Everything I Know about Innovation I Learned from Old Movies

The genius and challenges in innovation in movies are perhaps the most publicly known. We’ve all seen great innovation in storytelling and technology unfold over the years on the big screen, from primitive computer graphics in TRON to the sophistication of Toy Story. Some movies like Star Wars create new standards that others have to catch up to. And we’ve all seen too many unoriginal me-too incremental movies, which I won’t bore you by mentioning. Movie making is the perfect environment for drawing lessons in innovation, in general and for your company’s products specifically. So sit back, relax and enjoy this guest blog, starring Katherine Burns!



Everything I Know about Innovation I Learned from Old Movies.
Katherine Burns
Frost & Sullivan

By a happy accident, I happened upon Casablanca on Turner Classic Movies this past Friday. This movie always makes me happy – the wonderful dialogue, the gorgeous black and white, the melodrama… it’s just the most stylized, and stylish, thing ever, and I just love it start to finish.

You know what’s funny, though? That movie – however polished and perfect it may seem today – was a stressful, mess of a production when it was going through filming. It went over budget and over schedule. Filming began with a half-finished (or half-unfinished, depending whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist) script, and nobody knew exactly how the movie was going to end. Scenes were being shot while others were being written; actors were learning their lines on coffee breaks.

Why am I telling you all this? Because it got me thinking about the creative process generally, and how darned messy it often is. Nothing about creativity is clinical, or linear, or perfect, no matter how much we wish it were. Sometimes, you really don’t know what you have, until that last puzzle piece snaps into place and all of a sudden you just have it. (In the context of Casablanca, that last puzzle piece was the line, “Round up the usual suspects,” which came to the co-producers on a drive down Sunset Boulevard – see, inspiration can happen anywhere, at any time, and for any reason.)

Anyway, so there I was, sitting on my couch, watching this wonderful movie for perhaps the hundredth time, and all of a sudden ruminating on all the cool things I’ve learned (without even meaning to!) about innovation by watching old movies. What else can we learn, did you say? I’m so glad you asked! Read on.
To break through the noise, sometimes it’s better to be quiet.

This is kind of a cool idea, so let me explain what I mean. If everyone shouts at the same volume, all the time, does anyone’s voice stand out? If every product offers whiter whites, or brighter brights, does anyone ever look truly unique? Sometimes, the way to differentiate is to exercise a little bit of restraint: to pull back, to focus on a few key points instead of many, to understand that just because you CAN build that awesome feature, or talk it up in your marketing lit, doesn’t mean you SHOULD. Simplicity: it can cut through the noise like a knife through butter.

How did I learn this from an old movie, you ask? Back in the early 1930s, movies had just learned to talk. It was a hop, skip, and a jump from talking to singing, and from singing to dancing. Once everyone started dancing, the camera got into the action too, cutting and pasting and fading and zooming throughout a number with such speed that it would give even the most grounded of us vertigo. (But hey – this stuff is neat! If one kaleidoscopic sequence of leggy chorus girls is good… 20 must be better!) To see what I mean, check this out:

So: noise, noise, and more noise. Fun in tiny increments, but numbing in large quantity. Into this cacophony stepped Fred Astaire, straight off the Broadway stage. And just like that, the movie musical was reinvented. Dancing cameras were replaced with dancing people. The camera stood still, and captured what the performers were able to do. Simple presentation of spectacular things, which really never needed embellishment to begin with (I guess there’s another lesson in there: if you can walk the walk, you don’t need to hide behind distractions). Anyway, just as a counterpoint to the above, check out the following – this is a number from 1935, and is nearly contemporaneous to the one shown above. Count the number of cuts.

It’s hard to believe, but Fred Astaire really did teach me the fundamental importance of understanding what your customers want (to see you dance) and then giving it to them (dance). In modern innovation parlance: Don’t do everything just because you can: Choose what you want to say, or what you want to be, and help customers give it their full attention. Solid advice, right?

Beware the words, “It’ll never amount to a thing.”

I’m pretty sure when the first car was invented, carriage-makers across the country scoffed at the unreliable, somewhat dangerous toy. Horses and buggies are the way of the world, they promised each other. It’ll never amount to a thing.

And when the Wright brothers took to the air, the railroad kings smiled tolerantly and patted each other on the back for fulfilling America’s manifest destiny. This country travels by train, trains we built, over rails we laid, they told each other. Planes. They’ll never amount to a thing.

And when the first television sets appeared at the world’s fair in 1936, no Hollwood mogul saw in its small screen, so much tinier than the screens projecting Fred Astaire and others in all their glory at movie houses around the country, the demise of the golden age of film. And yet that’s exactly what it was: just as the horseless carriage replaced the buggy, and the plane the train car, the television set completely redefined American patterns of behavior and pastimes.

Because that’s the thing about things we don’t want to see, those paradigm shifts that come out of nowhere and leave us all gasping to keep up: the ones we most want to ignore are the ones most likely to amount to something. Any attempt to continue living in the old world once the new has emerged usually signals the beginning of the end.

Believe it or not, I learned this lesson the first time I watched the 1957 film Silk Stockings (I’m not making this up; I was 14, and this lesson has stuck with me ever since). Silk Stockings is a somewhat average movie, but it does star the wonderful Fred Astaire in what is actually his last major musical role. There’s a number in this film called “Stereophonic Sound” (written by the equally wonderful Cole Porter, but that’s neither here nor there). “Stereophonic Sound” is all about how hard it is, in the late fifties, to draw audiences away from their living rooms and TV trays, and back into the movie theaters.

And here’s the really fun, crazy part: the whole point of the song is that “if you want to get the crowds to come around,” you have to make movie-going more exciting: “You gotta have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and stereophonic sound!” Put another way: make some minor adjustments to the current model – the brights brighter, the noises noisier – and movies can turn back time, can make TV go the way of the dodo. Except you can’t. And in this one number, I learned that incremental improvement to something that has become irrelevant is the fastest way to ensure you lose your place in the new paradigm. It’s all right there, in one number. Thank you, Fred, and thank you, Cole. Have a look and a listen:

I could go on and on, but I’ll save it for another blog. Suffice to say, life lessons – lessons about creativity, about innovation, about differentiation – can come from anywhere, at any time, if you’re tuned in to the right frequency. For me, it’s old movies. For you, it might be something else: a video on youtube, a drive down Sunset Boulevard, or anyplace else of your own imagining.

Katherine BurnsKatherine is the Director of Strategic Communications for Growth Team Membership, a premier best practices research group within Frost & Sullivan. You can follow her on Twitter: @KatherineSBurns, and on her Frost & Sullivan blog.