Spiderman: Turn Off the [Tech]

28 Dec

What do Spiderman: Turn off the Dark and the Apple Newton have in common?

I’m sure the new broadway musical Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark will be pretty spectacular… uh, if it ever gets off the ground.  The show ‘is expected to involve more flying and special effects than any Broadway show in history [38], with actors and dancers swinging over the heads of audience members.’  (from NYTBut are these 38 stunts too ambitious?  Are they really necessary to wow the audience?

The show has been plagued by money woes, technical issues, and injuries; ‘production shut down for months in 2009 after the original set of producers could not raise the money to capitalize the show, which at the time was estimated to cost around $40 million’- now up to $65 million, making it the most expensive show in Broadway history. (from NYT) Technical delays and multiple injuries have pushed back the start date of the show nearly a year after its originally scheduled February 2010 date.

Ok, so a few problems, but if it’s stunning and new and will be great, that makes up for all the problems, right?  Ehhh… enter another worry, the reviews haven’t been great either.

Richard Lawson wrote for the Gawker:

“I’m inspired to write this because people keep getting hurt trying to make this thing work, and people keep buying tickets and then, when they are upset about the embarrassingly low quality of the show, they are being told in bitchy theater tones “It’s previews, give them time.” Well, I’m sorry, but they’ve had time. And they still can’t get their shit together. People are injuring themselves, tech is a mess, and while they struggle to figure all that out, they’re trotting out a dying turkey of a book and score and hoping that’ll suffice. They shouldn’t be charging money for tickets at this point. This thing is baaaad, guys. Really, really bad. And before you say it, this is not me trashing some ambitious can-do theater folks simply for their ambition. These are people spending tens of millions of dollars — you could do ten good, expensive shows with the money they’re spending — to create a commercial product that’s so cynical it seems to operate under the assumption that a good story is unnecessary so long as there’s neat-o flying. ” (full review here)

And Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News wrote:

“It wasn’t Gotterdammerung, but it was a thrill not unlike riding the Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island: An hour of anticipation for about 90 seconds of exhilaration. At least we didn’t have to stand in line. The many longueurs were significantly offset by two key elements — the visual design that includes George Tsypin’s inventive, perspective-skewing sets and Donald Holder’s fantastically variegated lighting, and the ferociously athletic choreography of Daniel Ezralow… [w]hat the team, which includes Glen Berger, co-author with Taymor of the book, has put together so far is hardly the worst show of all time. It is, however, an unfocused hodge-podge of story-telling, myth-making and spectacle that comes up short in every department.” (full review here)

Ouch.  Not exactly the type of reviews you want to hear after spending 9 years on development and $65 million dollars.  Which brings me to ask a truly audacious question: Is it really worth it?  Is the technicality of the show, costing so much money and causing so many injuries, detracting from the story (hmm…the 2nd act is reportedly not even finished) or even what the audience wants?  Not to step on creative toes- because I think the ambition and ideas are wonderful- but I think the technical elements of this show are ahead of current consumer demands.

Could Spiderman have pushed the ‘wow factor’ without pushing it this far- what would 25 stunts have done for the audience? Or even one or two really awe inspiring flying moments over the audience-  Spiderman would still have been the ‘first’ to bring this feature to Broadway!  Would more attention to the overall show-  the storyline , music, costumes, set, and technicality- have made for a better effort to ‘wow’ the audience?  Does the audience really care about the extra technicality- or do they care about the overall show?  I’ll all for pushing the envelope with ‘crazy’ and ‘new’ ideas- ask the big bossman in DC, who gets at least one ‘I was just thinking… or I had this really weird thought…’ email/phone call from me a week.  But I’m also all about trying to really understand what these ideas will do for our consumers- and how we can implement them giving current and emerging assets. I’m not saying that every idea I pitch to the big bossman is feasible- trust me, most are insane- but I’m not sure if the team behind Spiderman ever went through the  ‘we think this is a great idea, now how do we implement it to best serve our consumers’ gut check.  An idea can’t be truly great if it doesn’t meet consumer demand- and I think in Spiderman’s case, the technical elements have outpaced consumer demand, making a very ambitious, almost great, idea fall flat.

