The rate of change is faster than it ever has been, it’s been around for a long time. Interestingly there are some great lessons in history, of leveraging change. People and businesses who completely revolutionised themselves, their businesses and their markets when change came their way. And although we live in unprecedented times, we can learn from them.
A past example of change
Let’s head back to Hollywood in 1927 when the world changed dramatically forever. At a time when Hollywood was in its prime and produced more movies than any other time in history (up to 800 per year), stars like Rudolph Valentino and Mary Pickton were considered Gods and Saturday Matinees were more popular than YouTube.
In 1927, great change was afoot when ‘Talking Pictures’ arrived. A major technological disruption. For many, the advent of sound was a major upheaval which created imponderable challenges.
Film Studios were forced to build new sound ‘stages’, clunky and noisy cameras were of no further use, directors and technicians needed to re-think and re-invent camera movements, microphone placements, all to accommodate ‘talkies’ and the new technology required to create them.
Many actors were less fortunate – with heavy accents or trill voices some simply didn’t manage the transition from silent to sound and saw their careers abruptly end. Stars such as Agnes Ayers, Emil Jannings, and Gilbert Rowland, (don’t worry I hadn’t heard of any of them either which just reinforces my case) saw their careers tumble from beneath them.
The advent of sound changed the Movie industry forever and with it the lives and careers of many. Some adapted got creative and thrived, whilst others didn’t.
Ignoring the opportunity of change
Take Charlie Chaplin. Now there’s a name you would have heard of. Chaplin was a Hollywood God. He entertained millions and influenced countless stars and actors (in fact still does). He brought vaudeville to Hollywood, co-founded United Artists, and is, without doubt, still considered one the Hollywood greats.
But Chaplin refused to have his ‘little tramp’ character talk. Of sound in movies, he said ‘action is more generally understood than words’. Chaplin obviously thought having the tramp speak would undermine and detract from his endearing, pantomime character. And who’s going to argue with that! Even though he added musical tracks to films such as ‘City Lights’ he only ever briefly spoke once in ‘The Great Dictator’ when he mocked Hitler.
No one would argue the legacy he left behind. Chaplin is synonymous with silent film. And there lies the rub.
The tramp didn’t or couldn’t make the transition from silent to sound. Chaplin failed to fully adapt to the ‘talkies’ and create an opportunity from them. He made countless films before the advent of sound but only a handful afterward.
Leveraging change – an example
In contrast, let’s look at someone who saw the dawn of sound not as a hurdle but as an opportunity and turned it to his advantage
In 1928, only a year after sound arrived, a small mouse made his debut in the world’s first talking cartoon ‘Steam Boat Willie’ and stunned the movie world and audiences alike. With Steam Boat Willies – Walt Disney had truly arrived. He saw an opportunity in sound and went with it.
And it wasn’t a once-off – Disney had a knack for sensing change, getting creative and turning it to his advantage.
In the 1950s, when another enormous change rocked Hollywood and the world forever – television, once again Disney was there ready to take advantage. Television, some said, would destroy the movie industry – why would people go see films when they could watch shows in their own home? But as one of Hollywood’s leading studios, Disney didn’t see television as a threat – he saw it as an opportunity to be used to his advantage.
Thinking differently to everyone else Disney had an idea. At the time he was creating ‘Disneyland’ and needed capital to get it up and running – he saw TV as a fundraiser and also as a promotional tool for his new project. Having done a deal with a major network, he provided an exclusive weekly show called ‘Disneyland’ and got the funding he needed. At the same time, as viewers all over America tuned in to watch, Disney would show them snippets of the park being built, exciting his potential guests.
Leveraging change is a game of inches
Talking pictures and the advent of Television were two quantum leaps beyond the control of most people in Hollywood. Some survived and some didn’t, some saw change as opportunity, got creative and took control.
What’s interesting is that Disney, as revolutionary as he was, didn’t invent talking pictures and he didn’t invent television, he adapted to them. A small change here, and evolution there. You don’t need to make a quantum leap or reinvent everything you do to be an innovative giant. It happens in step at a time.
In 2020 we live in radically changing and disruptive times. The question is how you will deal with it. Do you hide our head in the sand or will you see the opportunities it presents? Will you be Charlie Chaplin or Walt Disney?
Disney’s World -Leonard Mosley Scarborough House 1990
The Man Behind the Magic, The Story of Walt Disney – Katherine and Richard Greene, Viking 1991
Film History of the 1920’s – Tim Dirks Filmsite.org
The Great Chaplin, moderntimes.com
The Worlds Great Movie Stars, – Ken Wlaschin, Salamander, 1979