When the most prolific filmmaker of a generation came on the scene in 1975 with his first film that had major distribution—it was about a shark—he broke all box office records at the time, which caused many to ask, “Who is this flash in the pan named Steven Spielberg?”
Side note to the copywriters and storytellers reading this: Don’t you think it was cool that the most terrifying scenes inJaws were the ones when no one even sees the shark? There’s a lesson there in itself but as usual, I digress.
Simply put, with the release of Jaws, it was obvious that Steven Spielberg was ahead of his time.
One of my favorite lines from Jaws is when Richard Dreyfus repeats twice, while examining the remains of one of Jaws’ early victims:
“This is not a boat accident.”
Steven Spielberg becoming one of the best ever?
That was no accident either.
I just watched the new documentarySpielberg—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 and 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.
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.”
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 simplistic form of populist filmmaking; or maybe he was just good at adventure, fantasy and science fiction.
That’s what it looks likes on the surface–but the mammoth success of those three films deserves a more thoughtful explanation.
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 actually exploring a topic he was an expert in from his childhood and the three films were vehicles to express his expertise and all had observed (and learned) in his life at that time.
Spielberg’s childhood had unfortunately made him too familiar with the issues of “broken families” and “loss” and “bullying.”
When you re-watch Jaws, Close Encounters and E.T., watch with 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. Success breeds confidence…a good thing…and Spielberg then “experimented” with some of his next films (i.e. he went wider with subject matter and styles earlier than he had planned).
His attempts at doing a satirical comedy (1941) and a drama about a culture where he had no experience or context (The Color Purple) were not his sweet spot.
I enjoyed 1941 and The Color Purple way more than the critics did…they generally disliked both films.
And as you might remember, many told Spielberg to “get back in his box.”
What box though?
Populist films about adventure, fantasy and science fiction?
Films about broken families and loss and bullies?
Looking back it’s an interesting analysis of one of the greatest directors of all time and his path to success.
What does all of this have to do with success in direct marketing, copywriting or business?
I hope you see some connection.
It’s that even the best of the best sometimes venture wide “too soon” or before they have gone deep enough to master their craft or become a category of one in their niche.
It is not a bad thing to stray a bit early on since mastery takes decades for most people—i.e. there’s nothing wrong with experimenting and trying things outside your core competence—but be prepared for the haters.
And 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 nothing replaces being competent at the highest level in your genius zone first which will the give you the tools you need to venture out with the highest level of confidence when you start going wider.
Without growth life isn’t worth living…so keep growing always…and I hope that seeing how one of greatest ever in his field suffered when some of his experimentation was premature, and only became bigger and stronger for all that suffering, inspires you.
It’s OK to suffer a little…but don’t let the suffering stop you.
This path made Spielberg stronger in the long run since he didn’t let the failure (i.e. “learning”) from non-blockbusters stop him.
Think about the copywriter who masters a niche, say in the health category…and then tries his or her hand in finance (or something completely different than health)…and all of a sudden the orders and responses are not pouring in.
Next step for that copywriter: Keep researching “the other niche” but also go back and write a bunch more control packages in health.
Venture wide carefully while digging even deeper in your core competence.
Back to Spielberg: One thing he always thought he wanted to do, even early on, was a film about the Holocaust—to honor his Jewish roots.
But he questioned whether he was up to the task and if he would ever be “ready” to tackle such a subject.
After the 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 andHook)—and experimenting with something more epic, but still on his core theme of family and loss (e.g. 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 are not the most likely films to 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.
One thing Spielberg talks about in the documentary regarding the making ofSchindler’s List is particularly fascinating.
That is, with all of his success to that point, and all of 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 and used very few state-of-the-art techniques with the filming, often using hand held cameras for the most lifelike feel.
Now there’s a guy who learned the rules like a pro to break them like an artist.
And Schindler’s List became his most critically acclaimed film letting all the critics know that he was out of his box…for good.
The rest of his filmography is as wide as the Grand Canyon…but to go that wide he had to go deep first.
I spoke to a group of skilled and aspiring copywriters this past week and used the career of Steven Spielberg to encourage them to master their craft first before putting themselves out there as “copywriters who can write about anything.”
Yes, they should experiment…and fail…but they should never forget what they learn as they go a mile deep (hopefully in an area or category where they have lots of experience and passion).
That is the formula to be most prepared to go a mile wide with confidence when they are ready…and experience the most success possible.
P.S. At the “The Copywriter Club” conference where I spoke, I was amazed how many of the speakers referred to Gene Schwartz in their comments…some of the speakers had been around for a while but what was astounding was how many of the younger copywriters and marketers had studied Schwartz too.
I gifted The Brilliance Breakthrough: How To Talk And Write So That People Will Never Forget You (with the exclusive workbook that comes with it) to all of the paid attendees because Gene’s classic is about going deep (with your writing) before you can go wide. I wanted them all to own it.
Breakthrough Advertising is Gene’s “advanced text” which many of the seasoned writers in the room…and some beginners too…had also read and studied. That was very rewarding to hear.
If you want to add either or both of these essential books to your library…they are for marketers, copywriters…anyone who wants to write or bring their vision to the world more powerfully…please order by clicking on the titles above.