Spike Lee On The Value Of Owning Your Own Brand

Film critic Patrick Goldstein recently wrote his last piece for the LA Times. The article, “Wanted: A Few Good Mavericks“, is about the lack of originality in Hollywood and it’s worth reading in full. In particular though, Goldstein’s bit about what sets Spike Lee apart from other directors in Hollywood stood out:

In 1988, not long after his first success, I heard Lee give a speech to a group of black college students in which he preached the value of capitalism. If you didn’t own your own business or brand, he said, you’d always be working for the man. As a filmmaker, Lee has practiced what he preached. He runs a Brooklyn-based production company that has made enough money, largely through Lee-directed ads, to allow him to fund internships and college prep programs as well as make such message-oriented documentaries as “When the Levees Broke,” the Emmy Award-winning TV miniseries about the devastating impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans. It’s what makes Lee different from indie peers Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson. They are gifted filmmakers, but they seem to disappear down a rabbit hole between films, while Lee is always on call, weighing in on issues that matter.

How do Spike Lee’s thoughts fit into today’s animation world, where selling one’s creation to a TV network is often considered the pinnacle of success? Is giving up control of one’s creation a prerequisite for success in our industry, or can artists who own their brands carve out successful careers? Can an artist sell a creation to a corportion, but still maintain the integrity of their personal brand ? There may be no easy answers, but I think these are questions worth asking.


  • http://www.dudegurlz.com Kris Kail

    Spike Lee does well because he IS his brand. If you see an ad for a movie you’re on the fence about and then you see someone you enjoy is attached to it chances are you’re gonna see it. This same trick applies to other artists such as Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Kevin Smith, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Plympton, Alan Moore, Jhonen Vasquez, anyone who really makes a name for themselves along with their work, if you see something they do that you don’t know about you might be interested based on the fact that they did it.

    Now that works if you have a good track record, but for someone that doesn’t promote themselves with their product but promotes the product first and foremost then it’s a little tougher to get noticed. To sell yourself as a product you really need to have the personality for it, you gotta be likable, sociable, and let your audience know that you’re their friend. If you can’t do that, then owning your own brand might be tougher, selling it to tv/movie studios might be the better way to go.

  • Rajesh

    You raise a good point, but I think what the article, and more specifically the quote, is getting at is generating income from enterprises bearing your brand but where you aren’t actually working.

    Wes Anderson, Paul Thomas Anderson are brands, but they only get paid when they direct movies. At least, according to this article, I personally have no idea. Spike Lee directs and stars in several commercials, and probably has directors which he employs.

    The question Amid is asking how can such a business model be applied to animation? Where you can attach your name, but not necessarily your labor, and it will sell a lot and net you enough money to live comfortably and privately fund your own projects or make it easier to finance them.

    And then also, on the artists’ terms and not the financier’s terms.

    For that to happen, the artist has to be, as you said, a master of shameless self promotion as well as have enough successes bearing his/her name lined up behind him/her.

    And even then it may only appeal to a limited market, in the same way many movie watchers today have no idea who Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino, or Wes Anderson are specifically.

    Of course, the brand/”artist” representing animation is mentioned in the article – Seth MacFarlane.

  • Mel

    The level of branding Spike Lee has reached came from having a great, unique (at the moment) product and getting there at a time when no one else was selling the same thing the same way. He has been astute about ancillary markets and moving his branded merch to his loyal audience. 40 Acres and a Mule is, if not quite a household name, a real global brand that provides Mr. Lee a reliable cash flow to help fund his many other creative endeavors. As Spike once said, “Ya gotta own stuff” (to succeed in America).

  • http://www.youtube.com/gooncartoons Frank Forte

    I think it’s possible with YouTube and mobile apps. if you can create a good cartoon and get millions of hits like TOMSKA or PSYCHOPEBBLES i think you can make enough to live. If you make some game apps that go with it–you can do even better,. Why not the networks will sell the ancillary rights or create games, tshirts, toys anyway. Look at Annoying Orange for an example.