So how does Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark relate to the Apple Newton?  The Newton is another example of a very ambitious technology that wasn’t exactly an astounding success.  The Newton was  introduced in 1993 and was among the first PDAs, ‘[b]ut [d]espite its groundbreaking design, touchscreen with handwriting recognition, and internal modem add-on, the Newton’s $700 price tag and notoriously buggy software led to years of slow sales …Steve Jobs eventually axed the project after returning in 1997.’ (from Time, full article here)

Hmm, sound similar to Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark? Groundbreaking, pricey, and buggy.  But even though the technology wasn’t quite up to snuff at the time of its launch, and ahead of its time in terms of consumer demand, it did pave the way for oh, you know, those little devices called iPad/iPhone?  Apple smartly revisited the failed PDA- I’m assuming after lots of research about what consumers really wanted from a PDA and reintroduced an improved PDA along with the birth of the Internet- and bam! a success. (and since we all know what assumptions make out of you and me, please correct me if I’m wrong)  Consumer demand and technology were more equally matched, unlike when the Newton was first introduced, when consumer demand and the new technology weren’t quite in sync with each other.

I think we need to apply this filter to our thinking- with so many innovative, groundbreaking, and creative new technologies bursting onto the scene, it would be a shame if they were to fall flat because we haven’t done our research (oh gosh, that awful word again!) and ensured that consumer demand and need actually meets these great innovations in technology.  Because these technologies can be great- evidenced by Apple’s eventual success with PDAs- but only when consumers are ready for the advancements in technology.  Being ‘geeked’ by technology is certainly great for creativity and innovation, but on the revenue side, not so much.  Tech enthusiasts can’t just push these new technologies through the market, consumers need to be able to realize the full benefits of the new technology for a true success.

What are other examples of technological innovations that have been/are currently on the market but are perhaps not completely ready for consumer demand?  My thoughts immediately turn to 3D TV… what are your thoughts?

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2 Responses to “Spiderman: Turn Off the [Tech]”

  1. Robert Ortiz December 28, 2010 at 11:19 pm #

    Hello Allie,

    First I’d like to say I like what you have going on here. This blog as a whole and the recipe you’ve mixed together for this particular post (its by this post I’ve found your blog)

    You give quite a bit to consider. By endless affection does come my adoration for the meeting of these two roads, Spiderman: Out of the Dark and Apple Newton. I’m probably feeling what the first guy AFTER Reese’s felt when tasting chocolate and peanut butter together. Yet I do have some departures from your point to add here, and I hope you will consider them friendly all the same. (as I review what I’ve written its pretty much an antithetical position I take, though by no means adversarial)

    First is a reference to this very bold claim you’ve made: “An idea can’t be truly great if it doesn’t meet consumer demand…” This claim activates the watchdog in me, and I go scrounging through the annals of time for the most potent and relevant example controvertible to this claim. How about the greatness of Nikola Tesla’s idea for Alternating Current (A/C). No consumer demand at the time it was proposed. We’re a now century plus onward and its demand is ubiquitous. No one now could say otherwise towards A/C’s greatness, but was the idea not great at its inception? I would claim its greatness always was. Further, I will say this about the greatness of ideas:

    The measure of an idea’s greatness should always be determined by what it supplies. The demand? That’s for the marketing department to worry about and sales team’s job as well, but not the inventor/developer.

    So that’s one, Tesla’s electricity. Now to cross the line a little bit, what about Ideas of Creation concerning deity or deities, laws and codes, for which at the outset of there may not be a specific tangible “consumer demand”. Aren’t these ideas great? In fact, their supply seems to be a conception of greatness itself. And of course theocratic assemblies (like priests, mystics and evangelists) see to the demand.

    In the realm of science, Darwin’s Evolution theory for example, were not such theories great at the outset? For Evolution Theory, after it was developed, both Darwin and his academic followers (to this day) continue the advancement of the idea. The advancement itself creates the demand.

    Its a costly endeavor to blaze a trail through virgin wood. Much as it was for American pioneers stabbing westward with only a vague sense they were fulfilling some sort of manifest destiny.

