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The iron law that’s choking creativity

Gabler, author of "An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood," "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" and other books, is a senior fellow at the Norman Lear Center at USC. He is writing a biography of the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.

When it comes to contemporary American culture, its slogan ought to be “same old same-old.” Same old movies -- one bombastic comic book adventure after another. Same old TV shows -- one “Friends” clone after another, from “How I Met your Mother” to “Happy Endings” to “Whitney” to “Men at Work.” Same old journalism. Same old politics. There are, of course, outliers and renegades, but there seem to be fewer of them nowadays, and they are just that: outliers. For all the obsession with the new and different, we seem to be living within deja vu.

If you are looking for an explanation for this cultural gravitational pull that drags everything to the predictable center, it may very well be what one might label “Puttnam’s Law” after David Puttnam, the British film producer. Puttnam’s Law should take its place alongside Murphy’s Law (anything that can go wrong will go wrong), Parkinson’s Law (work expands to fill the time available to complete it) and the Peter Principle (a person rises to the level of his or her incompetence) as a basic tenet of modern life. Indeed, if you understand Puttnam’s Law, you will understand a great deal about the cultural poverty that surrounds us.

Puttnam was regarded by many as the savior of the British film industry in the early 1980s -- he won the best picture Oscar for “Chariots of Fire” -- when Columbia Pictures, then under the ownership of Coca Cola Co., decided to tap him as its head of production in 1986. It was a bold move. Puttnam was known for making small prestige pictures, Hollywood for making bloated commercial ones. And Puttnam not only embraced the difference; he touted it. No sooner had he taken office than he issued a manifesto in which he excoriated the “tyranny of the box office” and the “lowest common denominator of public taste” to which Hollywood had so often pitched its films. To say he was a maverick would have been an understatement.

And so Puttnam roared through Hollywood. In short order, he attacked the talent agents who at the time virtually ran the entertainment industry, dismissed one of Columbia’s prime producers, Ray Stark, and reviled stars who, he lamented, made exorbitant salaries that he felt extorted the studios. He even disdained making “Ghostbusters II,” a surefire hit, albeit one at a steep cost. Instead, he announced a slate of 22 films at an average budget of $11 million -- the sorts of films on which he had made his reputation -- on the theory that no single movie could bankrupt the studio and that a few hits could greatly enrich it.

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So what happened? Puttnam so threatened the status quo that barely a year after taking the job and before a single film from his slate was even released, he was unceremoniously forced out of the studio, though he would claim to have left of his own volition. He had made a lot more enemies in Hollywood than friends, but even so there was an inordinate amount of schadenfreude at his demise. The consensus was that Puttnam was an arrogant fool. If he had only kept his mouth shut and made the typical big-budget movies, he probably could have remained at the studio even if his movies bombed -- his successor, Victor Kaufman, had made those sorts of movies at Tri-Star and still got the promotion -- because everybody in Hollywood made those movies. Puttnam’s crime was not in failing -- but in failing by doing something no one else in Hollywood would have done.

Thus Puttnam’s Law: It is more acceptable to fail in conventional ways than in unconventional ways. And its corollary: The reward for succeeding in unconventional ways is less than the risk of failing in unconventional ways. In short, you can screw up with impunity so long as you screw up like everybody else.

This is not only the iron law of the entertainment industry. It is the iron law of life. No one wants to be caught out on a limb for fear of having it sawed off behind him. Or put another way, there is safety in numbers even if there isn’t necessarily wisdom. When Matthew Weiner wrote his “Mad Men” pilot and then went around pitching it, he was told repeatedly that it was unsalable because it was set in period and because its protagonist was unhappy and flawed, which is to say, it was unsalable because it wasn’t like anything else on television.

(Of course “Mad Men” eventually did get made and is still a hit. At least AMC had the fortitude to break from the herd.)

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When NBC decided to replace Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” despite his high ratings, with Conan O’Brien because everyone in television hungered after a younger demographic, no heads rolled even as the ratings were crashing. It was the acceptable move. But when NBC, trying to pacify Leno, then put him in the 10 o’clock slot, that was a crime because no other network would have done such a thing.

When New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick opted to go for a first down deep in his own territory two seasons ago in a critical game against the Indianapolis Colts rather than punt, as just about every other coach would have done, he suffered endless ridicule.

There is a scene in Alexandra Pelosi’s documentary about George W. Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, “Journeys With George,” in which a reporter rises from his desk at the end of the day in a press room filled with other reporters and asks, “What is our story today?” In other words: What are they all going to be writing? One might think that reporters might strive to look for the odd angle or the unreported element -- to separate themselves from the pack. You’d be wrong. That’s Puttnam’s Law.

Thus, even when you are wrong, you have the defense of working within the consensus. When you are wrong outside the consensus, you have no defense. You are on your own. That’s Puttnam’s Law again.

Puttnam’s Law is also readily applicable to politics and economics. Woe betide the politician who proposes something new and different, which is why Mitt Romney is still peddling tax cuts, even though they demonstrably failed in the Bush administration, and why President Obama followed a war plan in Afghanistan that was essentially forged by consensus and that changed only when the consensus changed. Puttnam’s Law also helps explain why Wall Street geniuses who should have known better pursued high-risk strategies that brought on the Great Recession and continue to pursue them, as JP Morgan recently showed. Everybody did it. The prudent ones were the outliers, and where are they now?

To be fair, America has long been in the grip of Puttnam’s Law. Conformity is comfort. Early in the 19th century Tocqueville remarked, “I know of no country in which there is so little independence of mind and real freedom of discussion as in America.” But the law operates with greater force now because the culture has become so status- and success-conscious at its upper echelons that there is more at stake by risking independence, and because mass culture itself intensifies the fear of being different. For all our vaunted individualism, majority not only rules in America; it rules with an iron hand.

It is often said of Hollywood that it is like high school with money, meaning there is the same childish fixation on status. But when it comes to peer pressure as well, that joke is sadly accurate about nearly every sector of respectable adult life. Most people prefer self-protection to the risk of being ostracized. As a result, we increasingly live in retreat from anything that is daring, exciting or different because what would the other kids think if we didn’t all do what they were doing? So there is a monotony in American mainstream culture, an overwhelming sense of groupthink, for which there is no punishment save the awful damage it wreaks on our national imagination and on our sense of creative adventure.

And that’s Puttnam’s Law.

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