The Other Side of Midnight
The Dark Side for many execs
Despite its galactic success (pun intended), Star Wars was not expected to be a big hit. In fact, many Hollywood execs thought it would be a flop.
The common lore is that it opened in 1977 in only 32 theaters. This is only sort of true. The movie opened on a Wednesday in 32 theaters, but it opened the weekend in 42 theaters with many showing the film on that Friday.
Regardless, it wasn’t big.
Studio execs – which has become slang for “dumb guys in suits” – – thought another film opening later that summer would be their blockbuster: The Other Side of Midnight.
That picture had all the makings of a money maker: big stars; a script adapted from a best selling book; big time director; blah blah blah. With this “sure thing” coming out after Star Wars, execs told cinemas that if they wanted to show The Other Side of Midnight , they would also have to agree to show Star Wars a month earlier. (This is illegal and 20th Century Fox was fined for this)
As history demonstrated, studio execs got it wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
But how? They had all of the data and were quite certain they had a winning formula. It’s the same problem that many on their digital transformation have. Let’s explore.
First, it was an over reliance on data and not enough actual empathy and insight into their audience. This isn’t a swipe at movies from that time, there were some amazing ones: Young Frankenstein (1974), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), The Godfather (1972), The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975;Susan Sarandon’s best work). Despite these gems, execs hesitated to deviate from their movie making formula because they knew what the public wanted and they had the data to back it up. But data has limitations. Data is great for identifying problems or validating a hypothesis, but data lacks empathy. It lacks context. This sort of vision requires you to think like an anthropologist (see previous article about Lucas and his love of anthropology).
The second problem is something that many in technology share: they confuse usage with preference. Hollywood execs had been serving up their formula for years and they had revenue and box office numbers to back them up. They figured they were delivering what movie goers wanted. But the flaw here is akin to maximizing a bus ride for someone who uses public transportation daily, but failing to consider that they would gladly stop taking the bus if someone gave them a Rolls Royce to drive. (And, yes, there are many who take public transportation not because they can’t afford the luxury car but for other motivations. But for the sake of my analogy, just go with it). You can have volumes of data to back up your formula that consumers love their bus riding experience, but this doesn’t take into consideration if someone would switch given the opportunity. It’s like Windows in the 1990’s: Everyone used it. Everyone hated it. They switched as soon as an alternative came along. (No offense, Bill.)