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Cameron Crowe's Jerry Maguire has plenty of memorable scenes, little moments that have lodged in pop-culture consciousness long after we've all forgotten the particulars of the movie. "You had me at hello." "Show me the money." "Did you know the human head weighs eight pounds?" But one of the most unforgettable scenes isn't a throwaway quote, but the inciting incident, as sports agent Jerry Maguire (Tom Cruise) has a moral epiphany and writes a sprawling mission statement imploring his agency to get back to basics and focus on why they chose their field in the first place. In the movie, it gets Maguire fired and sets the entire storyline in motion.
One thing you might not know is that that plot point was, according to Cameron Crowe, inspired by a 1991 memo from then-head of Disney, Jeffrey Katzenberg. Like Maguire, Katzenberg was disenchanted with the state of his business and disheartened by the blockbuster mentality behind movies such as Dick Tracy. He had his say -- 28 pages' worth -- in a legendary memo that has been passed around and discussed ever since. Three years later, Katzenberg left to co-found DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen.
Now, thanks to Letters of Note, you can read the infamous memo in its entirety. It's a weighty read, but here are a couple of highlights:
Back in 1984, our initial success at Disney was based on the ability to tell good stories well. Big stars, special effects and name directors were of little importance. Of course, we started this way out of necessity. We had small budgets and not much respect. So we substituted dollars with creativity and big stars with talent we believed in. Success ensued.
It used to be that there was a reliable criterion for a film’s success -- whether or not it had “legs.” Studios would toy with different strategies for opening a film, all with the goal of helping it develop “legs” through positive word of mouth. Now the term “legs” has all but disappeared from the Hollywood vocabulary. Thanks to the dictates of the blockbuster mentality, the shelf life of many movies has come to be somewhat shorter than a supermarket tomato.
The extraordinary popularity of such films as “Pretty Woman,” “Ghost” and “Home Alone” teaches the real lesson of 1990: Despite all the hype and promotional noise, in the end the public will search out the movies it wants to see. And these films, more often than not, will be primarily based on two basic elements -- a good story, well executed. Not stars, not special effects, not casts of thousands, not mega-budgets, not hype.
It's a fascinating read, and one that's just as, or possibly even more, timely now as it was originally written. His conclusions about the supposed "recession-proof" nature of the movie business have been proven all too true as the years have wound on and ever more types of media have competed with films for the attention of potential moviegoers. And keep in mind, this was written before the internet was a significant factor. Sadly, many of the issues he addresses -- such as the mentality that a movie has to be a hit during its opening weekend -- have only gotten worse, not better.
It's definitely worth a read, and in this age of countless prequels and sequels, reboots and remakes, Katzenberg's clarion call for good stories, executed well, should be required reading for many a tremulous and risk-averse studio exec.
Here's the "Mission Statement" scene from Jerry Maguire that this memo inspired: