Think Like a Film Editor

Enjoy The Work Blog Post. Think Like A Film Editor.

The director’s cut of Gladiator was 171 minutes.

The theatrical cut was 155 minutes.

The director’s cut of Apocalypse Now was 202 minutes.

The theatrical cut was 153 minutes.

And just so you don’t think this pattern is limited to action epics, the director’s cut of 1989 award-winner Cinema Paradiso was 155 minutes long, a full 23 minutes longer than the theatrical version.

Here is my hypothesis — without those cuts, many of us would not wax quite so poetic on those famous films.

I had this chat with a dear friend who has been developing and producing movies for nearly 20 years.

“If artistic control rested solely with directors, I’m not sure these movies would ever end.”

My favorite (aka most hated) example is the last 20 minutes of Lord of the Rings — Return of the King. Ask any LOTR fan, and they’ll say the same thing; that ending should’ve been left on the cutting room floor.

“Directors are loathed to cut any part of their precious creation. They care more about the footage they slaved over than the audience’s preferences.”

It was a fascinating discussion. The gist simply is that filmmakers care so much about their art that they can lose sight of those they hope to entertain. The parallels to startup life are uncanny.

Ultimately, the founder’s goal is to identify a pain in the world, build an organization and solution to address that pain, and then find the most efficient (and profitable) means for delivering that experience to their target customer. In pursuit of that objective, companies will build all sorts of stuff. They will storyboard, gather user feedback, prototype, and deploy countless products and features. It’s hard not to get attached.

My assertion though, is that getting too attached means forcing your audience to lose precious minutes of their life watching Gandalf place a crown on Aragorn’s head.

— One particular company in our portfolio came to mind as I had this discussion.

The back story is that for 2 years, this talented CEO relentlessly studied her target market. She and her co-founders did hundreds of interviews, storyboarded solutions, and ultimately produced an MVP. They ran a tightly controlled beta program with a small number of target users, captured both quantitative and qualitative feedback, and comprehensively mapped the full platform.

They raised a small seed round, hired engineers, and built their dream solution. Then a funny thing happened (not haha funny, mind you). The business didn’t take off. They tried everything — from changing marketing programs to the customer onboarding experience to adding new features. They got on the phone with every user possible but no amount of tweaks seemed to shift the numbers.

The team was at a loss — the pain was clear, the audience was well-understood and the platform met every one of the key requests from users. Then the founders asked a couple of different and profound questions —  “Are we too in love with our own platform? Have we lost sight of what matters most to our audience in pursuit of trying to solve everything for them?”

What happened next is a lesson for all those founders out there with platforms and products of which they’re proud but for which the market’s reaction is underwhelming.

The director cut her footage.

The team systematically downsized the product to just try and solve the target audience’s single most important (and consistently) raised pain. They ignored the second, third, and tenth feature requests, dramatically reduced the level of effort required for a new user to engage, and went back out to market with a simplified story.

In other words, they released their own theatrical cut.

And it’s working. This story is fresh, and this shift was made just in the last few weeks, but the early market response is unmistakable. Customers are signing up, the marketing messaging is clearer, and the product work is far more focused.

So — for the founders out there who are perhaps a bit too in love with their own over-engineered solutions and unwilling to face the prospect that lack of market adoption is a problem of their own making, here is a fresh reminder that a longer movie does not always mean a better one.

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