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Print Loading While some sequels lack creativity, Marvel manages to make each of its new releases just different enough, so consumers are not just satisfied but also surprised. Research shows that several strategies drive this success; they include bringing in different types of talent while also maintaining a stable core creative team then working together to challenge the superhero action-film formula.
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Business Lessons from How Marvel Makes Movies

Print Loading While some sequels lack creativity, Marvel manages to make each of its new releases just different enough, so consumers are not just satisfied but also surprised. Research shows that several strategies drive this success; they include bringing in different types of talent while also maintaining a stable core creative team then working together to challenge the superhero action-film formula. And, Harrison argues, leaders in other industries and functions can easily apply them to their own businesses.

For some of us that means hitting the beach. For others it means lining up to see the latest blockbuster, one of those big budget movies full of starts and special effects that are guaranteed to blow you away.

One studio has both dominated and reinvented this genre over the past decade with characters whose voices you might recognize. You want my property? But I did you a big favor. I have successfully privatized world peace.

Heroes — noble warrior heroes. The wise build bridges while the foolish build barriers. Are you mocking me? Stop it, you just did it again.

From Iron Man in , to Spider-Man: Far From Home this month, Marvel has released 23 films grossing over 17 billion dollars. More than any other movie franchise in history. They get high ratings from critics too and lots of award nominations.

Spencer, thanks so much for joining us. Thanks for having me. So, besides the obvious fun factor of this research, why did you want to look at Marvel Studios? Most of the research that we used to look at when people are being creative or innovative, we kind of throw people in a room and we say, come up with whatever new idea you want.

And we felt like movie franchises were a really good opportunity for us to understand how these dynamics might play out. So, why did you think there was more to it in the case of Marvel? Well, exactly right. So, we had read that Ed Catmull, the founder of Pixar had said that sequels are a form of creative bankruptcy. Which is ironic because Toy Story 4 just came out. Exactly right.

But even then, I mean if you look at a lot of the reviews of Toy Story, the question is how successful has Pixar been? And then there are others where each time the company comes out with a new idea, it feels like something fresh and it kind of renews and reinvigorates the reason why you wanted to buy those products in the first place. And Marvel falls into that category?

I mean, I think Marvel clearly does. So, what kind of analysis did you and your co-authors do? First we really wanted to understand what was going on inside the studio and because movies are such a public form of creativity, we have a lot of press releases and a lot of interviews, and a lot of media and that allowed us to create an oral history of each one of these movies.

So, we would gather around 10 interviews of each one of the films from the directors and the lead actors and the writers, so that we could understand what had happened in the back story and lead up to making that movie. And then when you put all those together, we had this story of how these movies kind of fit together over time as people are describing the creative process in each one. And one of the things that struck us is the executive producers and the directors kept using language like, we tried to do something completely new with this move, or this movie is very different than the prior movie, and as scientists that led us to think skeptically, is this really true?

Is there any way that we can show objective evidence that they actually have created something new? So, that led us to a couple additional analyses.

One of the things that we did is we looked at who was in each film and both in terms of leading the film and directing the film, and the crew behind it, but also the characters.

And so, we could watch how that network of people creating the film evolves and changes over time. We also looked at the emotional experience of the film.

So, movies are dramatic medium. And one of the ways that we sought to analyze that was by doing a computerized text analysis of the scripts. And then finally, movies are also a visual medium and we thought that if there are differences from movie to movie we should be able to see those visually, so we did a fun, computerized visual analysis of the movies as well. And we put all those things together to come to our conclusions. That sounds like amazing work. So, what were your top line findings on how Marvel succeeds?

And finally, we found that they were willing to keep experimenting with their formula over time, and do things to continually cultivate customer curiosity in what the next new movie might look like. So, give me some examples of how Marvel brought different types of talent in.

