A cocksure moneybags with little or no Hollywood experience comes to town with a big idea that’s going to transform the entertainment industry. And then things get, well, complicated. This narrative plays out again and again in our new anthology, Hacking Hollywood: The Creative Geniuses Behind Homeland, Girls, Mad Men, The Sopranos, Lost, and More. Today, in part 2 of our Q&A with the book’s contributors, we explore a couple of examples with Nicole LaPorte, who’s based in Los Angeles and covers the entertainment industry for Fast Company, chronicles the drama around the popular streaming site Hulu, and the surprise (at times unwanted) offspring of ABC, Fox and NBC; and with Scott Kirsner, a former Fast Company contributing editor, who wrote about Mark Cuban’s Hollywood invasion in the book.
Currently, Hacking Hollywood ranks No. 2 in new business management titles on Amazon. The e-book is available for download in the iBookstore, in Amazon’s and Barnes and Noble’s bookstores and other retail outlets. An expanded version is available as a special edition iPad app.
Salter: The “Interlopers” section includes stories about people who are quite successful outside of Hollywood entering the fray, such as Nike founder Phil Knight. He and his son, Travis, launch the animation studio Laika in hopes of building the next Pixar. Another fascinating example is Jason Kilar, who came from Amazon and started Hulu to stream broadcast-quality TV online. He was its first CEO. Why do you think outsiders are so drawn to the business?
LaPorte: I think Hollywood is attractive to outsiders for the same reason it’s attractive to all of us. It’s a sexy, star-filled business that, quite literally, turns dreams into reality. The Dream Factory, and all that. It also is built upon, and generates, an enormous amount of money (even now, as the entertainment industry is supposedly in decline). Another element of Hollywood that I think is appealing to entrepreneurs is that it is a very illogical business.
There is no formula to determine whether a movie will be a big hit. Most decisions hinge on a gut feeling. I think this appeals to people who like to take risks and bet big, and who are determined that they can, actually, figure out some kind of formula for success.
Salter: In Hacking Hollywood, we tell the story of Hulu in two parts. We were there in the beginning to see its early success and the first tension with its owners. And we were there more recently as the pressure escalated and Hulu’s executives and the site itself appeared in jeopardy. What’s the lesson for other would-be disruptors, or vice versa, for big companies?
LaPorte: I think the lesson here is that in business it’s usually a marathon, not a sprint, as the cliche goes. But as to how the Hulu story relates specifically to Hollywood, I think there’s a lesson in just how much of a tradition-based industry Hollywood is.
This is not a place that pivots or adapts quickly. It is very steeped in the way things have always worked, particularly when those things are still working (such as traditional television, which even with all that loathed advertising, still pulls in billions of dollars in ad dollars every year).
A company like Hulu represented a vision that Hollywood liked and wanted to believe in, but actually coming around and reconfiguring itself to that vision was another thing. Hence the friction between Hulu and its parent companies, which still continues.
Salter: Scott, you’ve thought a lot about how change happens–or doesn’t happen–in Hollywood. In addition to writing about Cuban building a digital studio, you went on to write the book about other entrepreneurs in your book, Inventing the Movies: Hollywood’s Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, From Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. How does being from outside Hollywood work for and against people?
Kirsner: Well, it’s true that a lot of the best business ideas, and tech breakthroughs, that have helped Hollywood endure have come from outside the industry. Technicolor was invented by three guys who had no connection whatsoever to the movie industry. The entrepreneur who thought to start selling movies on videotape was from Michigan. And Reed Hastings, who started Netflix, also had no Tinseltown connections.
I think that a lot of the time, outsiders see opportunities that the insiders don’t see. To be honest, people in L.A. spend a lot of time following who is attached to which projects in development, and also paying attention to the rises and declines in everyone else’s status. That doesn’t leave a lot of mental bandwidth for thinking about new technologies or business models. The flip side of that, though, can be outsiders who aren’t well connected enough to get insiders to partner or invest with them, or who just don’t understand the mechanics of the business well enough.
But I think outsiders are drawn by the glamour, the role that movies play in our lives, and the opportunity to innovate in a pretty colorful business. Cuban is someone who hasn’t succeeded with some of his more radical experiments, but he’s definitely sparked a lot of debate and gotten people thinking in new ways about how movies are released, monetized, and distributed.