  • Oliver

    “Lee is always on call, weighing in on issues…”

    You say that as if it were a GOOD thing.

    • Oluseyi

      It is. Even if you disagree with him – even if you disagree with him all the time – it is good for public discourse to have individuals participating in the national conversation whose points of view can not be attributed solely to campaign donations, endorsements or large corporate interests. The problem is that other people who could do the same – Steven Spielberg, Quentin Tarantino, George Lucas, Kevin Smith – largely avoid direct commentary on broad social issues, speaking only through their primary work as artists.

      Why is that a problem? Because they all share something Spike doesn’t: skin color. There is no imperative for them to comment because they are fundamentally secure, even abstracting away fame and wealth, and because they don’t have a coherent disenfranchised cohort to speak for. Spike speaks out on all issues – and he is often wrong, but he speaks anyway – because his core audience is heavily drawn from a sub-population in America that still has a tenuous grasp, as a whole, on the American Dream.

      If their grasp were more secure, or if his audience were more intrinsically diversified, then he’d speak out a lot less. cf Oprah Winfrey, Chris Rock, Tyler Perry.

      (Sorry to get political this morning. :-)

    • NYCity

      It most certainly is a good thing. The fact that he is willing to weigh in “on issues that matter” supports one of the important points of the article. Spike lee is not afraid to make waves. He is a film maker with integrity, in and industry full of people that seem to want to produce films “safe” films devoid of originality. Spike Lee’s always comes across like a intelligent person / artist, whether or not you agree with him or like his films.

      As it relates to the animation biz and answering the question of selling ones creation to a network being the pinnacle of success? It depends on how you define success. As seen on this very web site, there are many talented artists whose work is available on the web for all to see. Artists whose work is far better than some of the junk on the networks. Is that not success?

  • derik

    He has a good point, but he’s saying this like it’s something easy. Then again, this is also coming from the guy who tried to sue Spike TV for using the name Spike.

  • Oluseyi

    Two words – a name, really: Jerry Bruckheimer. Top Gun. Flashdance. Beverly Hills Cop. Bad Boys. The Rock. Con Air. Armageddon. Black Hawk Down. Pearl Harbor. CSI. Without a Trace. Cold Case. The Amazing Race.

    Love or loathe his brand of populist entertainment, his name and previous success gives a project cachet, whether for television or the big screen, scripted or reality. In fact, the entire phenomenon being described in terms of Spike Lee here is really normative among successful producers (J.J. Abrams, Dick Wolf). So the lesson would seem to be not just to be an artist, but to be a producer who enables other artists and notable works.

  • http://dangerusscartoons.blogspot.com DANGERUSS

    Good post. Something to strive towards. Respect.

  • Henry

    I haven’t seen Spike Lee films, but I like his mindset.
    I strongly believe that all artists are capable of branding their works if they’re not too caught up with making a living. Granted that some of them will make big and others will remain small, there is nothing more important than owning a right to his or her creation. Why should innovation limited to high tech circles?

    With recent fiasco of Digital Domain CEO tried to screw art interns, you can’t really trust some company to look out for your welfare.

    I understand that many artists are too busy making art for someone else, but I think it’s more important to collaborate with other artists to create franchise that can be branded. Even if you have to break way from comfort zone. I think only the artists and innovators are capable of creating opportunities for fellow artists and innovators.

    It’s up to each individual artist to decide how and what to create. As a team, it’s stronger to promote and sell their art effectively. For example, one person creates the image while second person handles graphic design merchandises and the third person handles marketing. It all comes to being producer or consumer.

  • http://[email protected] Floyd Norman

    Many think I have issues with Spike Lee because I called him on his comments about Walt Disney. My comments were justified because Spike never worked with Disney and I did. So, who knew the man better? Aside from that little disagreement, I’ve always had great respect for Mr. Lee as a film maker.