Discover more from The Comma Project by Devin Baker
Are we more like A24 or Warner Bros.?
Are we Aftersun or Barbie? Are narrow, specific, and deep? Or broad, big, and mass-market? Do we go first? Or act as a bridge?
Howdy to the 72 of us, up from 69 last time. I’m so glad you’re here.
The algorithms have ears.
I was on a walk a couple days ago with my friend Jacob where we talked about an idea that sparked this piece - A24 or Warner Bros.? It was a kernel that felt interesting, like there was something more generalizable than just the movies they make. I wrote it down in my notes to come back to.
The next day,dropped a recommendation for a long-form piece on A24 into my inbox. An hour later, I find myself on the other side of ’s epic deep dive on A24’s world.
This essay isn’t (just) about movies and storytelling.
I believe A24 can teach us about the work we choose to do, especially when we think about their approach in comparison to the rest of their peers.
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Are we more like A24 or Warner Bros.?
We have a choice with our work.
Are we A24 or Warner Bros.?
Specific and deep or broad and mass-market?
Aftersun or Barbie?
Why are we creating the work we create? Who are we doing it for?
A24 emerged from the founders asking this question. A24 originated from a deep belief that specific, bold, and outlier points of view matter, and are too scarce. They believe “outlier auteurs,” as they call them, aren’t given opportunities to bring their visions to the screen in the traditional film industry. They believe these works and people should be celebrated, not shunned.points out that A24 believes that “amidst an increasingly homogeneous cultural landscape, projects with a genuine point of view could have an outsized impact.”
A24 zigs when the world zags.
We have the same opportunity in our work.
Scout or captain?
Do we choose to be the trailblazing scout, living and leading at the edge of our world, decisively ploughing a pointed, narrow, specific path that casts us deep into the thicket of the unknown? Do we commit to a direction, a specific and singular path into the unknown? Do we pursue it without abandon, striving to go far, and eventually invite others to come behind us? Do we take our leap, with all the risk that comes with it? Do we choose the risk of danger, of being wrong, of the isolation of the individual for the life of adventure of the scout?
Or do we choose to captain of the rest of the caravan that joins later, leading, but altogether in a different way? Do we await reports from the scouts that went ahead? Do we take feedback from the caravan behind to assert which singular path to take? Do we shoulder the responsibility for the caravan, serving the masses? Do we widen a trail that has already been blazed for us, delivering easier, better, safer? Do we choose the risk of disapproval, of disagreement, of misguiding others for the power and service of the captain?
Both are leaders, but in different ways.
A24 is the scout, venturing out, attempting to blaze the cultural trail that the rest of us follow. Going narrower, and deeper. More of an invitation than a decision.
This is the type of leader who goes first, invites the other outliers that see the world in the same way, and pulls them further along. They lead to bring a belief into the world - to pull the future into the present.
Warner Bros. is the captain, observing both the scouts ahead and the caravan behind, aiming to pick the path that best serves the masses. Going broader, with more people. More of a decision than an invitation.
This is the type of leader that acts as a bridge, serving others, bringing them across the chaos and uncertainty of change into a world that works just a bit better than the one they’re used to. They lead to bring others along the waves of inevitable change, and keep them from falling behind - to pull the present into the future.
Even if we’re not making movies, the question exists for us just the same. We must choose.
Joining a company? 5-person startup or Fortune 500?
Writing, podcasting, or vlogging? Pop culture for the everyperson or quilting for midwestern moms?
Freelance consulting? Novel TikTok content strategy or SEO optimization?
This means we must ask questions of ourselves. We must reflect on our values, personalities, and risk appetites. What do we need to solve for? What makes us feel most alive? We must explore the dynamics and consequences of these different approaches to work and life. We must explore what work is worth doing?
I’ve dedicated this year to act as scout.
How about you?
(As an aside, I believe we can switch roles throughout our lives. Scouts can become captains, and vice versa. I do believe, however, that excellent scouts can become effective captains more easily than excellent captains can become effective scouts. This is part of the reason I’m in self-led scout training - while being a scout aligns best with my energy and demeanor, I am also interested in captainship one day. I’m fascinated by leadership, and all flavors exert their pull on me. I hope to experience many.)
Excellence has different flavors
I must also be clear that I believe that quality and excellence is possible through either approach. Just because the A24 approach resonates with me today, it does not mean that a broad, scaled, mass-market approach can’t be done with excellence.
The world is loving Barbie. The Dark Knight, Interstellar, and Dune are some of my favorite movies from recent years. Hell, The Lord of the Rings trilogy even falls into this camp. All embody excellence.
They’re simply different. And different means personal, and subjective.
Depending on our answer to these questions, the implications for how we go about doing our work are different.
First, the overall potential for the number of people who engage with our work (i.e., our TAM) is different. As an A24/scout, it’s going to be smaller than as a Warner Bros./captain.
Tied to this concept of TAM or potential are those of risk profile and capital/resources.
For an A24/scout, risk (i.e., potential of failure) feels higher. With that in mind, the opportunity that risk presents (everything offers both costs and opportunities) is staying smaller and more nimble in pursuit of our bold, specific mission. Raising and deploying less resources (both capital and human) keeps our overall exposure to failure and loss in proportion to our chances of success.
This also means that there’s greater freedom and flexibility for experimentation. Small and nimble opens up the possibility for a greater number of experiments and iterations, which in fact contains and mitigates the overall risk of the project. If we have 10x the amount of shots on goal, our chances are much greater.
Additionally, one of the beautiful phenomena that capitalism and culture present us with (especially today, in our ever-more-networked world) is that of uncapped upside. Just like less risk, more capital, and more resources don’t guarantee mega success, more risk, less capital, and less resources don’t prohibit mega success. Disproportionate, asymmetric success does happen - and raising less capital/deploying less resources sets us up to really benefit in the event we are the beneficiaries of mega success.
For a Warner Bros./captain, the inverse of the above is true. Risk feels lower, which both warrants and attracts greater resources. Capital and humans are drawn to low risk with high potential reward. More capital and resources mean a larger, less nimble project with less margin for error - yet with more firepower for output. This enables attempts at certain projects that other, less-resourced groups can’t tackle.
Aspoints out in his briefing on A24, size determines strategy:
Because of their size, it makes little strategic sense for players like Paramount, Columbia, or Warner Bros. to invest $5 million into a small, speculative project that might pull in $30 million. This is why they focus their efforts on high-budget vehicles that have the potential to gross billions globally. To minimize the risk of this outlay, major studios have gravitated towards safe bets like sequels and reboots. Why bet on an unproven indie concept when you can disgorge another iteration of Fast and Furious?
There’s a reason I put more of the pragmatic, external factors second, behind the more emotional, intuitive, personal, internal ones. It’s because I believe that we must first think about work in terms of its impact on our internal humanity - our emotional and psychological world - before its impact on our external world.
Once again, this is simply a matter of preference. We mast take a look at ourselves, as well as the dynamics of the project, and choose.
Both approaches have their pros and cons, and it’s more for us to choose which one feels more aligned with who we are, and the lives we want to live.
We must choose between the different kinds of work, life, and leadership.
Which one is for you?
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