How to Prevent Your Business from Becoming an Embarrassing Failure

image from The Lone Ranger film

Did you see the new Lone Ranger movie? If you’re like most movie-goers, you didn’t.

You saw one of the other blockbusters instead. Or you went to the beach. Or you stayed home and had an Orange is the New Black marathon. Lone Ranger just didn’t seem like something you felt like shelling out $15 (plus popcorn) to watch.

So why talk about this quarter-billion dollar failure here?

Because the reasons the movie didn’t work (and by work, I mean make a profit) are the same reasons that kill businesses every single day. And by analyzing a spectacular failure, we can unearth some of the factors that will make your business successful.

The Lone Ranger wasn’t supposed to flop. As Disney’s head of distribution Dave Hollis sadly told Yahoo Movies:

The frustrating part for us is that we had all the ingredients here. You take a classic franchise, team the world’s most successful producer, an award-winning director and the biggest movie star in the world and you think your chances of success are pretty good. But we just didn’t make it work.

Failure is repeatable, just like success is. So let’s talk about why Lone Ranger tanked, and how your business can learn to avoid its terrible, terrible fate.

Problem #1: The critics were not kind

This summer wasn’t a great one for blockbusters in general (with some exceptions), but The Lone Ranger stood out.

If The Lone Ranger loses $190m as experts fear, the film will earn the dubious accolade of the biggest box office flop of all time. ~ World News Views

Co-star Johnny Depp has blamed the movie’s failure on terrible reviews … starting before the film was even released. When your film inspires phrases like The Guardian’s “something that isn’t exactly a gallop, more like the protracted convulsive thrashings of a dead horse with its hoof jammed in the electric socket,” you may face some problems at the box office.

But as we all know, many critical failures still make lots and lots of money. In fact, like Lone Ranger, World War Z was roundly slammed by critics before its release … but it still cracked the half-billion dollar mark at the box office, making it Brad Pitt’s highest-grossing movie.

So let’s look at it from a more businesslike point of view.

Problem #2: Lone Ranger was a me-too product

As Disney’s Dave Hollis indicated above, Lone Ranger is a classic example of what I call Extruded Film Product (EFP) — a formulaic collection of “sure-fire” elements designed to make money.

The business version is a “safe” business that may not be what you particularly want to do, but that conventional wisdom says will always be in demand. It’s your mom telling you to become an orthodontist, even though your soul cries out to devote itself to interpretive dance.

As anyone who goes to big-budget movies knows, Extruded Film Product can make plenty of money. Disney went to the press lamenting why on earth it didn’t happen this time. But it’s not that hard to figure out.

There’s a missing ingredient in bombs like Lone Ranger that successful EFP films (and businesses) have in spades. For example, Despicable Me 2 had it — and spanked The Lone Ranger at the box office.

We’ll talk about that missing ingredient in a minute, but first let’s talk about the not so sure-fire elements.


Failure Prevention Takeaway

Don’t let your business become a generic me-too product. Take the time to uncover what differentiates you from everyone else who offers your product or service.

Problem #3: Lone Ranger was broccoli ice cream

Conventional wisdom among film people is that no one wants to see Westerns any more, particularly international audiences.

And it’s not an unimportant factor. The description of “Western in outer space” probably doomed the magnificent TV show Firefly. It sounded like broccoli ice cream — something the show’s creator (the mighty Joss Whedon) was interested in, but that the rest of us didn’t really want. By the time its word of mouth caught up with a larger audience, the show was gone.

(Whedon eventually went on, of course, to turn his talents to something audiences were ravenous for — the superhero film The Avengers.)

Movies — and businesses — can make much safer bets by going with what audiences are already hungry for. Which is why “personal trainer” tends to be a safer career choice than “mole rat wrangler.”

But.

Rango, Django Unchained*, Unforgiven, Dances with Wolves, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were all Westerns that attracted massive audiences in times when Westerns were not especially fashionable.

What made them succeed in eras when “Westerns were dead”? They all had superb scripts that transcended the genre. They were so damned good, you couldn’t not go see them. And everyone who saw them grabbed you by the elbow and told you to go see it, too.


Failure Prevention Takeaway

Make sure that customers actually have some appetite for what you have to offer. Your business might survive a “weird” product or service idea, if you’re good enough, but it’s no fun to be the next Firefly — a brilliant idea that couldn’t find its audience in time.

Problem #4: The Lone Ranger script sucked

The handful of good reviews for Lone Ranger typically don’t say much about the script, they mostly talk about Depp’s performance as Tonto or the splendid action sequences.

Even the good reviews mention the script’s tendency to meander and its lack of structure.

Some observers predicted the Lone Ranger’s demise by observing its runaway budget problems. Why? Because:

Budgets running out of control usually mean that the film producers do not have a concrete vision in mind when they start making the film. Without a vision going forward, that usually means that whatever the movie ends up being, it effectively is the result of massive rewrites and re-imaginings. So why is this a problem? Because when that happens, the final product does not bear the same sort of effective storytelling power it would have had, had it been the embodiment of a particularly enthralling tale from the beginning.” ~ James Gadea at policymic.

In the realm of the successful blockbuster movie, the writer (despite jokes to the contrary) runs the show. Without the power of superb story, Extruded Film Product just feels … extruded.

Great writing makes a hit possible. And powerful writing — particularly writing that tells a compelling story — can make a successful business.

When your business has a big idea — and tells the story of that idea in an engaging way — your audience (of customers) starts to be pulled toward you.


Failure Prevention Takeaway

Know your business’s big idea. Tell your story over time, in a compelling, engaging way. We have an entire free library to help teach you how to do this.

Problem #5: The Lone Ranger lacked G.A.S.

In the end, I think The Long Ranger tanked because it ran out of G.A.S. (Forgive me, but that stands for Give a Shit — you can read this post to find out more.)

Rewrites bloated the script to an overlong, confusing mess? Never mind, audiences are too dumb to pay attention to that stuff.

Parents don’t want to take their kids to a goofy comedy that occasionally veers off into Tarantino-level violence? Don’t worry about it, nobody monitors what their kids are doing anyway.

The movie’s bland and boring? It can’t be boring, look, we put Johnny Depp in it. With a bird on his head.

I don’t fault the movie for being EFP — that’s what Hollywood produces these days.

But if you’re going to write formula, you have to care about it.

In fact, I think that’s what made this movie’s precursor (with the same winning team) — The Pirates of the Caribbean — so monstrously successful. No one was particularly clamoring for pirate movies, much less ones based on Disney theme rides.

It was so much better than it had to be, from the script to the performances to the costumes and direction. Word got out that it was good — really good. Formulaic? Absolutely. But it was beautifully executed formula.

Now your business may be a unique snowflake or you may be working in a super competitive, me-too world and fighting every day to differentiate yourself.

Both of those can work, if you can find an audience.

But you have to give it plenty of G.A.S.

* Note: OK, Django Unchained is a “Southern” not a “Western,” but it has the look of a Western, the music of a Western, themes and storyline straight out of pure spaghetti Western, and borrows heavily from the 1966 Western “Django” by Sergio Corbucci. If Westerns are box office poison, Django Unchained should have flopped.

About the author

Sonia Simone


Sonia Simone is co-founder and Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Sonia on Twitter and .

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Comments

  1. Boy, am I glad I didn’t end up seeing this movie — because I was going to, wanted to, was psyched to after seeing the previews. Until the reviews started coming out, yowsa. : )

    I think problem #2 is so prevalent on the web and something many of us conducting business online have struggled with, at least initially. But man, once you get that one figured out, everything else you do in your business becomes so much easier. Which helps solve problem #5, because when you differentiate yourself from others offering similar products or services based on what your particular audience craves/is struggling with, then that audience will definitely G.A.S. : )

  2. Great post. I’ll still see the movie, don’t care if it’s bad or not. Just won’t see it in the theater.

  3. So, make something that’s in demand, but don’t be like everyone else. Oy, I have a headache.

  4. hey Sonia

    Are you a mind psychic? LOL

    I was away on vacation… on the beach, yeah, so couldn’t see any movies… 

    This movie failure reminds me of football games where team A is made of nothing but five star players, and the other team gets no bets for winning, know what I’m saying… yet, to most people’s amazement, the favorite team loses…

    Sometimes I go to see bad movies just to see how bad it was, so I may give this a try… who knows!

