Book Report: Brian Grazer’s A CURIOUS MIND

Producer Brian Grazer and business journalist Charles Fishman write about the benefits of curiosity.

Why are you reading this blog post?

What brings you to Birth.Movies.Death. in the first place?

What could we do to make the site better, to get you coming back for more?

I’m really curious about the answers to all of those questions, but that’s not actually what this post is about. It’s just that after reading Brian Grazer’s A Curious Mind, it’s impossible to start a conversation about the book without leading with questions, and it’s interesting to think about who all of our readers are and whether posts like this would be interesting to you at all (and maybe it’s not - that’s totally fine, too).

Because while, yes, Brian Grazer is a movie producer, and this is a website about movies, his book really isn’t about producing movies, and it’s not about working with Ron Howard, and it’s not an explanation of how the same producer could make Liar Liar and Frost/Nixon.

It’s also not at all what I was expecting the book to be after hearing Grazer on various podcasts and seeing his Daily Show interview with Jon Stewart months ago. If you’ve heard any of those interviews, then you probably know that Brian Grazer decided to write this book because he has a long history of scheduling “curiosity conversations,” which is basically his way of reaching out to interesting luminaries in different fields and trying to get an hour of their time to learn about what the world is like for them. Using this technique really helped him start his career, and in the ‘70s his goal was to meet with someone new in the entertainment industry every week, but as he achieved his own success he started meeting with people outside the entertainment industry to help him keep an open mind.

He’s met with Fidel Castro and President Obama, but he’s also met with Jonas Salk, who created the polio vaccine, and Daryl Gates, the chief of the LA police during the 1992 Rodney King riots - and he met with him DURING THE RIOTS, which is insane.

Hearing about that habit, I thought that it would be a good discipline to develop for myself, because I like meeting new people and making connections, but I’m kind of shy about cold calling, I don’t like email and I tend to stick to routines. I picked up a copy of the book and assumed it would be full of stories about his various curiosity conversations, and that each chapter would talk about things he learned through those meetings.

Instead, there are a few recaps of notable meetings with big luminaries as part of the afterward, but the main book is more like the NPR-friendly idea sort of non-fiction, like a Malcolm Gladwell project mixed in with some first person narration and autobiography. Grazer and his co-writer Charles Fishman spend most of the book actually talking about curiosity itself, and how it can be used as a tool for innovation and creativity, and how Grazer has used it in his life for a wide variety of purposes.

I’m a total sucker for those types of idea books - during the Fantastic Fest screening of Nightcrawler I asked the director about all the business book jargon lingo that Jake Gyllenhaal’s Lou Blume uses in his dialogue, and Devin immediately tweeted something about how I was looking for a reading list from a psychopath - and I get so fascinated by thinking about ways of applying them to work and relationships that it’s most of what I read these days, so even though the main idea of A Curious Mind is a little bit simplistic, I’m super into it.

So yeah, the book isn’t filled with wisdom gained from a lifetime of meeting with some of the smartest people in the country. Instead it’s a defense of the idea of asking questions, and a manifesto for using questions and curiosity as a way to build better relationships, create better work, expand your horizons and be more awesome. There’s nothing to argue with in that thesis, but the examples cited didn’t need a book this long.

But I don’t particularly care, because it’s easy to skim past some of the points where the same idea is repeated over and over again, and when I’m reading a book like this I’m not interested in arguing for or against the level of prose, I’m most interested in what takeaways I’m going to get after digesting all of the ideas. Mike Sherrill, the Alamo CCO, and I will frequently talk about how any book, article, or even a full conference can be worth the time and expense if it gives you one good idea, or one new thought. And really, that’s just being curious. But even though I was maybe already curious by nature, I still came away from this reading with a few new thoughts to mull over:

1) I definitely want to start having some curiosity meetings myself.

I mentioned that already, but the hook that sold me on this book was that I’ve always loved the idea of reaching out to more people and learning from them. I have some very successful friends who lead super interesting lives primarily by being experts in the art of truly connecting with a vast collective of people in a manner that creates friendships rather than just “networking.” I already envied that aspect of their lives, but I hadn’t thought about the benefits that could come from a 20 minute meeting with someone interesting even if there’s no further friendship or connections that will ever be made.

