I had the pleasure of interviewing Academy Award winner Kevin Spacey at this year’s Content Marketing World. Spacey opens up in this interview about nurturing creatives in the entertainment industry, collaborating with non-media brands, and crafting binge-worthy stories.
McDermott: Do you think non-media brands can pull off the kind of rich, nuanced storytelling we see coming out of the entertainment industry?
Spacey: There’s an incredible explosion happening in the last decade at the intersection of technology and creativity. We are seeing extremely creative content and creative advertising from the most surprising and unsuspected companies, venues, and platforms.
Companies just have to stay true to what they are and find a way to be innovative and authentic – authentic to their brand and authentic to their audience.
On the heels of the Netflix model (and now Hulu, Amazon and YouTube) we’re going to start to see new channels, new platforms, and all kinds of creativity we could not have imagined before.
McDermott: It’s been interesting to see Los Angeles-based agencies like CAA helping brands become better storytellers. As brands strive to behave more like media companies, will they need to lean on the entertainment industry?
Spacey: It’s incredibly smart of certain companies to go to where the creative source is … if they perceive that to be in Hollywood, that’s great.
Power (in the entertainment industry) used to be consigned to a very small group in years past. You couldn’t get in if you were an artist unless you had some unbelievable luck, or you knew somebody who knew somebody, or you were in New York or Los Angeles knocking on doors. Now because of the internet, there’s no barrier to entry. Lucas Cruickshank is a perfect example of what happens when people self-produce and self-publish their own material. About eight years ago, Cruickshank created a little webisode about a hyperactive teenager named Fred. He got some likes on YouTube and so he made another one, and another one … by last April he had 1 billion views.
The job for those of us in the industry – and I would suggest for those in the studios and the network executives – is to pay attention because if we don’t make these young, interesting, emerging talents realize the ground is very fertile in television or in the studio system, we’re going to lose these kids because why would they partner with us if they can do it on their own?
McDermott: What has changed in Hollywood in recent years when it comes to telling long-form stories?
Spacey: Think about the way television used to be before 2000. You can throw in a caveat for Hill Street Blues. When it premiered, it was one of the first kinds of programs that dealt with complicated storylines, diverse characters, multiple plots going on, etc. I remember hearing about the network notes Steve Bochco (Hill Street Blues’ co-creator and producer) got, and hearing that if he had been forced to follow those notes it would have destroyed everything about what that show was and why it became so popular. After that, audiences began to demand more complexity.
There was a time when the kind of general attitude was that “all characters on television have to be nice, and they have to be likeable, and they have to be good at their job, and be good family people.” But at a certain point people started to throw up their hands and ask, “Why not?” And when HBO shook their heads and asked, “Why not a series about a mob boss who kills people but also suffers from anxiety attacks? Why not?” They started a kind of revolution in television. The Sopranos was the groundbreaking show and, frankly, some incredibly courageous programming from some pretty ballsy executives. And you can follow that line right straight through Sons of Anarchy, Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Rescue Me, Weeds, True Blood, etc.
For us on House of Cards, the runway was paved very well before we decided to take off, and that kind of exciting, brave programming has illustrated that audiences are demanding more complex stories and, when you do that kind of programming, the most remarkable kinds of stories can be told. That kind of openness and creativity has been in evidence in the last 15 years in a way that I don’t think it ever has been before.
McDermott: Let’s talk about the AMC model, where brands are integrated into content creation (e.g., product placements in Mad Men or commercials during The Walking Dead that rely on creative from the show itself). Are those types of collaborations of interest to you and will they become more common?
Spacey: If you’re able to create a relationship between a show and a product and it works for the story and doesn’t feel imposed, it’s fine. But it has to work creatively.
I run a theater in London and we do this thing called The 24 Hour Plays®. Quite often, we try to get sponsorship because it’s aimed at helping emerging artists like young writers, directors, producers, and actors. We asked a potato-chip company to sponsor the event and they told us they would give us even more money if their potato chips ended up in one of the plays. Not only did it end up in one of the plays, it ended up being a featured part of one of the plays … and it was hysterical. It was a brilliant example of how you can take a product, put it in front of a writer and say, “Can you make this work?” If the writer feels organically it can work, and it’s not going to be exploitative or like you’re being a whore, then I don’t have a problem with it.
The shows you mentioned are expensive shows to produce; there’s a certain level of quality that an audience has come to expect from these shows. Whatever you can do to bring those costs down – whether that’s bringing product placements in where they’ll pay you a certain amount of money to put something in or whether it’s filming in a city where you have tax incentives – all of those are incredibly smart things to do in a world where we all have to be smart about the economics.
McDermott: Can you share what you believe makes a character particularly powerful, unique or relatable?
Spacey: Look, I’m not a writer and I don’t create a character. What I do is interpret someone else’s creation. My job as an actor is to serve the writing. Sometimes you read (a script) and you can hear the writer’s voice coming out of everybody’s mouth, and what you want to hear is a character’s voice.
People are always saying to me, “How do you learn all those lines?” My retort is: They’re not lines, they are ideas. If you can get your head around what the idea is that the writer is trying to get across, then the words come because that’s the only way that this particular character could express it.
The question, “What makes an interesting character?” that’s not the question to ask. The question is, “What story are you telling, and why are you telling it, and what representatives can you pull up of the human being that are the best ones to tell that particular story?” If the writer creates a genuine character, not a writer’s mouthpiece, you are in a position as an actor to be able to bring that character to life, to interpret those ideas. That’s what my job is.
McDermott: House of Cards is distributed only through Netflix. We see a lot of media companies racing to release omnimedia content. Have you given it any thought related to House of Cards?
Spacey: In terms of the creative experience, the platform doesn’t matter. And it really doesn’t matter to the audience. I don’t think the audience cares anymore what platform something is on; they just want great content. And, as I say, I think they’ve demanded great content.
The way it’s distributed has nothing to do with our creative process. The only thing we’re not obligated to do since we are on Netflix is we don’t have to create all sorts of arbitrary cliff-hangers to go to commercials (enticing people to come back).
Netflix was the only network that didn’t demand a pilot for House of Cards. So we were able to tell the story in the time that we wanted to tell it and have the space to allow characters to engage with each other without feeling those kind of confines or arbitrary things that we would have to have achieved in a pilot script. But the process for us is we’re just trying to write the best story that we can, and tell an arc of a story over a long period of time. So, in many ways, this experience has not felt episodic to me at all, it feels like I’m making a very long movie.
Kevin Spacey was the keynote speaker for Content Marketing World 2014. Watch some important moments of his presentation.
Did you miss all the great content marketing insight at CMW? Check out the fantastic sessions through our Video on Demand portal.
Cover image photo by Miller Mobley/Redux Pictures and customization by Joseph Kalinowski/Chief Content Officer