January 28, 2023

With the release of Steven Spielberg’s newest film, The Fabelmans, I recalled a presentation I made at the first Copywriter Club event in 2018 (they have done many since) …where I tried to equate Spielberg’s career to how copywriters should look at their own careers.

And marketers too.

I remember the speech being a bit disjointed…as many of my appearances on stage, in podcasts (and in these blog posts) often are…I am always a tangent ready to happen. 🙂

But the thesis I was trying to prove came full circle (and was completely consistent) with Spielberg’s recent blockbuster, and one of the favorites for Best Picture at the Academy Awards (which we will know about very soon).

Whether it gets the award or not–and whether my presentation about Spielberg’s career was disjointed or not –that he waited to create The Fabelmans, which is as close to an autobiography as he has ever made, at age 76, is both perfect and profound.

While the themes from his entire filmography match many of the themes of this latest film, The Fabelmans brought them home with a crescendo.

With nothing left to prove, he showed us everything that made him one of the most prolific filmmakers who has ever lived…after almost 50 years of making movies.

Spielberg really came on the scene in 1975 (although his first film was in 1974).

His first film with major distribution was about a shark—and he broke all box office records at the time–which caused many to ask, “Who is this flash in the pan?”

Side note to the copywriters, storytellers and marketers reading this:

Don’t you think it was cool that the most terrifying scenes in Jaws were the ones when no one sees the shark?

And how long it takes to see him for the first time?

Of course, the shark eventually shows up…which is also terrifying.

I looked up when the shark first appears and got this surprising piece of trivia from The Google:

The shark doesn’t fully appear in a shot until 1 hour and 21 minutes into the two-hour film. The reason it isn’t shown is because the mechanical shark that was built rarely worked during filming, so Spielberg had to create inventive ways…to shoot around the non-functional shark.

Technological failure, leading to maximum anticipated terror, leaving it to the viewer’s imagination how big or ferocious the shark is,  for two-thirds of an edge-of-the-seat thriller, is one of the most compelling things about Jaws.

Spielberg still gets credit for that despite the shark’s malfunction.

And we all got a lesson in how to keep our audiences on the edge of their seats. 🙂

One of my favorite lines from Jaws is when Richard Dreyfus repeats twice, while examining the remains of Jaws’ first victim:

“This is not a boat accident.”

Steven Spielberg becoming one of the best filmmakers of all time?

That was no accident either.

Shortly before coming up with my presentation for The Copywriter Club, I watched a documentary simply called Spielberg—I highly recommend it—and it made me think about a core premise that we talk about (and teach each other) often:

The importance of going a mile deep, with mastery, before you can go a mile wide effectively, also with mastery.

We have mostly talked about this as it pertains to copywriters—mastering a niche (hopefully one where there is significant passion or knowledge or experience present)—and branching out from there.

This core concept seems to apply to entrepreneurs and marketers of all shapes and sizes too…and now filmmakers.

We can’t become experts in everything overnight.

So why not begin being immersed in things we know a lot about, have something significant to share, and can make a real difference (with impact) with as many people as possible?

Rather than “working on what comes along and seeing what happens.”

Whenever a new copywriter writes to me or asks inside Titans Xcelerator during one of our interactive monthly calls, “How can I get a steady stream of clients?” my first question is, “What can you write about with more conviction and personal experience than anyone else in the world?”

Obviously it may be an impossible question to answer…but it’s a start…and way better than the writer becoming stuck in a string of assignments from anyone that comes along and failing miserably (unless they are a prodigy or Gene Schwartz). 🙂

After Jaws, Spielberg proved he was no flash in the pan when he continued to astound the film industry with two more blockbuster films, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T.

Studying those two films, along with Jaws, we might be fooled into thinking that what Spielberg had done with his early successes was a new form of populist filmmaking; or maybe he was just good at adventure, fantasy, and science fiction.

That’s what it looks like on the surface–but the mammoth success of those three films deserves more thoughtful examination.

How could someone so young break through so quickly with three monster hits right out of the gate?

What I found out in the documentary was that he was exploring a topic he was an expert in from his childhood…and those three films were vehicles to express his expertise and all had observed (and learned) in his life up until that time.

Spielberg’s childhood had unfortunately made him too familiar with issues of broken families, loss, bullying…and ultimately, loneliness.

When you re-watch Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T., watch through that lens and you will see how Spielberg was going deep on issues he knew a lot about in addition to keeping us spellbound with incredible storytelling.

The next step was obvious because success leaves clues…and leads to confidence.

Which could be a good thing…or not.

Spielberg experimented with some of his next films (i.e., he went wider with subject matter and styles earlier than he had planned), maybe a bit prematurely for some audiences.

He felt he was ready to do a big budget, satirical comedy (1941, actually made before E.T.) and a drama about a culture where he had no experience or context (The Color Purple) …and while I think both of those films have a lot to offer within their genres, the critics didn’t agree.