  5. Failure happens. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. Einstein failed plenty of times. Today, he’s revered by many. Da Vinci is more famous in death than he was in his life. People thought he was crazy.

    Movies

    When I saw the trailers for “The Lone Ranger,” I knew it wouldn’t be a box office hit. Johnny Depp is one of my favorite actors, and I was surprised that he signed on to star in the film. I haven’t read the script, but I’d like to so I can learn from it. I write screenplays too.

    I didn’t see “Despicable Me 2″ because I did not find “Despicable Me” funny. I ordered “Oz: The Great and Powerful” from the library. I didn’t want to spend the money on this film, even though it stars James Franco. He’s another one of my favorites.

    Even though “The Lone Ranger,” bombed at the box office, Johnny Depp is still a great actor. I’m sure this failure won’t stop Hollywood from calling him.

    Business

    You do have to have G.A.S. in your business. Otherwise, what’s the point of having a business? On the flip side, if your business isn’t working, perhaps, it’s not meant to be. Maybe you’re meant to do something else. Only you can find out that.

    • Oops!

      I meant to say, “It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

      And… “Only you can find that out.”

      My brain was working faster than my fingers on the keyboard. ;)

  6. I have to admit, I really liked this movie. So did my husband and my picky teen. In fact, the day we saw the movie, everyone in the theater really enjoyed it. I never go into a movie with expectations, other than the hope that it will be entertaining. We were all thoroughly entertained. I felt like I was watching the old Lone Ranger shows or serial westerns only with better lighting, effects, costumes, acting…and yes, writing. I asked my thousands of Facebook friends and fans if they liked it, most of them said yes. A handful said no. I never much care what critics say, most of them are frustrated actors, writers and directors who are much better at passing judgment than creating content. Your assessment may be correct and I may be incorrect. Still, I think there may be more to this story.

    All of that said and regardless, this article makes some valid and terrific points about the importance of making great quality content. Yet…so much of what gets the love on the internet isn’t very great or even very good, it’s just optimized for the search engines through key words and juiced up with pretty pictures. There’s a distinct difference between being popular and being great. Sometimes it really is all about timing. This kind of old fashioned western wasn’t right for this moment in time. (Though I felt the story line focused on the sociopathic railroad barons absolutely on target with the current threat of corporate takeover. I also felt they did a great job of telling the real story of what happened to the Native Americans that is often white washed in Westerns.)

    Go figure. I’ve decided to stop trying to be popular on the internet and start focusing on making content that makes me proud. If other folks dig it, even better.

    Rock and roll.

  7. Good thoughts as usual. I was a big fan of Lone Ranger and enjoyed the movie. I will admit, the script was curious at best. I never understood the need for the flashback mode. The story was good enough to stand on its own, in my opinion. I also liked the progression of John Reid into a Lone Ranger. He was so timid in the beginning and it took a lot to move him in that direction. Sorry that the movie didn’t do well.

  8. Sonia, great post!

    What a great overview for avoiding failure. I didn’t see the movie because it honestly had no appeal to me. Obviously it had no appeal to millions of other people as well!

    Thanks for putting this together,
    Gerrid

  9. Victoria Ipri :

    Newsflash: This article is not actually about the movie! Stop posting your popcorn-fueled critiques and pay attention to what Sonia is actually talking about.

    Sonia: More, more, more! Terrific.

    • Oh, the post is totally about the movie. With a bit of business thrown in.

      This all reminds me of John Carter, which was talked up all over as a big flop. It was actually a good movie, enjoyed by people with an interest in the genre, but the studio completely messed up the promotion.

    • Lighten up, Buttercup. Our comments are also not about the movie, yet about the movie. It’s a Zen thing. I loved the post!

  10. Couldn’t disagree more! The film was clever, well written and well acted. That said, your last reason for its failure — your GAS explanation — comes the closest to making sense, Sonia. The Lone Ranger missed its target audience by a country mile. Younger audiences are the ones that didn’t give a shit. And, frankly, why should they have? I grew up with the radio and the TV versions of the The Lone Ranger, and so got a huge charge out of how the writers and producers morphed the role of the LR, but particularly that of Tonto. To most people younger than, say, 50, the movie must have come off like inside baseball. (I picture them saying “so what the hell’s so funny?”) Too much money spent lost to “different strokes for different folks.”

  11. It’s totally fine to find the movie enjoyable! :) But the fact remains, it’s losing heroic quantities of money, which makes it a failure as far as the movie business is concerned, even if some folks liked it. (After all, a “failure” at that level still took in $50 million its opening weekend.)

  12. Hi Sonia,

    I don’t watch nearly as many movies as I used to. Why? Because TV is better:

    Mad Men, The Wire, Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad … need I go on? I know The Wire is not so recent, but it’s still a DVD set the people seek out.

    Breaking Bad is in it’s final season and to me this show has it all: Great writing. Amazing acting. Great directing. Artful cinematography. Plus the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, add layers/nuance to each scene fanatic fans notice and talk about.

    But the main thing: He took a bit risk (and so did AMC) going with a fairly unusual concept, but it turned out to be dynamite, because everyone involved G.A.S. ;)

    The show reminds me of the power of unpopular: He created a TV drama that certain people might just hate for all the right reasons, because he attracted a group that anticipates every new season and every new show, they then blog about it, podcast about it and comment about it. Seems to me they got it all right, including the rabid fan base :)

    • Good point. And TV shows can tell a more complex story over time, allowing for more time to build an audience, grow that rabid fan base, and with Netflix & other options, to pull in new people as time goes by.

      And because TV is cheaper to produce and distribute, it’s easier to take creative risks and avoid me-too-ism.

  13. How about the fact that the movie featured a whiter than white actor portraying a Native American? I am all for “suspension of disbelief,” but asking audiences to buy Johnny Depp as a Native American is asking a bit much.

  14. Very interesting article. Never saw the movie. But think about it for a moment. We have come a long way since the TV series. Although I am not an animal activist, I did not appreciate seeing a dead bird on a human head. And, thank goodness, we have a much higher respect for our Native Americans. Which only proves money does not buy everything, including a movie audience.

  15. Intriguing post! I liked the way you took apart the failure to show how each part connects to any other business failure. For my part, I chose not to see the movie, mostly for the last reason you mentioned. I could have lived with a formulaic, wandering story, but the fact that Johnny Depp was made to look ridiculous in a supporting role made me sad.

  16. I didn’t see Lone Ranger because I didn’t realize until late that Johnny Depp was in it. By the time I did, all the bad reviews had come out.

  17. Loved the article and loved all your points, Sonia!

    One other thing that might have doomed this film – it was marketed to a mass audience and not a specific one.

    Sonia – I know from reading Copyblogger that you are a big fan of both Firefly and Seth Godin. So I know you know where I’m coming from.

    Firefly may not have made the cut – but it still has tons of extremely loyal fans. They made a movie after the TV show was cancelled, and they still have comics and RPGs based on the storyline.

    Avengers was a massive hit – but again – it had a specific audience…comic book geeks. Mass appeal too? Sure. But the bread and butter for that film is the geek who sees it three times in theaters, then buys the DVD even though he could watch it on Netflix.

    Who was The Lone Ranger made for? No one specific really – unless you count fans of the old radio and TV show like Lou. But I’ve got a feeling there just weren’t enough of those people who G.A.S.

    Hollywood has been about mass marketing for a long time – but I think even they will have to face the music soon. “We are all weird” – as Seth says.

    • That’s a very good point. And I believe that Steven Spielberg has been making a similar one recently — that it’s time for studios to quit trying to make films that appeal to absolutely everyone on the planet, because too often, they don’t appeal to anyone.

