Virtual collaboration can use film industry techniques too

For example the “High Concept” technique

In another article I introduced an excellent paper from the London School of Economics which proposed a number of areas where virtual teams and virtual networks could learn from the film industry.

Ted Goranson, in his excellent book, “The Agile Virtual Enterprise” believes that one of the key strategic techniques used within the film industry known as High Concept could also be invaluable in virtual collaboration.

In simplistic terms High Concept is a technique for communicating quickly the very essence of a film (or project) in a way which works effectively with a disparate body of people all from different backgrounds.

Ted concludes

“We found that the formation and operation of the virtual enterprise was more agile when a good High Concept for the product existed”

High Concept (as decribed in The Agile Virtual Enterprise)

Movie production is an agile, flexible industry in which projects go from idea to production in weeks. When the project gets a green light, hundreds of small firms and individuals quickly get up to speed. Most participants get a “piece of the action” in addition to salaries and are contracted with simple letters of agreement. There is high reliance on trust and standards. Powerful talent agencies became the equivalent of project information managers, brokering deals by assembling specialist teams—actors, directors, writers, and technicians—and packaging them for investors and financiers.

High Concept appeared in the mid-1970s and utterly dominated the U.S. film industry for a while, and is still prevalent. A High Concept film is one that is based on a succinct and detailed description of the product, including all features of the product that would be valued by a customer. Movie products are complex, involving several exhibition modes of the film (theatre, TV, video tape, U.S. and foreign distribution), as well as associated music, book, toys, theme rides, etc. High Concept is so named because it ties all elements across these media and all elements within the product (story, stars, and such) into one clear statement of philosophy and style.

The underlying assumption is that the customer's need can be tersely, understandably, and logically characterized; that is, modelled. That understanding, however broad and involved, has a simple core, which by itself covers all the important element of the project.

To quote Steven Spielberg: "I like ideas, especially movie ideas, that you can hold in your hand. If a person can tell me the idea in twenty-five words or less, it's going to make a pretty good movie”. The conventional wisdom is that a High Concept film is a stupid film, catering to a feeble, low-brow common denominator. But this isn't necessarily so. Jurassic Park is no more a high concept film than Schindler's List.

The notion of High Concept is thoroughly studied in film schools, and consistently practiced by producers, who are organizers of the virtual enterprise. it's also considered difficult to master.

To repeat: Everyone in the industry understands High Concept as a way of modelling the customer's need/desires; managing constraints and coordinating a coherent, understandable response.

It's considered a device for marketing, with the emphasis on the link between the prime contractor (meaning the producer) and the customer. It also helps a prime contractor understand its core competencies and special strengths; the kinds of films a studio plans are often described in High Concept terms. In other words, it is a description of a strategy to reach customers in terms understandable to the customers, which the producers use to form a profitable link with the customers.

A High Concept description is succinct; for instance, Flashdance was a “Rocky for Women”. Almost always the description builds on prior experience, and familiarity with the precedents is culturally necessary for membership in the community. However, masters of High Concept develop the description to an arbitrarily deep level, with specific tailoring for each of the major disciplines involved.

One can clearly see a simple reflection of High Concept in the current fad for mission statements, which firms use to describe themselves to their investors and stockholders. It's small potatoes compared to how well developed and fluid High Concept is in films, but the same idea.

Working with the movie people, we think we have helped uncover an unacknowledged but perhaps critical role of High Concept in another link: the culturally-based relationship among the prime contractor and its subcontractors in forming the virtual enterprise. Studios currently use the packet-unit system of production which essentially means that for every picture, a new virtual enterprise is created.

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