This business case study of Ferran AdriÃ ‘s restaurant elBulli restaurant has nothing to do on the surface with cartoons, yet the conclusions of the study can be applied equally well to the animation industry.
In particular, this comment by Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School stands out:
“AdriÃ ‘s idea is that if you listen to customers, what they tell you they want will be based on something they already know. If I like a good steak, you can serve that to me, and I’ll enjoy it. But it will never be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. To create those experiences, you almost can’t listen to the customer.”
One of the key points in Norton’s study is making a distinction between understanding and listening to customers; the former is what AdriÃ does. Apply this to the idea of focus grouping in animation, and you might see where I’m headed. Norton is saying that if AdriÃ focus-grouped his food to satisfy the preconceived notions of his customers, his restaurant would be no different from all the others. The reason his restaurant is sold out year-round is because he surprises the tastes and sensibilities of his customers with an unpredictable personal vision.
In an increasingly homogenized culture, audiences (whether in a restaurant or in front of TV) crave experiences that are different and new. The entire purpose of focus groups in animation, however, is to ensure that audiences are given more of the same previously-successful ideas. But, look at many of the most successful animated series of recent years–The Simpsons, Ren and Stimpy, Beavis & Butt-head, South Park, Family Guy–and what they have in common is that they broke the mold of everything that preceded them. Focus groups (which I should point out are different from test screenings that can actually aid filmmakers) are a hindrance to the development of successful animation; an unspoken reason for their existence is largely to relieve execs of accountability for their decisions: “Well, I don’t know why the show failed,” they can say. “The focus groups loved it.”