      Interesting remarks from Spielberg, since he’s one of the people who actually knows how to make that mass appeal happen.

  18. Great post, Sonia! Haven’t seen the film; had no interest. Really didn’t G.A.S. Breaking Bad… now THAT’S where it’s at!

  19. How bizarre that I should receive the email to this post DURING my viewing of this film (I didn’t read it mid film mind ;)).

    I’ve gotta say I too really enjoyed this movie, though I do like a good western (I guess my mother’s religous Sunday afternoon classic western viewing rubbed off as a child).

    To be honest I had absolutely no idea it tanked, but I don’t tend to listen to what reviewers say. How on earth can I trust the opinion of just one person who I’ve never met or heard of, who may have completely different interests to me, who ends up forming a bias opinion based on those interests.

    I find the IMDB ratings to be incredibly accurate as to how good a movie is. That’s the only thing I look at to decide whether or not I pay to go see it.

    Wait….this isn’t a movie blog.

    Errrmm…..yes, great failure prevention takeaways there :P

  20. LOL. I knew about the movie and that Johnny Depp’s going to star it but I didn’t even know it was already out.

    I didn’t even heard any good reviews, probably like everyone else. You would only have known of the good reviews if you would purposely look for it.
    I agree with everything said. The critics definitely weren’t cool with the movie because in the first place, the script/content was crappy.

    So sad. Oh well, at least lesson learned.

  21. I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that we can apply lessons from movies to daily life and business!

    The interesting thing about this movie in particular and the entire “me, too” mentality in Hollywood is that it’s simply going to fail. “Tried and true” is making it harder and harder for unique, new movies to get funding, if they get funding at all. That’s why Spielberg almost had his film Lincoln picked up as a miniseries by HBO instead of by Hollywood producers. Like Craig McBreen said above, people are just far more interested in TV and streaming now, because it dares to try new things (which is also why Spielberg and Lucas just talked about how the current Hollywood business model is going to fail).

    So maybe what we can also learn from The Lone Ranger, or rather Hollywood in general, is that you need a bit of daring, a bit of challenge in your business, or you will stay under the delusion that what you’re doing will always work no matter what.

  22. Reminds me a lot of another Disney bomb, last summer’s John Carter. I do believe someone in marketing lost their job over that one.

  23. Great post. The lesson is clearly given, and the medium is pretty darn attractive, too.

    What really excites me is Sonia Simone is back from the pleasures of summer. More from her is what I need!

    Tech question: Who put the alt tag “dances with failure” on the image. That’s just terrific!

    Good to see you Sonia Simone!

  24. The first thought that came to mind was another epic Hollywood failure from a different millennium: Water World. Tanked to the tune of $200+ Million. Huge money for 1995. Same exact premise: Sci-Fi epic shot entirely on the water (great USP, right?). Superstar cast (Kevin Costner, Dennis Hopper, etc) Massive hype. Total flop.

    Coming from the music world I can think of some epic failures by the SUPER groups from back in the day. Asia was a favorite. Made up of members of famous prog rock bands from an era before most of your readers were born.

    Can’t help but think the Micrsosoft Surface will meet the same demise for having way too many bells and whistles people don’t even want in a tablet. They have a few major flops under their belt already. Can you say Windows ME? Windows 8?

  25. Enjoyed the comparisons and takeaways! :) Going to share.

    And I, too, have not watched this movie. Definitely a Netflix flick.

  26. Hit the nail on the head. Gotta GAS. I haven’t seen the movie yet so maybe my opinion is poorly informed but it just feels like the result of marketing focus groups and data points. A group of people in a board room dissecting what “should” be a hit movie but nobody GAS about the actual movie… just as long as it launches a money making franchise.

  27. Nice analogy! :)

    Problem #4: The Lone Ranger script sucked

    Probably! But that’s not why the film flopped. It flopped because people didn’t go see it. And to know the script sucks, you’d first have to see the film…. (contradiction?) Anyway…

    However, I agree with you on the G.A.S. metaphor. Why didn’t people care? My guess is, it has to do with the VALUE someone gets for their time/money.

