Agility • 21 April 2008 • The SnowBlog
Following on from a post about Control, the desire for which seemed to be a fatal weakness of the Avid company, I want to continue the story. Recap: when Anthony Minghella made the movie Cold Mountain, his legendary editor, Walter Murch, decided to use a thousand-dollar copy of Apple's Final Cut Pro software instead of a hundred-thousand dollar editing console. It was unheard of. This was a major release for a major studio. The film starred Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Renée Zellweger. It was Oscar material from the first, eventually winning one and attracting six nominations. If you were Apple, how would you feel about that? You'd rather cheekily called your semi-pro software 'Pro' and now some of the ultimate pros wanted to use it. You can guess the answer. You'd do very little.
Walter Murch only asked for one favour from Apple. He wanted a pre-release copy of a little plug-in that would help him tie the movie's sound to its pictures as he edited and mixed his way towards a final version. Without it he had to use a slow workaround that added many days to his schedule. Apple insisted that the plug-in wasn't available ahead of its release date. They insisted that it wouldn't be right to let him use software that wasn't ready for the prime-time yet. Which all sounds quite reasonable. Except that they'd already let their beta testers have a copy. And it worked. And Walter Murch knew it worked because the consultant he'd hired to help him use Final Cut Pro had a copy. Walter could watch his consultant put the plug-in through its paces right in front of his eyes, but Apple wouldn't permit Walter to do the same. Of course he could have secretly gone ahead and used it, but Walter Murch doesn't seem to be that sort of person. And the story would have come out. One of the highest profile editors in the history of Hollywood using illegal copies of software wouldn't look good. So instead he beseeched Apple for many weeks. Frequently they didn't reply, or if they did, they maintained their position: can't help.
The plug-in was for tying sound and pictures together. Walter Murch is a bit unique when it comes to doing just that. Not only does he edit film, he mixes sound. Not too many people do both. Hardly anyone does both well. And no one but Walter has won an Oscar for both on the same movie.
Here's what I would have done. It's probably what you would have done too. I'd have made a fuss of Walter, but I would have expressed my gravest concerns about what would happen if the plug-in screwed up. I would have got Walter to agree that because he was using software that hadn't completed its testing yet, he shouldn't criticise it should it let him down. In Walter's case a handshake would have sealed that deal. In fact, Walter Murch seems to be the sort of man who would have arrived at that very view without anyone having to spell it out. And then, I would have made sure he had everything he wanted: spare Macs, an engineer on 24-hour call-out, the private number of someone senior to call if he needed something. And once one of the greatest editors in Hollywood history had finished assembling a soon-to-be-classic Hollywood movie using my software, I would have asked him if he could contribute a few interviews and endorsements. Because really, to give one or two analogies, if NASA wants to use one of your computers on a Shuttle mission, you say 'yes'; or if David Beckham wants to try out your new sports drink, you say 'yes'; or if the SAS want to field-test a few pairs of your boots, you say 'yes'.
I should think a smart business like Apple probably arrived at this conclusion eventually (though they've never publicly altered their position) but these opportunities require agility if you're to capitalise on them. And I suspect you have to get into the habit of reacting quickly - maybe have two or three little experiments on the go at all times - and figure out in advance which kinds of chances to jump on and which to pass up. Some won't work out, others will provide almost unlimited free publicity - publicity that just isn't available to buy. Not that Apple is lacking in that department, but it's always frustrating to see a company famed for its lateral-thinking and innovation dropping the metaphorical ball.
Reading the e-mail exchanges, I kept waiting for Steve Jobs to jump in and say "let's seize this chance", but that never happened. And now that Anthony Minghella is no longer with us, that's an opportunity that will never come again. He sounds like a thoroughly decent guy (especially for a director). For anyone interested in the story of how a movie like Cold Mountain takes shape, the book is here.