Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 2)

Beyond name or image recognition, there is more that Hitchcock did to build his brand. Before anything else was intentionally accomplished, it was important for Hitchcock to specialize quickly and stick to it. Other than Psycho and The Birds, the rest of Hitch’s films are suspense. And even Psycho and The Birds are suspenseful as well (but skew more towards the horror genre than suspense-thriller. Hitchcock specialized in the art of suspense. And you can learn more about this specific subject by reading the book Suspense with a Camera by Jeffrey Michael “the Hitchcock Whisperer” Bays. Having grown up in the silent film days, Hitchcock took the visual storytelling techniques used in those films and adapted them to “talkies.” Interestingly, while so many were turning visual films (a bit redundant since films should be visual) and including expansive dialogue (on the verge of sounding like a stage play), Hitch embraced the power of silence and minimalist dialogue that was truly an extension of the plot itself. The camera was the unspoken star of the movie.

Hitchcock was not only a master of suspense but was also a master at surrounding himself with talent. A quick glance over his prolific filmography (approx. 50 feature films plus many TV shows) reveals that he almost exclusively worked with the best talent on screen and behind the camera. Princess Grace Kelly, Janet Leigh, Jimmy Stewart, Carry Grant, Ingrid Bergman, Kim Novak, Tippi Hedron, Gregory Peck, and more. Hitchcock worked to forge relationships with the actors he wanted to work with. He made himself out to be someone they wanted to work with too. Of course, his reputation preceded him so many were predisposed to wanting to work with him even before meeting Hitch. This concept is referred to as branding by association. And you and I engage in this practice everyday on social media by following, commenting on, and tagging other users. We hope to be noticed, or we make ourselves someone that other influencers want to engage with. If you do all these actions under your name, then you are building your brand.

Creating engaging content, in which you are specialized, without knowing your audience can end in a lackluster performance. As a former marketing and sales professional, Hitch knew that he needed to identify his target audience to craft a story that would instantly resonate in a call to action (i.e. buying tickets). Through his studies and experience in marketing research and development, he knew how the human imagination worked and what cinematic elements would impact the audience most. Hitch started with the end result he wanted and worked backwards. Researchers call this inductive reasoning. By approaching his films this way, Hitch knew that the elements he chose to use and the method by which to execute them, he would achieve the desired result. The end result points us back to the “specialization’ step in the branding process because Hitch mastered the art of suspense with a camera evident in his ability to achieve it consistently. No one knew his audience better than Hitchcock did.

Although all the steps in Hitch’s branding process are vitally important, one step stands out in particular as perhaps the most important element. Take credit for your work. In no director today–or ever, really–have I witnessed a better and more entertaining example of taking credit for one’s work than Hitchcock. Between his famous cameo appearances and his show running of his title television program, which is largely what is responsible for making him a household name outside of cinephiles and film buffs, Hitchcock injected himself into our theatres and living rooms. And it’s that TV show’s opening that made the nine stroke profile sketch of Hitch world famous. In addition to taking credit for ones own work, there is also a need to allow others to promote you. And that’s where the critics and television hosts come in. Because of Hitch’s sense of humor and his mastery of cinematic storytelling, he was always a crowd favorite. Even though he never won an Academy Award (though, nominated several times), he was bestowed other awards in the US and UK. In fact, he was knighted by the Queen! So, we really should address him as Sir Alfred Hitchcock.

When many writers and directors were going full-talkie after Warner Bros. The Jazz Singer, in order to stand out from the crowd, Hitch made the decision to hold back on dialogue. Sometimes, Hitch would even have extended periods of near silence to place emphasis on the visual aspects of the conflict. Hitch described this practice of holding back on the dialogue, as holding back your cards. Using a poker game analogy, don’t lay all your cards on the table. Hitch desired to add multiple layers of conflict or dramatic irony to each scene. This process layers the story by adding new dimension to the conflict and dramatic irony. Hitchcock made it a point to guide the audience through the story versus telling them what was happening. Practices like this reinforce the idea of the Hitchcock brand.

