Gamasutra draws a comparison I'd never considered before:
The challenge facing all creative media businesses today is to establish a system that balances their creativity alongside productivity ...
What I went looking for were companies that sustained commercial success over a long period using different teams and entirely new concepts – not just more of the same – and yet still managed to create works of long-term artistic merit. There are two absolute crackers: Motown Records and Pixar Animation Studios.
[Motown] delivered over 110 top tens in a ten year period - that's almost one a month: for an entire decade!
Berry Gordy, Motown's founder, applied the same principle of quality to every aspect of the production process. He used dedicated songwriters. He brought in the best local musicians for recordings rather than the artists themselves. He created ‘artist development’ to coach his young stars on how to act, behave and present themselves.
Better yet, he held regular weekly meetings to review all of the tracks being worked on and to assess them against the current top five. Any song which he felt wasn’t up to scratch, or wouldn’t be received well in the charts, was sent back for more work ...
And how does Pixar compare to this? I think we can see the similarities, can't we?
Ten movies in just over a decade, grossing more than $2.5 billion, giving them the industry’s highest average.
Pixar’s approach highlights another key aspect of a successful ‘creative assembly line’: it’s not about the original idea - it’s all about the people and the process. Ed Catmull, who’s now the president of Disney-Pixar, encapsulates it very neatly: "If you give a good idea to a mediocre team they will screw it up; if you give a mediocre idea to a great team they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something that works." ...
The thing of it is, there are no original ideas, only old stories told in new and audience-grabbing ways. Is Wall-E something nobody has never seen before? Uh, no. Not if you've watched various space operas that have been produced for the silver screen over the last .... oh ... seventy years. The Wallster draws bits and pieces from a lot of them. But the little robot's creators hammer together something fresh and zestful in the process.
Shakespeare didn't concoct his plays out of whole cloth, he rewrote old plots that had been lying around in other people's manuscripts and made them his own. It was the music he put into his new works that made them endure. The storylines had mold on them when he used them back in the sixteenth century, he just spiffed them up.
In the 20th Century, the iconic Casablanca was constructed from a rickety, unproduced play entitled Everybody Comes to Rick's. Some Warner Broos. writers, in fact, thought it was downright sucky, and said so:
I do not like the play at all, Hal. I don't believe the story or the characters. Its main situation and the basic relations of the principals are completely censorable, and messy, its big moment is sheer hokum melodrama of the J. Phillips Oppenheim variety, and this guy Rick is two-parts Hemingway, one-par Scott Fitzgerald, and a dash of cafe Christ ...
Despite this internal studio derision, Hal Wallis, Michael Curtiz, Howard Koch and the Epstein brothers used movie alchemy to turn copper into gold, and the rest is Turner Classic Movies.
But I think the examples and lessons above are reasonably clear: It isn't the subject matter; it isn't even the "originality." It's the talent of the crew to turn steel wool into spun silver, of making the dialogue crackle and the plot twist and turn in compelling,unexpected directions on its way to the Third Act. It's the ability to make characters -- even slighty cliched one -- connect with five and fifteen and fifty-year-olds.
Pixar, and once upon a time Motown, had the game plan and game players to accomplish these things. No doubt there will be others that will, sooner or later, come trundling down the pike.
But originality has little to do with it. Execution, as Gamasutra points out, is far more important.