They generally disliked both films.

Many even told Spielberg to “get back in his box” I assume because these experiments were not in the core competence Spielberg had explored to date.

What box though?

Populist films about adventure, fantasy, and science fiction?

Films about isolation and loneliness?

Looking back, it’s an interesting analysis of one of the greatest directors of all time and his path to success.

And I’m sure you’re wondering:

What does all of this have to do with success in direct marketing, copywriting, stroytelling, or business (beyond not showing the shark in Jaws for an hour and a half)?

I hope you see a connection.

It’s that even the best-of-the-best venture wide “too soon”…or before they have gone deep enough to master their craft (or even become a category of one in their niche).

It is not a bad thing to stray a bit early in one’s career, since mastery takes decades for most people (i.e., there is nothing wrong with experimenting and trying things outside your core competence).

But be prepared for some hard lessons…and some haters.

In marketing and copywriting, be prepared to get knocked down from any lofty perch you might achieve early and often in your career.

Remember, we win or we learn…we never “lose” …but it can still be painful no matter where you are on the success ladder.

Two quick examples:  One that I experienced in my career; and one from one of the most successful copywriters of all time:

  • If you read “The biggest mistakes of my career: Part One,” you’ll learn that even after almost 25 years in direct response marketing, I thought I had mastered a new medium that few master…only to learn that I was far from a master…and basically a “three hit wonder.” And I read my press clippings way too early.
  • Jim Rutz, “The Copywriter Closest to God,” once he became one of the most sought after writers in the world, was willing to take huge risks…which led to some of the biggest successes in the history of direct mail…and also some of the worst response rates ever seen as well. He was not typical because most of his fellow A-Listers played it safer…with a “higher floor” (i.e., their losers were never BIG losers) …but Jim knew that without going off the rails once in a while, and risking a much lower floor, he couldn’t get to those amazing successes. His philosophy: A loser is a loser anyway…I won’t be collecting royalties on those losers regardless…and there are no big gains without some big losses (and risks).

Regardless of how you play it during your career, nothing replaces being competent at the highest level in your genius zone first…which will then give you the tools you need to venture out with the highest level of confidence when you start going wider.

I hope that you can appreciate how one of the greatest ever in his field (Spielberg) suffered when some of his experimentation may have been premature…only to become became bigger and stronger for all that suffering.

I find it inspiring…because his story doesn’t end with 1941 and The Color Purple. Far from it.

One topic he always wanted to tackle was a film about The Holocaust—to honor his Jewish roots (and much more).

But he questioned whether he was up to the challenge.

After his early successes in the late 70’s and early 80’s, he jumped back into his core competency with more films about “family and loss”—but also populist (like the sequels to Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hook)—and experimenting with something more epic, but still on his core theme of family and loss, Empire of the Sun.

Then in 1993 it all came together (18 years after the one about a shark):

He made both Jurassic Park (the one about dinosaurs) and Schindler’s List (the film he always wanted to do about The Holocaust) in the same year.

Those films could be dubbed, “most likely to not play in the same double feature.”

But they are representative of a career that reached a pinnacle based on going deep to be able to go wide.

Note that I said “a pinnacle” …and without mangling the meaning of pinnacle (which is “the most successful point or culmination”), there was another pinnacle to come…with The Fabelmans, almost 30 years after Schindler’s List.

One thing Spielberg talks about in the documentary regarding the making of Schindler’s List is particularly fascinating.

That is, with all his success and all the state-of-the-art techniques he had learned in his career up until that point (camera movement, special effects etc.), he filmed Schindler’s List in black and white with few advanced techniques, often using hand held cameras and long single shots for a more lifelike feel.

Now there’s a guy who learned the rules like a pro to break them like an artist.

Schindler’s List became his most critically acclaimed film letting all the critics know that he was out of his box…for good.

Although he had studied Judaism and The Holocaust extensively throughout his life, doing something that could be the ultimate tribute to the 6 million Jews lost in history’s definition of evil seemed bigger than his head…until 1993 that is.

The rest of his filmography is as wide as the Grand Canyon…but to go that wide he had to go deep first.

And then there is The Fabelmans, a poignant and profound story about a young aspiring filmmaker who experiences a broken family, loss, bullying, loneliness, and isolation.

I wonder where he got that idea from? 🙂



P.S. One of the members of my Titans Xcelerator mastermind posted a piece in our private Facebook group from The NewYork Times with the headline:

“Everyone Wants Your Email Address. Think Twice Before Sharing It.”

It’s about tech companies creating what the author calls a “digital bread crumb” to do a lot more than send a friendly blog/email every Sunday.

And because I don’t want any of you to get nervous that I might actually try to sell you something in this P.S. (G-D forbid I should make an offer that could advance your direct marketing education) I will now drop the mic. 🙂

About the author 

Brian Kurtz

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