Grazer’s approach makes the goal more immediate, which lowers the pressure, and greatly increases the pleasure to be found in meeting new people. I’m very curious to see if I can be better at doing that myself, and fortunately the back of the book actually gives the reader all of the instructions that you’d need to start having your own curiosity conversations. If I actually pull any of those off, maybe I’ll come back here and write about them. I dunno.

2) Sam Walton’s method of hosting Saturday meetings.

This is probably something that’s mentioned in other business-y self-help style books, but I hadn’t heard of it before. Apparently when Sam Walton was running Wal-Mart, he would have weekly meetings with his top managers across the country every Saturday. They would go over sales data and how things were moving in the store to analyze aisle set up and the business basics like that, but they would also do a competitor analysis where people who had visited other stores would report back on what they found - but only on what they saw the other stores doing right.

According to this telling, Walton wasn’t worried about what his competitors were doing wrong, because that couldn’t hurt Wal-Mart. But he recognized that his team couldn’t come up with every innovation in retail, and he was curious enough about the retail experience in general to always want to know more.

That struck a chord with me, because a lot of times when I’m talking to someone about movie theaters that aren’t the Alamo our conversation will be about how lame the regular movie theater experience is, how annoying the commercials during the preshow are, how there was a loud baby in a rated-R movie, and so on.

If you have too many of those conversations it’s easy to get a big head and just start thinking, “Yeah, but I work for the Alamo Drafthouse, the best movie theater ever, and everything is awesome!” And I do hope that we’re the best movie theater we can be, and that we’re the favorite theater of a lot of you, and I love it when we announce a new location on this blog and then the comments are filled with people wanting us to open a theater in their hometown.

But there are other theaters out there that are doing some really great things, and there are other operators out there that we can always be learning from. That’s especially true in the world of the independent cinemas and the family of theaters in the Arthouse Convergence, where everyone is building community and constantly striving for truly innovative programming while also working together as a team to make better and better locally owned theaters all over the country. In fact, it’s worth noting that if you don’t have an Alamo near you, you should still be taking some time to enjoy something unique at whatever independent theater is within 100 miles of your home as often as possible.

Beyond that, though, I’m curious to see what would happen if we started studying the big box competitors more and looking solely for things that they’re doing that are really interesting and good. The exhibition landscape is constantly changing, and there are all sorts of interesting things happening in it. We obviously talk about the cool things when they come to our attention, but developing a discipline of study like that could lead to some really interesting findings.

And of course that’s not just in the space of theaters, but also in cinematic events. Now that I’m running the Rolling Roadshow I’ve been able to be proud of the work we’re doing with things like this summer’s Jaws on the Water event, but damn it, I’m jealous of the way Secret Cinema is able to build out an entire fucking town for Back to the Future, and all of the pop up shops they’ve done for Empire Strikes Back in London. I want to know more about events like that so we can all keep building them up to bigger and better heights.

3) Use questions more frequently, in more ways.

This can be common sense, but again - it’s still good to get one small idea out of it. Ultimately curiosity is just asking questions, and Grazer talks about how he’ll use questions as a manager of his team as well as in his role as producer. He asks questions like, “Why are we making this movie?” without having an answer in mind - sometimes when they’re dealing with whatever difficulties come up in the production he’ll want a reminder, and if they don’t have a good answer maybe they won’t go further down the road with that project.

I’d like to develop the discipline of asking a set of questions before embarking on any project, and I like Grazer’s idea that there isn’t any one “right” movie, and that will apply to so many events for us, too.

I also like the idea of relying on questions more in general, and I know I have a bad habit of wanting to be the guy with the answers instead. But a lot of the time there is no one “answer,” which is why there isn’t any one “good” version of the movie for Grazer, and there are a lot of ways you can solve each problem. As he puts it:

Because most modern problems - lowering someone’s cholesterol, getting passengers onto an airplane efficiently, or searching all of human knowledge - don’t have a right answer. They have all kinds of answers, many of them wonderful. To get at the possibilities, you have to find out what ideas and reactions are in other people’s minds. You have to ask them questions.

