Film Analogy Friday: The Myth of the Montage

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One of the greatest cinema sins that frequently hurts an otherwise well written film is the montage.  A movie montage is the scene, typically between Act 2 and 3 of a film, where the film’s protagonist “trains” to a 3-minute high-energy song indicating that they are getting strong enough to overcome the final obstacle in Act 3.  The most famous of this is of course the Rocky Montage:

As fun as these scenes are, their ubiquity in modern film has affected society by providing a false sense of the determination needed for success.  The typical hero story arc used in 2-hour films requires that the protagonist often reaches extraordinary progress in only a few minutes.  They are either given this power through revelation (a.k.a. “You’re a Wizard Harry”) or they “work hard” for it over the course of a few cut scenes of intense training.  Though entertaining, I find it interesting that we do not more frequently discuss how this imagery of overnight success affects our sense of accomplishment.  With so many movies and TV shows using this trope, is it any wonder that we see society only desiring instant gratification?

In particular, I believe the montage (and its more specific offshoot, the “Creation Scene”) hurts innovation because it models to viewers that innovation is easy, individual based, and linearly progressive.  For example, here are some clips:

Tony Stark building an “Arc Reactor”

Mark Zuckerberg Creating the precursor to Facebook

Big Hero 6 – The Team Assembles

Now imagine being a young adult watching hundreds of films and television shows that repeat this theme.  The theme is clear – inventing and creating out of this world technology is something you (alone) can do in a day.  Now compare that to the real world of innovation.  Do you see why we may have developed a generation of people that want to “change the world” in six-months or less?

The reality of innovation (and success in general is three things):

It is not easy: If it were easy we would all be driving flying cars and listing to radio stations on Mars right now.  True innovation requires tireless work and rework, for a time far beyond the length of a movie montage. In addition, this effort is typically not encouraged by one’s organization, meaning the innovator must fuel their own willingness to put forth the effort.

It is not individual based: Tony Stark (Iron Man) is the patron saint of many an engineer, but his story is tremendously damaging to aspiring innovators because he provides the impression that a heroic engineer can spend an afternoon in their basement and develop technology far beyond what thousands of other researchers across the world could develop.  Even Elon Musk, who was the real-world inspiration for the film adaptation of Iron Man, relies on a team of engineers, designers, marketers, and ongoing technological developments beyond his companies to develop his (figuratively and literally) technology.

It is not linearly progressive: These montages give the impression that if someone is passionate and intelligent enough, all they need to do is head down to the lab and crank out a marathon invention session and at the end they will have a fresh new product.  As you well know this is rarely, if ever, the case.  These montages leave out all of the failed attempts, the budget reallocations, the split attention on other ongoing projects, the changes in staffing that upset the process workflow, the MBA manager that comes down to tell you to work on something else, and all of the other disruptions that negatively impact innovation progress in normal working conditions.

Clearly, these montages are used because few people want to spend two hours watching a group of people make incremental changes to better their organization. It is far easier to trumpet the herculean effort of a sole-operator driven on passion because it gives people a character they can identify with.

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However, the perpetuation of this fantasy is not without its costs. Montages create false expectations of progress and invention that stifles people’s desire to move forward even in the face of adversity.  In terms of the model, montages are only the top 20% of innovation (Chaos) and without discipline or collaboration, recreating montages in the real world is a fool’s errand.

Instead of celebrating the lone-wolf savant, we should be celebrating the accomplishments of true innovators – the leaders and groups that drive true improvements both within their organization and in the world.  The podcast How I Built This is rich with stories of true innovators and leaders and it does its best to not skimp on the less flashy details that are essential to true innovation.

If you have found yourself struggling with innovation because you think it should be easier, only require one person, or have resulted in progress by now remember – even Hollywood knows montages are ridiculous.

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