The Cost of Quality

As I was making dinner the other night, I could hear Christopher Lloyd in the other room, where my wife was sitting on the couch. He was not, however, yelling “GREAT SCOTT!” at everything, so it took me a second to figure out what she was watching.

After checking on whatever it was that I was making, I strolled into the living room to see my wife watching Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, one of the best and most original movies of all time, in my opinion.

I hadn’t seen the movie in a while, but I sat there in a trance, not just at the humor of the movie, but at the special effects.

Roger Rabbit was released in 1988. Though the movie is 24 years old (and in other news, 1988 was apparently 24 years ago. Yes, I even checked on my calculator), the special effects are astounding. It looks real.

For those not familiar – and if you’re not, you better go find it right now because it’s awesome – the movie melds the worlds of cartoons and live action characters. But the majority of the movie takes place in the live action world/scenery, which means all the props and surroundings are interacted with by cartoons on the screen.

And the items on screen are not drawn. The weasels that hold guns aren’t holding cartoon guns – they’re real (prop) guns. When a cartoon runs by, skirts and hair and papers lying on a desk all blow up as if a fan had just turned on.

If the Movie Was Made Today

I have no doubt in my mind that the movie wouldn’t have had the staying power it does now if it had been made today.

Everything would have been drawn on computers from start to finish. The whole stinking movie would be done via green screen. All the props would have been digitally inserted, or swapped when the toons picked them up.

It would look fake. Like almost all computer animation does.

(Minor rant – here’s the thing: computer animation has grown by leaps and bounds, and it looks fantastic. It is miles ahead of what it used to be. But it’s still computer animation. It’s not the real thing, and people can see that. It spoils our suspension of disbelief because we can’t insert ourselves into that moment like we could with real props and costumes. Anyway…)

Roger Rabbit was an expensive and time-consuming movie to make. The production budget soared over $40 million (way over its given budget). It took 8 months to film and 14 months of post-production.

The result was a classic.

The Downfall of NBC

On the other side, NBC has been steadily declining for years, and it is one network that is most prominently responsible for the supposed suck-age of quality television in the last 10 years or so.

I learned a lot about how TV works through the book Top of the Rock, where former NBC President Warren Littlefield talks about creating the golden age of NBC television in the ’90s.

Littlefield had a simple idea: hire really creative people, give them as much money as they need to create what they want, and stay as hands-off as possible. The result was a long string of hit shows, classic television episodes and moments, and NBC being the Big Dog of network television.

When Jeff Zucker took over for NBC, his philosophy was simple too: create programming that is cheap to make so that the network can pull in as much profit as possible. Shareholders will be happy, and life will be good.

Except television, like any media, can’t just be run on money.

Zucker doesn’t run NBC anymore – but his philosophy is still in place. So, when NBC wants to promote something, they want to promote the stuff that’s going to make a profit. So you see commercials and pop-up ads during shows for The Voice.

Meanwhile, NBC carries three outstanding shows that almost nobody watches, according to the ratings: Parks and Recreation, Parenthood, and Community.

The result? Those shows struggle in the ratings, and they don’t make a whole lot of money, despite being almost universally praised by critics (and rightfully so).

NBC is at the bottom of the heap now, in network programming. They have since decided to focus on producing “broad”-appeal shows, which will almost certainly fail.

Hard Work and Your Work

Your creative work, whatever it is, can’t just be about money.

I understand the importance of feeding yourself and paying rent. I totally do. I’ve suffered through it for years and taken bad jobs that paid.

But if you are trying to pour your creativity into something just to make money, it will fail and so will you.

Focus on the quality of the work you are doing. Write the crap out of that book. Paint like there’s a gun to your head. Sculpt. Film. Sing. Whatever.

Just do it with passion. With conviction. With purpose. With your heart.

There’s a funny thing that happens when you focus on quality: people notice, and they start buying. When you pay close attention to doing the best job you can do, money starts finding you. Success comes over time.

Remember how Who Framed Roger Rabbit? went over budget and way past deadline?

It pulled in a worldwide gross of $329.8 million. It was the second-biggest release of 1988, and the 20th-biggest of all time at the time of its release. It won four Academy Awards.

And it sparked the Disney Renaissance, so I basically owe my entire childhood (and my current love for Walt Disney World) to that movie.

Success takes time and effort to build, but once you put in that time and give a little bit of your sweat, the reward will follow. But there are no shortcuts.

Take notes, NBC. Pay attention, film industry. You’re all tanking because you’re looking at the bottom line. But once you made that shift, you didn’t have a chance. Take a risk and build something that you know is high quality – the audience will find it.

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Written by Tom Meitner, your favorite author. That's why you're here, right?
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