How do you see this problem?

What are we missing?

Is there another way of tackling this?

How would we solve this if we were the customer?

Most of the time, these aren’t those kinds of right-or-wrong decisions. And you know, if something doesn’t work out financially - if it’s not a success, you want to be able to stand back and say, ‘This is still something I’m proud of.’

Totally. The stakes are smaller for us when we’re doing an Alamo event than they are for someone in Hollywood making a major motion picture, but it’s still an important set of questions to ask so that we can end up with something we’re proud of, even if we don’t connect with an audience.

Side note - one time we did something like that was when we thought it would be a lot of fun to do a Quote-Along screening of Cabin Boy during Discovery Channel’s Shark Week (you know, because Chalky is a half-man, half-shark, and that’s a really big tie-in to a cable network showing fake documentaries about mythical giant sharks that don’t exist). We spent a lot of time and energy developing a full show, building a subtitle track, buying props for the crowd… and ultimately only six people showed up. So, yeah, not a success.

But goddamn it, that was a fun show anyway, and Alamo Director of Creative Production John Gross and I had a great time yelling out, “These pipes… are CLEEAAAN!” Then earlier this year, Gross was awesome enough to invite Chris Elliott to the Off-Centered Film Festival here in Austin and we got to have a sold out screening of Cabin Boy, and that was even more awesome.

4) Know when to stop asking questions.

Grazer calls this anti-curiosity, and it’s a really important part of the process, too. Basically once you’ve satisfied your curiosity and made the case for yourself that you’re going to pursue a project, you don’t want to be too curious about the reasons other people don’t think it’s a good idea. Another pull quote:

If I’ve formed an opinion on something fundamental like a movie we should do, if I’ve dedicated a lot of time to it, a lot of money, a lot of curiosity, then I don’t want any more information on it. I don’t want you trying to ‘recontextualize’ an artistic decision I’ve made. Thanks anyway, I don’t want your critique.

Because here’s another thing I know for sure: You don’t know what a good idea is.

At least, you don’t know what a good idea is any more than I know what a good idea is. No one in Hollywood really knows what a good idea is before a movie hits the screens. We only know if it’s a good idea after it’s done.

That kind of thing is super important working in any creative industry, I imagine. Everyone has opinions, and everyone has their own taste, but once you’ve spent a lot of time developing your own taste and then have a project or a direction you think is the right move, it’s probably worth making that move.

Last year, I read through Ed Catmull, Jr’s excellent book about Pixar, Creativity, Inc, and he talks a lot about the “brain trusts” that they’ve developed to help directors bring a project from pitch to final film. Those meetings are filled with critiques and criticisms of the work, but everyone in the room is working toward the same goal - making that movie the best movie it can be - and they’re all there explicitly to help the director accomplish that. You always want to hear the answer to those kinds of questions, but if you end up in a situation where someone is just saying, “No,” then it’s probably best for the project to move on and don’t worry about it.

I’ll give Grazer the final word on that subject:

You know to stop being curious when your results are just the opposite of what you need - when they sap your momentum, drain your enthusiasm, corrode your confidence. When you’re getting a critique but not much in the way of useful ideas, that’s the moment for a pinch of anti-curiosity.

There are a lot of other great anecdotes in the book as well, and reading about his decision to first gel and spike his hair in the now iconic Grazer style is great all on its own. Ultimately, reading the book is a bit like having your own curiosity conversation with the Hollywood producer, and of course reading most books allows that insight. Grazer himself suffered from what he considers to be an undiagnosed form of dyslexia as he was growing up, so reading was a great difficulty for him and he had to start having meetings with people to really enjoy getting inside their heads. Fortunately, most of us can seek to use our curiosity even without being able to afford an assistant who’ll spend a year trying to get a meeting with someone for us.

Although I’m curious to know how many people are bothering Brian Grazer’s assistants these days...