We are in the middle of a Star Wars renaissance. Star Wars: The Force Awakens successfully rebooted the beloved film franchise and two sequels to it are well into production, as is a film about a young Han Solo.
But there is a dark side. Over the past four months, producer Lucasfilm has parted ways with the directors of one of the sequels and the Solo film. Jurassic World director Colin Trevorrow left the development of Star Wars: Episode IX a few months before filming was set to start. More startling was the departure of the Solo creative team: Christopher Miller and Phil Lord, the writer-directors behind a string of successful features, including Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs and 21 Jump Street, left the project more than five months into filming.
Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller, known for their quirky humour and irreverent perspective, had seemed a great fit for the project. So what went wrong? Speculation has included micromanaging by Lucasfilm, a lack of preparation on the part of the filmmakers and, most definitively, a struggle for creative control. In a statement on the parting of ways, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy cited "different creative visions." According to the Hollywood Reporter, sources argue that Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller were brought in to bring their own spin to the story, then given "zero creative freedom." Mr. Trevorrow, too, departed due to reported differences in vision.
To understand what is going wrong at Lucasfilm, it's helpful to look at a similar, but much more successful Lord and Miller project: The Lego Movie.
The context is similar. Like Lucasfilm, the Lego Group represents a beloved brand with generations of fans who feel not just loyalty but ownership. Both companies had tested the limits of fan loyalty with missteps through the 1990s and early 2000s. And both brought in new leadership to set things right. For Lucasfilm, that was Ms. Kennedy in 2012. For the Lego Group, it was Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, a former McKinsey consultant who took over the firm in 2004.
The Lego Group's core business is its little stackable plastic bricks. But the company also partners to produce films, TV shows and video games. It has had great success with branded entertainment, produced with the most powerful entertainment brands in the world – including Lucasfilm. But its first foray in feature-length films, a direct-to-DVD movie called Lego: The Adventures of Clutch Powers, was a bust. It was earnest. It was true to the brand. And it was really dull.
When the notion of a big-screen feature came up, Mr. Knudstorp was determined to have a different outcome, but he faced a seemingly impossible trade-off when it came to creative control. On the one hand, the Lego Group could do what it had done with Clutch Powers: insist on total creative control, hiring screenwriters and directors to execute based on a corporate vision for the film. Although this approach would ensure the brand was protected, it would also make it hard to attract top-tier talent to the project. Creative work is all about exercising independent judgment and decision-making. With control in the hands of a corporation, there would be no freedom to play, no scope for imagination. Even if the company could somehow attract a talented team under such conditions, precedent suggested the outcome would be a bad movie.
Alternatively, The Lego Group could cede all control to the filmmakers, letting a Hollywood team have full creative rights over the characters and story, including how the brand was depicted. This approach could attract great talent and produce a successful film. But it would also put the brand at risk, giving outsiders the opportunity to do lasting damage to the equity of the Lego brand, should they choose to do so.
Faced with this kind of a trade-off, most leaders feel compelled to make the tough choice. They choose the least painful of the two options, or they try to find a barely acceptable compromise. For Mr. Knudstorp and Lego, neither choice was good enough and a compromise was still giving too much away. What they really wanted was a better answer: a movie that was a creative triumph and that elevated the Lego brand. But how?
Mr. Knudstorp explains how it was done in an interview for our upcoming book, Creating Great Choices: "We actually gave the producer and the screenwriters at Warner Bros. complete degrees of freedom in coming up with a script. We had every opportunity to read it and comment, but we had no rights over it."
Rather than enforce standards with contracts and constraints, Mr. Knudstorp decided to make it easy for the filmmaker to do right by the brand. He asked Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller to spend time with Lego's superfans – including adults who had loved and used the products since childhood.
"I said to them, 'You need to see these guys. You need to talk to them. You need to attend the conventions with me. You need to read the letters – we get thousands of letters from children of all ages. ...' [The filmmakers] willingly did that and, of course, spent a lot of time with our designers. I think they were genuinely surprised about how powerful the brand is and how meaningful it is."
By connecting Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller with Lego's biggest fans, Mr. Knudstorp helped them not only to understand the brand but also to fall in love with it themselves. Even better, the stories from customers informed the plot of the film. The filmmakers learned, for instance, that "one of the things that is very important in the fan community is that you never use glue," Mr. Knudstorp says. "That's an absolute no-go for a true Lego fan." Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller picked up on the theme and – spoiler alert – made glue an important plot point in the film.
The Lego Movie was a smash success. It made more than $469-million (U.S.) at the global box office, is rated at 96 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes and boosted the Lego Group sales by double digits on the strength of movie-themed merchandise.
The path to the success of The Lego Movie included a different kind of problem-solving process, one focused on opposing ideas and opportunities rather than on right answers and hard choices. On the Han Solo project, it seems clear that Lucasfilm struggled with the same trade-off on creative control. It wanted great, talented directors. And it wanted to tell them what to do. Though the studio must have seen the value of hiring great talent – or it wouldn't have hired Mr. Trevorrow, Mr. Lord and Mr. Miller – it seems not to have recognized that part of working with talented professionals is giving them room to create. Instead, Lucasfilm tried to find a weak compromise: bringing in the talent and then building a tight box around it. This approach to creative control seems, at least in two case, to have ended in painful divorce and a lot of negative buzz. Compared to this, Mr. Knudstorp's approach to The Lego Movie was awesome.
Jennifer Riel is the co-author, together with Roger L. Martin, of the forthcoming Creating Great Choices: A Leaders' Guide to Integrative Thinking (Harvard Business Review Press, September 2017).
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