It’s not common knowledge, but Cameron Crowe based Tom Cruise’s Jerry Maguire mission statement – the event that basically launches the entire film – on an internal Hollywood memo written by then Disney head Jeffrey Katzenberg. The document, which chronicled how Disney needed to refocus in the face of tough economic times back in 1991, was leaked to the press and soon became a hot topic of discussion in Hollywood.
Katzenberg has since left Disney – he’s one of the founders of Dreamworks – but the manifesto he wrote over twenty years ago seems even more poignant now. Katzenberg insisted Disney stop focusing on the big “blockbuster” film mentality – and find a way back to a simpler time where they made smaller films – but films that resonated with audiences on a much deeper level. Website Letters of Note has been cool enough to dig up and transcribe the entire Katzenberg manifesto – and we think anyone interested in cinema, either the history of the form or where we currently are, would be well served by reading it.
We won’t reprint the document in its entirety (head over to Letters of Note for a full transcription), but we definitely want to point out some of the highlights – and how modern-day Disney (and the rest of Hollywood) would be well-served by considering Katzenberg’s advice.
While highlighting how the philosophy at Disney (and the industry as a whole) had changed in just a few short years, Katzenberg made this observation:
“Once we had a fairly strict and pretty successful strategy, which we referred to as our ‘Singles and Doubles Philosophy.’ At some point, we seemed to have replaced it with a strategy that might best be called the ‘Yes, But Philosophy’… as in, “Yes, he’s expensive, but it’s a great opportunity for us” or “Yes, that’s a lot to spend on marketing, but we have too much at stake not to” or “Yes, the sequel will require a big budget, but it’s a potential franchise.” There should always be room for exceptions to rules, but of late the exceptions seem to be the rule. Not surprisingly, our control of our own destiny has been eroded.”
As he continues, it becomes clear that Katzenberg sees the problem as one of studios focusing on “home run” features that supposedly offer little risk because they utilize big stars and spectacle. The executive doesn’t see that as a guarantee for success, though – and urges his team to get back to thinking about smaller pictures with “legs.”
“Back in 1984, our initial success at Disney was based on the ability to tell good stories well. Big stars, special effects and name directors were of little importance. Of course, we started this way out of necessity. We had small budgets and not much respect. So we substituted dollars with creativity and big stars with talent we believed in. Success ensued.
With success came bigger budgets and bigger names. We found ourselves attracting the calibre of talent with which “event” movies could be made. And, more and more, we began making them. The result: costs have escalated, profitability has slipped and our level of risk has compounded. The time has come to get back to our roots.”
Katzenberg was prophetic when it came to envisioning how home video would affect theaters, citing the fact that a video rental was the price of a loaf of bread – something families would spend even in tough economic times – while a trip to the movies was five (or more) times the cost. It’s advice Hollywood would be wise to consider today as they continue to tack on 3D charges to constantly increasing ticket prices.
Truthfully, these are just a few of the nuggets of wisdom buried in Katzenberg’s memo – but the most amazing thing about all of it is how it applies to today’s Hollywood. In a rush to churn out blockbusters and “safe” remakes and other junk, the industry seems to have lost sight of what made the movies magical – and a great business – in the first place: the artistic spark of creativity. Maybe some young executives will revisit this memo – and take some of Katzenberg’s advice to heart.