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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 21, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


TNT, Snow White, and The Advantage

Now that flashmob performances have been seriously overdone, it was about time that somebody figured out a way to do it professionally -- and make money from it.

The TNT network is apparently moving into Europe, and in order to attract attention, they staged what may be the greatest network promotion ever. Not just because it's wonderful theatre, but because it's a combination of new media and old.

After all, it was broadcast television that killed radio as a storytelling medium, and television also shattered the movie industry, forcing both to reinvent themselves.

Then cable television and the internet, not to mention DVDs, remade the way we watched television. While we watch more screen entertainment than ever, the broadcast networks have a much smaller share of our watching time, and even "free" cable networks like TNT have to fight for attention.

One of the ironies of television self-promotion is that TV networks and channels cannot advertise themselves anywhere except on their own stations. Since television is still the most effective advertising medium, this means that television networks cannot easily attract anyone who isn't already in their audience.

This was what drove CBS crazy for decades -- they had by far the largest audience, but it was mostly made up of older, more rural, and poorer viewers. Plenty of eyes, but not the brandable dollars that advertisers coveted. So while CBS had the most popular shows on TV, they got the lowest ad rates.

Then, when they jettisoned all their rural-appeal shows and tried to become urban and hip, it didn't do any good -- they lost their previous viewers but couldn't get the word out to the other networks' viewers that CBS was now just like NBC and ABC and it was hip to watch CBS now.

So here is TNT, trying to build an audience in Europe. Their main appeal is that they offer American TV shows -- which really are popular in Europe, but which are sneered at by European critics. They can't exactly advertise on competing channels.

But they can reach out via the Internet -- because the Internet is, at last, just as pervasive as television. Yet because the Internet is still so fragmented, it cannot (yet) compete with television.

However, the Internet can assemble virtual crowds of people to watch amazing events. If they can create something that "goes viral," they reach millions of viewers who may never see a television promotion or billboard or radio spot.

But what goes viral? It needs to have an element of reality, and it needs to be surprising, and it needs to be cool. And so that's exactly what TNT's marketing department arranged: They staged an event on the street of a European city.

While the event was theatrical fiction, the setting was real and the reactions of bystanders were genuine. Those live watchers were surprised; and online viewers are also surprised by the rapid twists and turns of the plot of the staged event.

Thus a live theatrical performance, filmed and put on the Internet, became the best promotion of a TV network ever. Take a look yourself: http://sn.im/AddDramaTNT

*

A friend recommended Snow White and the Huntsman to me as perhaps the best non-Tolkien fantasy movie ever made. I hadn't been planning to see it, but with Jerry's recommendation I persuaded my wife and our 18-year-old to go see it.

We were not disappointed. The film zips along very entertainingly, some very cool things happened, and the twists on the Snow White story were fresh and strong.

But we couldn't help comparing it to the movie it almost was.

It was almost a great movie. It was almost smart, original, and deeply magical in a way that would have made it a classic.

I'm going to be very candid now, so if you plan to see the movie -- and I think you'll enjoy it -- you may want to skip the rest of this review till after you've seen it.

The movie reaches for some pretty deep things. The wicked queen is vile but also motivated in ways that make us understand even if we don't sympathize. Charlize Theron does a splendid job of making a scenery-chewing part feel real.

The wicked queen is given a brother (Sam Spruell) who is used well in the story, as her co-conspirator and the only person she loves. There is a prince (Sam Claflin) who grew up with Snow White and is devoted to her, determined to disobey his father and liberate Snow White's kingdom. And the Huntsman (Chris Hemsworth) keeps getting involved, against his will, in helping the spunky heroine escape terrible danger.

All these actors do a very good job, and they all have scenes that are well-written.

Even more shocking is the fact that Kristen Stewart does a very good job of playing Snow White. Here we thought she was the most dead-faced actress since Tippi Hedren, when all along she could act; she was just playing a complete dead character in all those Twilight movies.

