michael naimark

EMERGEncy 1.5
published by www.creativedisturbance.com


Leash Length

Michael Naimark


David Liddle, my former boss at Interval Research, was fond of saying, "If you think you’re doing research and you’re batting a thousand, you’re not. You’re doing development in disguise." He believed that research requires risk, and risk results in failure every now and then.

When I joined Interval back then in 1992, it was my first fulltime job as an adult, having spent the prior twelve years as a proud and stubborn independent media artist. Friends would ask me how things were going with my employment. I’d often say that if I were on a leash, it was a long one; and I had yet to feel the end, or to get tugged back. This was itself incredible: in the name of my job, I visited spy stores, juried art shows in Moscow, and took 500 pounds of film gear to Timbuktu, Mali.

Such opportunities are rare in the world of research or art, and for them I’m grateful, but I also believe the net value was positive. We received a patent as a result of the Timbuktu work, for example. A major reason I got away with such behavior was because these were among the smallest projects at Interval, in terms of budget and resources. It’s not that nobody cared, it’s that the degree of care was ultimately related to resource allocation. Long leash, small budget. Short leash, big budget. Sounds perfectly sensible, but often it isn’t the case. I’ve been associated with thousand dollar projects and with million dollar projects, and I cannot say the payoff has been proportional.

Around 1990, IBM realized that it had to get involved in what it saw as an emerging multimedia industry. Though executives admitted they didn’t know how to proceed, they ended up spending well over $10 million on a single project, a multimedia "epic" on Columbus for the 500th anniversary of his landing in America. In the end, it was considered a disaster. During that same period, dozens, possibly hundreds, of artists and independent producers were experimenting with multimedia, using tools like the Macintosh and HyperCard. If IBM didn’t know what to do, then why did they burn all their multimedia dollars on a single project rather than supporting smaller parallel efforts? There is little question that they would have ended up in better shape. Similarly, Philips NV launched a larger, longer effort to produce and promote their interactive video format called CD-I. After almost a decade, and over a billion dollars, they finally gave up.

Ironically, Hollywood understands the trade-off between leash length and budget size, and usually opts for very short leashes and very big budgets. Such films are designed for safety, using techniques like surveys, focus groups, and plenty of hype to minimize risks. Some companies have a two-tier system to separate shorter leash/bigger budget productions from longer leash/smaller budget productions, such as Disney and Touchstone, or Sony Pictures and Sony Picture Classics. (If they want to capitalize on truly long leash movies, they go to Sundance and find them after the risk has been taken.)

Long leashes and big budgets (very well-funded experiments, for example) have a common pitfall. Cool new additions, enhancements, and features can topple a project if unchecked. The temptation to just keep adding and adding can be overwhelming, especially if the money’s there. Meanwhile, deadlines get ignored; communications and management become inefficient; and frugality and resourcefulness go out the window.

Most artists I know don’t have such problems, out of necessity, because art projects are usually under-funded and almost never over-funded. Doing things on the cheap is often a source of pride. Otto Piene once called artists "economists of means." Of course, too little money can kill a project too. But the difference between a failed under-funded project and a failed over-funded project, all things being equal, is a lot of wasted money.

Now that we’re coming out of the dot-com cloud, we can pose the question, Why were so many risky start-ups funded so royally? The venture money was looking for grand slams rather than base hits. Indeed, there were grand slams, but now that the cloud has cleared, we can see that these were the exceptions rather than the rules.

The kind of grand slams I respect most start with modest resources, whether it’s artists in the studio or engineers in the garage. They are connected to their work. As their vision becomes clearer, confidence builds and risks decrease. Projects grow organically.

Maybe we’re all good for one big and risky success in life, a long leash and a big budget turning out well. But when success like this happens more than once, perhaps what seems like risk is only safety in disguise.