    The reason I chose to not see the film was because, from the myriad of previews, it seemed to me that Johnny Depp’s portrayal of his character, Tonto – the makeup, effects, personality — all seemed to resemble Jack Sparrow a little too closely. No originality, nothing new…. Plus I didn’t want my experience of Jack tarnished by Tonto. Love Depp! But I want to see something new, something fresh, distinct, something that hasn’t already been done – and, most importantly, provides value for my time/money. I didn’t get the impression that TLR cold provide me with this.

    Business customers want the same thing from their experience with a brand: distinction and value. When a brand fails to meet these demands, it becomes just another forgettable brand because it fails to communicate how it it is DIFFERENT from anything else out there already and, most importantly, how it will IMPROVE the quality of life. Thus, no one G.A.S.

    A brand that is meaningful provides services or products that enhance people’s lives – much like a good film can inspire its audience. It’s this type of brand that, were it to disappear, would be gravely missed. In the case of The Lone Ranger, I don’t think I missed anything.

  28. Enjoyed the intelligent and well-argued critique.
    I am still looking forward seeing the movie, for a number of reasons, the first of which is that other people’s opinions do not often guide my actions.
    As a long-term LR fanatic, (I still never think of the opera when I hear the ‘William Tell Overture’), I can not wait to see what the modern world has done with my fantasy of the glory of the old west.
    Lucky for the movie industry, they do not rely on people like me to succeed.

  29. Count me as another person who didn’t see The Lone Ranger. While I agree that westerns are out of favor, I think this movie also lacked a good hook. The studio may have been banking on the nostalgia of the original television series at the expense of creating a new story for a new audience.

    I wasn’t sold because I didn’t watch the series when I was younger and the movie trailers merely flashed random action sequences and a bird-hatted Depp. They simply didn’t give me a reason to care.

  30. Cowboys films almost never work out side the US. They are too niche. Too depressing. Also, no one wants to be a cowboy anymore. Sitting on a horse biting sand. That’s not an idea easily marketed. I feel bad that no one at Disney had the balls to speak up. Success is never guaranteed, even if you “take a classic franchise, team the world’s most successful producer, an award-winning director and the biggest movie star in the world and you think your chances of success are pretty good.” Personally, I haven’t seen the film yet. And I probably won’t, if it wasn’t for those free tickets Disney sent me. But I’ll form my own opinion once I’ve seen it.

  31. Hello Sonia, what a witty post you got here! It was very interesting to read. I like how you made Lone Ranger as an example of how businesses should NOT fail an embarassing failure.

    First of all, I love Johnny Depp and I have made it a point to watch all his movies. I am a fan indeed. But with Lone Ranger, I didn’t even bother at all and for what reason, I really can’t tell until I read your post.

    It’s true, Long Ranger had the right ingredients to make the movie a hit but something went wrong in the mixing. And when the movie played, I really didn’t care at all. For businesses, it’s almost the same thing that I feel. It has a great design and unique products but still, many aren’t interested.

    Maybe it’s the wrong marketing strategy or technique why businesses fail. But what I’m sure of… businesses need to make customers care about it to begin with.

  32. This is a really well written post. I especially loved how you addressed Problem#3 : Lone Ranger was Broccoli Ice Cream. (haha!) For businesses to be successful, they need to really take the time to study their clientele’s appetite.

  33. Hmm, catching up on my RSS so I’m a bit late to the party on this one. (I hope there’s cake left!)

    I think the biggest problem was point 5, no one gave a shit about the “product” they were producing.

    It seems pretty clear from what Dave Hollis said,

    “The frustrating part for us is that we had all the ingredients here. You take a classic franchise, team the world’s most successful producer, an award-winning director and the biggest movie star in the world and you think your chances of success are pretty good. But we just didn’t make it work.”

    The thought process behind this film wasn’t creating epic entertainment but more about the right ingredients for a blockbuster/money

    Who knew stories could be better told if we just had a scientific equation to follow – http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/business/media/solving-equation-of-a-hit-film-script-with-data.html

    I wish I could say I wasn’t guilty of falling into this thinking, but alas…