Thursday, March 12, 2009

Outsource Creativity? Surely You Jest.

I admit. I have been hearing a lot about Slumdog millionaire, mostly from word-of-mouth. Everyone seems to be humming Jai Ho (not knowing what it means is OK), and like an unemployment check, everyone has seen it or knows someone who has. Don’t have $10 for a movie ticket? Take heart. It will be out on video on March 31, and you can rent it from your favorite video store or on-line rental firm.

But that is not what caught my attention. What caught my attention was the low key coverage from the media before and after the Oscars. It was as if someone behind the scenes was pulling the strings for the movie to its Oscar glory. Could it be.. I thought. Nah… it couldn’t be. But let me tell you what went through my mind.

Back in the late ‘90s, story goes that the large cosmetics and fashion apparel companies were worried that the West was saturated with their products, profits were thin, and wanted to create new markets in the developing countries. But these countries had thousands of years old tradition of using natural herbs like turmeric, saffron and sandalwood for their cosmetics, and floral aroma for perfume. Something had to be done to get them interested in laboratory born, patent protected $500 an ounce perfumes and $100 a stick lip gloss. Their solution was….to crown Indian contestants in the beauty pageants like Miss World. A string of new Miss World winners, like the now movie star Aishwarya Rai (Pink Panther 2, The Last Legion…) came out of the mill and started peddling beauty products, and Presto! – a new cosmetics and perfume market was born.

So, why do I think something like that may be happening here?

Simple. Follow-the-money.

Let us first look at the cost. Slumdog millionaire cost $15 million to make. It may sound like a lot of money, but if you compare to big name actors like Branjalina, the Cruisemeister , Reese Witherspoon, all command around $20 million per movie, or sometimes a percentage of the take, this is cheap. An average Hollywood “A” movie costs around $100 mil. A high budget blockbuster costs around $200 mil. The other Oscar contender starring Brad Pitt, “….Benjamin Button”, cost $150 mil to make.

That is only half the story. Now, putting my MBA hat on, I looked at the returns, because every movie producer is looking to make a profit at the end of the day. Slumdog is on its way to grossing $300 mil worldwide, “Benjamin” crossed that mark and may end up with $400 mil. Let us do some quick math – for every dollar spent, Slumdog will have grossed $20, and Benjamin would have grossed $2.66. Even the biggest blockbuster of the year, the Dark Knight, made about a Billion dollars, and cost $185 million to make. That is a little over $5 gross per dollar spent. But Slumdog with $20 for every dollar spent? Even after deducting distribution costs and other expenses, this is an insane rate of return by any standards. It is an eye popping difference that will make even a dead Hollywood executive turn in his grave. So, despite all the political rhetoric about supporting “Made in America” things, I expect more Hollywood movies to be made outside the US.

But what about American creativity? Don’t our schools jealously guard our kid’s ability to be creative? What about all the music lessons, orchestra and band concerts? Don’t we have the most creative people in the world?

Well, we have been told we do. And I see the emphasis placed on it by the schools I deal with. But the giant sucking action of insane profits will lead creativity to be outsourced as well. Consider the fact that Danny Boyle, who some consider an eccentric British director who gave us the “Full Monty” and “Trainspotting”, picked up a few slum kids and paid them pittance and got Oscar worthy performance out of them. AR Rahman, who was totally unknown to the world outside India, composed the Oscar winning score in two weeks, for a fraction of the time and money that Hans Zimmer took for “Gladiator”.

So, yes, creativity can be outsourced – and I am betting that if business has its way, it will continue to be.

And please, stop calling me Surely.


concerned said...

I thought you might be interested in this chapter on the success of Direct Instruction in Project Follow Through.

Some may claim that it stifles creativity and individuality, but the evidence is clear.

So Why Didn't We Follow Through?

Sudhakar Kudva said...

Dear Concerned:

Thanks for the links. I was aware of the U of O study on Direct Instruction. The irony is that the educational establishment in Oregon does not support what the U of O researchers found. The other link is new to me, but not surprising. Having seen what can be accomplished with direct instruction in other countries, I continue to be baffled as to why we condemn our young to an education that fails to let them develop to their fullest potential. Every school district in the Pacific Northwest that I am aware of has gone through curriculum adoption processes that continue to result in lame, non challenging texts. I have tried private schools, but they are only marginally better for a lot more investment. The only solution I have found to work is home schooling. I use a variety of resources, including college text books where appropriate. But that leaves a lot of people who cannot afford to do so in a dilemma (they may not even realize how deep this problem is until their kids hit the workforce). I continue to be worried for the future of this nation.