    The folks producing this Spiderman musical, like pioneers and trailblazers, show greatness in their idea. They understand there is a pre-existing market out there somewhere, well-practiced in the consumption of all-things-superhero, and that to date this market has not been very well directed to stage theater.

    Now its true, the first wholly American genre in arts and letters is the comic book and there is 80 years-plus of quality, proven back-story and material to draw from. Spiderman is only one of the most popular characters, with nearly 50 years of storylines. Its theatrical production will draw in a completely untapped market of consumers, and this market can then be channeled toward future productions, cross-promoting other titles. A spectacular display, such as is being attempted, is probably meant to instill awe and appreciation in this targeted audience (who are a video game/DVD toting crowd). There may be revenue shortfall and budget over-expenditure on this particular production. But the bigger picture is being served if only at the expense of this initial foray. The tip of the spear sometimes gets blunted on the bone, nevertheless the heart of its target gets bled out just as well.

    Consider Newton Apple as case in point, where the advent of a new idea may seem to be more trouble than it was worth (standing close to the canvas), but when steping back and seeing the big picture the “high casualty rate” seems justified. Oh yes, the original PDA was clunky and faulty. But as it served towards its purpose in its protean way, the bigger picture was coming into focus—PDA’s were at least in the hands of the initial mass of guinea pig users (the first pledge class, if you will) and the trials that followed, uncovered by the end-users, established a dialogue between supplier and new-demander, and an evolution of the device took off and now we have iPhone, etc. And the cost to produce each new wave of upgrade and platform advance diminishes, the price remains roughly the same, and the market grows. Recipe for beaucoup bucks!

    There’s a thing about doctors I don’t like very much. Fresh out of med school and residency, they can hardly be said to know a thing about medicine (especially compared to colleagues 20 years in). But as they “practice on their patients” over the years, they build up through clinical trial a better and better mastery of human ailment and prescription. The 1st 10 years of patients are martyrs for the succeeding 20 years as the rise of medicinal prowess occurs within each doctor. The conceit of this example is inverted somewhere, whereby the demand is always fixed, but the supply improves over the years. It is an example how supplier uses demander to improve supply at demander’s cost and risk. (maybe this point is a little too tangential)

    Anyway, I’d say Apple must be looking now at its initial investment in the Newton and, while standing on the apex of its iPhone movement and surveying its kingdom, I imagine Apple’s thoughts/words to be something like this: yes, it was worth it.

    Yes, Apple Newton was a great idea 15 years ago before the demand existed. In fifteen years, Comic-book musical producers will likely be saying the same thing.

    -Robert

    • justallie December 29, 2010 at 10:19 pm #

      Hi Robert- Thanks so much for your thoughts- you certainly gave me quite a lot to think about! I’m going to stick to the technology aspect since that was the original intent of the post (but you certainly bring up some good points and perhaps I will have to revisit them!). I think we’re closer in agreement than disagreement when it comes to technology- from your original reply, ‘I’d say Apple must be looking now at its initial investment in the Newton and, while standing on the apex of its iPhone movement and surveying its kingdom, I imagine Apple’s thoughts/words to be something like this: yes, it was worth it. Yes, Apple Newton was a great idea 15 years ago before the demand existed.’ And from my original post, ‘But even though the technology wasn’t quite up to snuff at the time of its launch, and ahead of its time in terms of consumer demand, it did pave the way for oh, you know, those little devices called iPad/iPhone? Apple smartly revisited the failed PDA- I’m assuming after lots of research about what consumers really wanted from a PDA and reintroduced an improved PDA along with the birth of the Internet- and bam! a success. (and since we all know what assumptions make out of you and me, please correct me if I’m wrong) Consumer demand and technology were more equally matched, unlike when the Newton was first introduced, when consumer demand and the new technology weren’t quite in sync with each other.’

      I think the idea of greatness for me is when the consumer is able to see the greatness of the technology- with the Newton, the technology didn’t provide substantial enough benefits for the consumer, was buggy, and pricey- and the Newton didn’t have enough followers to make it sustainable. Until Apple changed the scope of the PDA to something consumers did want- the technology met demand and greatness was born. But yes, you’re right to correct me and say that the Newton was a great idea- because it paved the way for Apple to give consumers a product they really demanded.

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