There are also some wonderful, creative bits that lead me to believe that once upon a time, there was a truly brilliant script for this movie.

Then the studio system and the cliches of contemporary screenwriting got hold of it. The result was that while many good bits from that earlier version survive, scene after scene is destroyed by resorting to film cliches -- the kinds of cliches that studio executives and/or stupid directors often insist upon, because that's what "feels like a movie" to them.

In this case, I suspect that director Rupert Sanders was not the most powerful person working on the film; I suspect the stupidity came from the studio. But I might be wrong. It's always possible that this was a really stupid script and the director and studio saved it. Anything is possible. So I'm only guessing about the cause of the missed opportunities.

Let me point out just a few:

Snow White is set up as a very magical figure in this film. A white hart that is the magical king of the natural world bows to her; later, a monster that easily swats away a mighty soldier is faced down by Snow White, who subdues him without doing anything at all. She has some deep natural power and we expect this to amount to something.

But it doesn't.

Another time, as Snow White rallies people to come with her to fight the Queen, she tells them that she has a deep magical understanding of the Queen -- that Snow White already knows everything the Queen can do. We expect this magical knowledge to amount to something.

But it doesn't.

Instead, when Snow White comes to the Queen's chamber, she flails around uselessly with a sword, showing that she knows nothing about how to beat the Queen. And then, when the Queen comes close enough, Snow White simply does the stupid, obvious thing that the Huntsman told her to do when they first met -- stab your enemy in the heart and then hold the blade there until his eyes go dead.

Snow White even screws that up -- she lets go of the knife -- but it doesn't matter. After all that magical setup, the movie has a very stock physical-violence solution to everything. The Queen, whom we have seen healing all kinds of physical damage before, apparently can't heal herself this time. But we see no reason for this. There's nothing smart about the ending.

We expect the magic mirror to do something -- it does nothing.

Worse than that, after all the relationship-building with the prince, the huntsman, and Snow White, nothing is done with them, either. No rivalry between the men. No chemistry between Snow White and either of them. And their efforts to save her accomplished nothing.

The dwarfs are cleverly created -- and then grossly misused. The film has been striving for gritty realism, but once the dwarfs get into the castle, they are used for broad but unfunny comedy, and it is impossible to believe that they would not have been spotted immediately and quickly defeated by the Queen's soldiers. So instead of viewing them heroically, like the dwarfs in Burt Lancaster classic The Flame and the Arrow, or even comically, like the dwarfs in the Danny Kaye parody The Court Jester, this film just throws the dwarfs away. They were a waste of time.

Instead, the movie does all the usual manipulations to "increase the jeopardy." No matter how far Snow White and her would-be protectors flee, they are always found at the most inconvenient moment; the Queen's minions always achieve complete surprise. And then, after all the chasing by other people, the Queen shows that she had the power to track down Snow White and confront and kill her any time she wanted. So all the chasing was just dumb.

Here's the problem with most movies today: There is no story integrity, no story logic. If somebody powerful thinks of something he thinks is cool, it gets pushed into the movie whether it makes any sense or not. Nobody is responsible for making sure the whole thing hangs together. So ideas survive from previous drafts, raising expectations that are not fulfilled in the current draft.

This all arises from the fact that while everyone in Hollywood says that "everything depends on the script," and this is true, in the actual making of most films the writer and the script are treated with such ignorant contempt that it's a miracle something watchable emerges from the process.

A good film has an author, and that author is, in all but a handful of cases, the writer of the script. And the surest way to make a dumb movie is to let idiots loose on the script, deforming it without ever understanding what any of the scenes were actually accomplishing.

There are plenty of bad writers and bad scripts, of course. But when Hollywood has a great script, the process seems perversely designed to destroy it and turn it into the same B-minus movie that they think makes money.

But audiences don't flock to B-minus movies because they're mediocre; they would go to the very same movie in even higher numbers if the script had been allowed to make sense and fulfil its promises.