This was one of the most exciting findings for me. And Marvel does something that is very counterintuitive. Instead of hiring people that are going to be really good at directing blockbusters, they look for people that have done a really good job with medium-sized budgets, but developing very strong storylines and characters. So, generally speaking, what they do is they looked to other genres like Shakespeare or horror.

You can have spy films, comedy films, buddy cop films and what they do is they say, if I brought this director into the Marvel universe, what could they do with our characters? How could they shake up our stories and kind of reinvigorate them and provide new energy and new life? One of the examples I think is really fun is what they did with Thor: So, they hired a director by the name of Taika Waititi. He had a background doing improvisational comedy and very strong character films and he took what had been considered by many Marvel fans as one of the weaker Marvel characters and put together a movie that was just violating all sorts of expectations of what you expected from the Thor movies.

It went from being very heavy and somber, kind of taking on these airs of medieval lore and those sorts of things and made it fun and rock and roll, and really hilarious. So, how might companies in other industries take this idea of hiring for experienced inexperience?

And they just need to fit in and do their part. And is broadening the way you scan for talent another way to get experienced inexperience into your organization? So, I think then that is the compliment to it. Because the idea is they might not understand economics, but they definitely understand strategy and they understand how to think several moves ahead of the game.

So, Marvel is bringing in all these new directors with very fresh ideas and different perspectives, but then the second thing you mentioned was this stable core. So, who makes up the core that stays the same in these creative teams? And how does Marvel retain them and make them blend with the new people coming in? I think part of what happens is that success and progress is one of the strongest motivations that we have as individuals.

So, part of what Marvel has done, initially they had a group of executive producers and leaders that kind of formed this team of individuals that would look at each one of the scripts and each one of the movies and make sure it kind of fit a certain set of patterns and what they wanted.

And pretty soon they had to get rid of that because they realized that they were creating a universe that was a little bit too complex, and it was creating all sorts of political headaches for them to pass it through this filter. So, they reduced that and really what you see is Kevin Feige operates as the executive producer in all these movies. You have Stan Lee, is involved and then you have people that kind of move in and out of this core along the way. So, there is obviously this stable core of actors that started with Robert Downey, Jr.

The cameramen, the special effects guys, all of that too, right? Yeah and we looked at both the actors who are kind of the front of stage people, but also the behind-the-stage people. So, again, how do you see this applying to teams working in different functions, or sectors? Movies are inherently one project at a time.

Can it work in other types of organizations? And I think a lot of businesses could spend a little bit more time thinking about what is the composition of this group? How many of these people have worked together before on previously successful projects, so they have some history for how to get something from start to finish?

And then how many people can I sprinkle in that are new that will push these people in new ways and allow them to expand their thinking, not just rely on a formula that they might have used in the past? How do you know how much to challenge the formula? When we think about creativity and innovation we often talk about this notion of optimal distinctiveness or getting kind of the optimal point between novelty and usefulness.

And what we found that was happening at Marvel is that the movies were kind of really getting into this sweet spot where they were challenging what was happening before, but also extending what they had done in the past.

So, for us what was really gratifying is that when we plotted the emotional overtone of each script over time, what you actually saw is this almost zigzag pattern where you could see that one script would be kind of heavy and sad, or carry on more somber tones and then the next script would be much more playful and fun, and kind of have more of these positive emotions.

And they kept expanding as they went along this zone of what was possible emotionally from a Marvel movie. Sometimes you would have kind of two in the similar trajectory, but then the next one would kind of go down in a different way. And what that does over time is that it creates a different expectation from the audience. I need to be expecting the unexpected. I initially thought about Coke.

Diet Coke was great. Cherry Coke was great. New Coke, not so much. But they still have to be Coke. I think one fun example of that is thinking about what Apple did, especially early in the century. So, one of the things is just beginning to think about over time, what does our innovation curve look like and how are we pushing against the assumptions that our customers might have around what our products actually look and feel like. Now, the question is like, is that too much of a violation or not enough?

For me it might be.

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