Determined to eclipse his huge success with the Busby Berkley musical, 42nd Street, Daryl Zanuck demanded the writers at Warner Bros to come up with another sure fire hit. After rejecting dozens of new screenplays, Zanuck is said to have berated the luckless writers “Gimme 43rd, street, 44th Street, 45th Street …”
Nothing much has changed — except perhaps that now a successful movie clones both sequels and prequels. Hollywood production executives choose the projects they support not on the basis of instinct for a good story and personal judgement of good writing, but on the project’s “defensibility”. In other words, the elements of the project that determine how successfully they will be able to protect their executive arses in the event the film is a turkey. An “A-list” cast and director have high defensibility quotients — but probably the best defence of all is that the project is a sequel to a known money-maker.
“Hey, who could know? With that cast and Harry-whatsisname directing and the first one grossing $200 million in a week? I tell you, I did everything right and still I get let down. Hollywood’s a bitch. Sometimes I think I should’ve stayed in real estate.”
The fact is, of course, that sequels tend to cost a third more and make half the money of the original. There are several reasons for this: 1) often the cast and director on the original were paid less than asking rates and, now they find themselves part of a successful franchise, they want more money, so they get replaced. 2) the original project was likely to have been driven by the story. The sequel is almost always driven by the desire to exploit the original. (Godfather II is one notable exception.)
The result is usually a thin and flimsy facsimile that antagonises the audience. They feel that in buying a ticket to the sequel they entered into a pact in which they were promised, if not better than before, at least more of the same. And the result of that is the most potent box-office poison of all, bad word of mouth—and in these cyberdays of Internet chatter instant publishing and broadcasting, that can be a very big, fast mouth indeed.
So where does IBM fit into all this?
There was a long-running advertising campaign for IBM with the headline: “No one ever got fired for buying IBM”.
What that campaign was really saying was not that IBM is the best or most appropriate product but that the decision to buy it was defensible! It was saying that buying IBM night be the dumbest decision you ever made — but, don’t worry, you won’t get fired for making it.
As much as I loathe the thinking, the campaign works because that is the thinking of most corporations, all the way up. It is a dangerous call to fire an inferior today for making a decision on the same grounds you may well use to defend you own position to your superiors tomorrow.
Oh, and as for IBM, the Chinese bought a whole chunk of it.