Here's the thing -- so many good people were involved with this film that it still works.

Once.

One viewing will be entertaining, gripping, fun.

But the second viewing, you'll start wondering why nothing ever came of this or that promising event. Why the characters don't do this or that obvious, sensible thing. Why the mirror never does anything interesting after the first time we see it. Why fairies fly inside some creatures but ride on the backs or heads of most others. Why the bad guys can always track the good guys everywhere, but the good guys can never hear or see them coming. Why there are still people alive in the villages when all the crops for many miles around are dead. Why the wicked Queen is powerless in the evil dark forest, but has all her powers inside the magically protected fairyland.

Until finally we wonder if we haven't been wrong all along, and in fact the Queen is meant to be the good guy, and Snow White is actually evil. Now that would be a movie! (Tanith Lee wrote the story of it already -- "Red As Blood" -- and it's brilliant.)

*

I've recommended business books by Patrick Lencioni before, but I have to tell you that the best of them is The Advantage: Why Organizational Health Trumps Everything Else in Business.

I've watched so many businesses rise and fall during my life, and been part of so many organizations that were well or badly run, that I can say from experience and close observation that everything Lencioni says in this book is not only true but practical and useful, and using the principles in The Advantage you can shape an organization to accomplish its purposes and endure over the long haul -- while allowing everyone within the organization to be happy as they do their best work.

And if you aren't doing what Lencioni teaches here, you aren't going to be happy, you aren't going to last, and you're not going to accomplish what you mean to do.

This isn't because Lencioni has discovered anything shockingly new. In fact, Lencioni's principles and observations are old and obvious -- the only reason everybody isn't already doing them is that they require that leaders be unselfish, courageous, and trusting.

In other words, if a company is run by smart, brave, generous people, then these principles will work to allow them, and the people who work under them, to succeed and be happy.

But people who aren't smart, brave, or generous will never try the principles in this book, and so the people working for them will be miserable, the company will drive itself into the ground -- and the selfish careerists will blame other people and go on to get new jobs where they can wreck other companies.

One thing that The Advantage gives voice to, which seems most counterintuitive, is that open disagreement is not only beneficial but essential to the success of a company.

Too many organizations destroy themselves by hiding their disagreements under an edifice of niceness, so that issues that need to be discussed and resolved are never allowed to surface. The result is that a whole bunch of really nice but fearful leaders are completely puzzled about why their company is going down the tubes and all their best people are leaving.

If you read The Advantage and find yourself scoffing at it or rejecting its ideas, then I can tell you: You are part of the problem in your company. And the best people on your team can hardly wait to find another job and get away from you.

Just a few samples: "The only measure of a great team -- or a great organization -- is whether it accomplishes what it sets out to accomplish. Some leaders of teams that don't regularly succeed will still insist that they have a great team because team members care about one [an]other and no one ever leaves the team. A more accurate description of their situation would be to say that they have a mediocre team that enjoys being together and isn't terribly bothered by failure."

Lencioni affirms that success depends on "creating so much clarity that there is as little room as possible for confusion, disorder, and infighting to set in."

But Lencioni has no patience with blather, such as "mission statements." He replaces pie-in-the-sky, empty slogans with some very clear questions that must be clearly answered for a team to lead an organization to success:

1. Why do we exist?

2. How do we behave?

3. What do we do?

4. How will we succeed?

5. What is most important, right now?

6. Who must do what?

Most people have answers to some of these questions -- and might think they have answers to all of them. The problem is that the leaders will all have different answers to questions on which clarity and unanimity are needed, and some of the "answers" are so vague as not to be answers at all.

Read the book -- measure yourself against it. And insofar as it's within your power, implement these principles, at least with the people who report to you within your organization. I can tell you that I've tried what I can, and I've seen all of it used by others, and what The Advantage teaches really works, consistently, whenever and wherever it is actually put into effect.


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