Who Gets the Irving Thalberg Award?

by Britton Manasco | Jun 22, 2009 | Thought Leadership

The Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award is presented periodically at the Academy Awards ceremonies to "creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production."

Irving-thalberg 2 The award is named for the legendary head of the Production Division of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, who developed the company's reputation for sophisticated and successful films. Past recipients have included Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Alfred Hitchcock and Walt Disney.

What intrigues me about Thalberg was his gift for transformative action. Indeed, he took extraordinary steps at MGM to turn what was then a craft business ruled by idiosyncratic, tyrannical and  self-absorbed directors into a powerful and profitable industry that would dazzle us all and forever change the way we see the world. I think something similar may now be happening in the world of marketing.

Thalberg, an ambitious young man who rose to head of production for Universal City by the age of 21, examined the way Hollywood was run in the early 1920s and decided he could do better. After he left Universal for Louis B. Mayer Productions (which would soon thereafter link up with Metro Pictures to form MGM), Thalberg launched a series of innovative moves that would transform the Hollywood studio system. Among them:

  • Bringing Order to Creative Chaos. Where once directors such as Erich Von Stroheim and Cecile B. DeMille set the terms under which films would be made and produced, Thalberg wrested control over new productions, diminishing the relative power of directors and actors over the final product. In the process, he made it possible to produce films that were far more successful and profitable at the box office.
  • Success through Specialization. An admirer of Henry Ford's principles, Thalberg organized the studio much like an industrial enterprise. Directors, actors and film production experts could shift easily between movie projects on the studio lot. With increasing specialization, they could work on far more films within a given period of time than previously possible. 
  • Leveraging Your Assets. Not only was Thalberg more productively employing his human assets, he made the most of physical assets such as his studio sets and film equipment. Instead of making several films a year, MGM was at one point producing 50 films annually -- meeting the box office's ravenous appetite for more content. By 1930, the percentage of Americans attending a weekly movie was 70%. 
  • Measuring and Refining for Maximum Results. Thalberg was the first to rigorously deploy the technique of screening films to select audiences before releasing them to the public. Through this approach, he learned how to refine films for maximum effect. No doubt, he saved the studio enormous sums by turning flat endings into triumphant finales. 
  • Turning on the Publicity Machine. Thalberg also is recognized for developing a system for elevating his studio's stars and raising their visibility. His PR team would produce glamorous publicity stills, conduct press tours and actively promote films throughout America.

Thalberg had created an industrial powerhouse to eclipse what had previously been a vulnerable craft. He turned an art form prone to booms and busts, extraordinary budget overruns and box office flops into a science of sorts. He had created a high performance content factory, capable of generating a high volume of quality product to meet the desires of theatergoers nationwide.

Memorialized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, Thalberg died young at the age of just 37. But his enormous contributions to the film industry continue to be remembered and recognized.

As I see it, Thalberg should be a great inspiration for today's thought leadership marketers. Challenged to create content factories of their own and produce measurable results, they can look to his example for ways of turning a dark art into a powerful discipline. Like Thalberg, today's marketers must challenge the status quo and take on the vested interests who represent it. But I'm certain those who do will one day have a chance to claim their own magnificent rewards.