Balancing Business and Creativity in Media Production

Some ideas based on my experiences as a startup founder, XR producer, and a student of media.

People have a negative connotation with the idea of capitalism in the context of art. The reality is that this is the system we’re working with and that there’s a dynamic between supply and demand for creative content that can’t be ignored. Because of this, market expectations and profit incentives are factored into what would otherwise be purely artistic endeavors. Budgets and poetry don’t always play nice. These are my thoughts as a foot soldier of creative enterprise.

An Indie Producer’s Perspective

What a lot of people don’t see from the outside of the entertainment industry is that any creative production is a unique capitalistic endeavor. Productions are creative ventures that require financing from investors, government grants, private and public funding bodies in the same way that startups do.

This creates a dualistic energy within any creative production between two opposing forces: the order of capitalistic productivity and the beautiful chaos of unconstrained creativity. Anyone who’s ever worked on a funded movie, series or video game has felt these opposing pressures.

In my opinion, a successful production is one that stands out as both an admirable body of work (a great film, a highly engaging video game, etc.) and one that also achieves profitability. This particular outcome is generally the result of exceptional talent, but also of the way a team manages the forces of order and creative chaos in a production. Acknowledging those opposing forces has been a good start in learning how to balance them to achieve a successful production.

After several years of working on creative technical projects I have some basic ideas and observations on what the equation to this balance consists of which I’ll briefly describe below.

I’m approaching the practice of media production quite broadly here. There’s a lot that goes into a quality creative project, and depending on whether it’s a film, TV show, video game, etc. the specifics will vary. My hunch is that any successful project will have these two factors at its core.

  • A laser focus on developing an emotionally compelling experience
  • Intelligent management of creative resources

Developing emotionally compelling experiences

It’s funny that it has to be mentioned, but anyone who’s worked on a funded production knows that often times the business requirements of a project can deprioritize the raw art form and demoralize the creative spirit of a project. This is perhaps the trickiest and most subjective piece of the puzzle but it’s certainly the most important.

In Creativity Inc. Ed Catmull, who runs Pixar, writes that the first driving principle at his studio is: “Story is King”. Nothing gets in the way of the story — not technology, not merchandising opportunities etc.

In the context of games and other interactive media, this principle can be abstracted to the idea that experience is king. When describing the process of crafting stories at Pixar, Catmull talks specifically about how it should make the audience feel. The experience is the focal point of creative development, whether it’s the story in a film or the design of a game mechanic. The primary directive of any creative venture should be to create an experience that elicits a profound emotional response from its audience.

There’s no secret sauce to creating great content, but in most cases, great content is the fruit of great talent. Great writers, artists, developers, animators, etc. If there isn’t a creative lead putting their soul into the project, it usually results in a lackluster piece of content. As a producer, you must identify who the key creative people are and do your best to support them from the logistical side of things.

To be succinct, the lesson around developing compelling content has been this: Focus on the experience you’re delivering to your audience and how it makes them feel. Identify key creatives in your organization and ensure that they are active in cultivating the experience throughout the life of the project.

The problem with creative discovery is that it’s an unbound process that is also expensive, and when there’s a profit incentive costs must be monitored. That’s why the second major factor that goes into a successful production is the intelligent management of creative resources.

Intelligent management of creative resources

Though this tends to be an intuitive skill possessed by high-quality project managers and directors, it can be learned. If you have the luxury of assembling your creative team, then it starts with bringing on team members that:

  • Will contribute to team chemistry and morale
  • Are highly skilled at their discipline (be it an animator, 3D artist, etc.)
  • Make economic sense in relation to the budget of the project. The harsh truth is that if you don’t have a AAA budget, you won’t always get AAA talent, but you can always deliver a high quality production if you’re good at putting together teams with great social and functional chemistry.

That’s half the battle. Once the team is in place a good production leader will need:

  • The emotional intelligence to manage the day-to-day interactions between team members. This involves making sure project updates are communicated clearly and in a way that isn’t constantly interrupting the creative process. It also means being able to emphasize urgency when required (ex. during a crunch for a funding milestone) but in a way that doesn’t crush the team’s morale.
  • The strategic intelligence to know who should work on what, when and for how long. This is different from project to project and requires an understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of your individual team members.

It’s important to note that my experience is based on indie budgets. (Pixar’s three-minute shorts have larger budgets than feature-length government funded indie projects). Projects of this size often don’t have the creative freedom to re-invent themselves several times. You might get one shot at a redo at best. I’m sure that the major studios feel budgetary pressures as well, but for a lot of indie projects it can really be boom or bust if progress isn’t shepherded in a resource-efficient manner.

Managing this process without creating friction is an art in itself. If creativity is water then a good management style is like an aqueduct, allowing the water to flow to productive purposes. Bad production management is incessantly interruptive. Good production management creates processes and frameworks that guide the creative process in ways that both fulfill the business requirements of a project while introducing as little friction as possible. Doing this right is largely the result of how you approach working with creatives.

Creativity is a personality trait that is high-risk/high-reward. Creative people tend to be rebellious by nature. They do not follow orders blindly. They prefer to operate outside of the boundaries of assessment. This makes creative people particularly difficult to manage. Nonetheless, any great production management effort starts with complete reverence for the creatives and their process.

One practical approach is to empathize with the struggles of each creative discipline by making an effort to understand them. Producers should commit to constantly learning technical concepts relating to each of the disciplines on their team (programming, animation, modelling and texturing, etc.). The more context you have from each individuals creation process, the better you can communicate the project’s directive to the team, and the better you will be at cross-disciplinary coordination. For example: I’m currently learning programming fundamentals with JavaScript. I suck at it but it has helped me unlock a new level of understanding for working with my developers.

The Dual Essence of Creative Ventures

Both the creative soul and profit incentives of production must be kept in mind by all team members. The goal is to create a flow: a collaborative dynamic between those two energies instead of a combative dynamic. How do these two forces play nice together? Production leads have to keep both forces in mind at all times and manage expectations for stakeholders on each side.

Roles that are primarily creative should be supplied with production insight, and roles that are primarily administrative should have insight on the creative process. When your team members have a small share of contrasting insight, they are able to empathize with the primary directives of their other teammates. This helps create a forward moving energy between production requirements and creative requirements. Company culture plays a major role in developing these diametric empathies (but that’s a whole other article).

My goal is to write more practical approaches to production using this philosophical framework. As we continue to have the privilege of working on creative projects, the yin-yang of creative chaos and capitalistic order will be our North Star.

XR // Product // Other musings of the mind