is a veto, but there are no equivalent positive points.
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