Hitchcock’s mastery of suspenseful cinematic storytelling is demonstrated through his lack of detail-giving throughout his stories, whether we are talking his films or television shows. This action contributes to just why his films and shows are brilliant! In many ways, Hitch provides opportunities for the audience to figuratively contribute to the dialogue in the films. There is a high degree of anticipation as the audience does throughout the story; and it’s this heightened sense of anticipation that contributes to to engagement factor. Again, it may seem that there are other directors who have also done this, but Hitchcock was the first. And this is part of his brand.

What sets Hitchcock apart from his contemporaries as the first director to brand himself, is the important step of the branding process that requires the content, service, or product creator to elevate the product or service to an art form. We have plenty of examples of this today such as Apple, Lego, Disney, and yes even Michael Bay. Think about it. As soon as I mention Michael Bay, you instantly form an image of his style of motion pictures to mind. Furthermore, you know precisely what you are going to get (and not get) and you’re guaranteed to get more than two hours of explosions, homophobia, over-sexualization of women, lack of coherent plot, car chases and more. In fact, the concept of an explosion is synonymous with Michael Bay; it is his brand, so to speak. Hitchcock accomplished creating his brand decades before Bay. Whether talking about Hitchcock films today or back when they were first-run movies, the general public knew precisely what they were going to get with a Hitchcock film. Interestingly, this is why Psycho was such a big deal because Hitch broke some of his own rules to redefine the American horror film. And it’s this breaking of cinematic rules that made the film a success then and now.

Just because you have a logo, a recognizable name, and a record of successes, that does not mean that you are a brand. It’s like this: just because you have all the ingredients to make that fancy dish you had at that exclusive restaurant, that does not mean you can replicate the dish. You need the recipe that details the order and amounts. That is not unlike becoming a brand in the art and science of motion pictures. Part of being a brand goes beyond the product or service in which you have demonstrated specialization; you have to take all the respective elements of brand building, and then create an experience for the audience. Motion picture director branding is experiential. More than a couple hours of exceptional entertainment, the audience desires greatly to experience the director’s vision. Through his understanding of audience, Hitchcock knew how to activate movie goers and create an emotional connection between his name and image and what they desire for the best cinematic experience possible.

While the knowledge for motion picture producers and directors to use logos, color pallet, typography, iconography, design, and imagery strategically was not new with Hitchcock, he was the first director in Hollywood to combine the power of all those elements and the others that have been mentioned in this essay. Separately, each of the aforementioned elements can be influential tools; but combined, they are extremely powerful for developing a brand.

PART 1

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Thrillz (theme parks): Thrillz.co

Advertisements

Alfred Hitchcock: the First Director to Brand Himself (Part 1)

More than an instantly recognizable silhouette. Before the idea of a director branding him or herself became as common a goal as it is today, Alfred Hitchcock pioneered the very concept of a director developing a brand that would instantly be recognizable by millions. Not only was Hitch the Master of Suspense, and still is, but he was also a master of marketing. Unknown to many, Hitchcock worked in sales and marketing before he became one of, if not the, most recognizable name in cinematic history. Between his experience in marketing and with silent filmmaking, he was a master of captivating visual storytelling way before his most well known works of cinema. I teach media and screenwriting at the University of Tampa, and I’ve often told my students that writing a compelling, memorable, effective thirty-second commercial can be more difficult than writing a two-hour film. I realize that illustration overly simplifies the respective concepts; however, the idea is that if you can proficiently tell an intriguing or impactful story in thirty-seconds, then you can proficiently write a two-hour movie. Taking what worked well in advertising and marketing, and adapting it to a cinematic diegetic structure, Hitchcock was able to capitalize on his penchant for visual storytelling and ability to prompt desired physiological and emotional responses from the audience. The American Marketing Association defines a brand as “a name, term, design, symbol, or any other feature that identifies one seller’s good or service as distinct from those of other sellers.” The fact that Hitch’s name and silhouette have instant meaning, definition attached to them, is evidence enough that he was a master of branding.

Prior to understanding just how Hitchcock became the first director to brand himself, it is paramount to understand how a brand–more specifically brand recognition–comes to exist in the first place. A simplistic method of understanding what defines a brand takes the form of a relationship between an image (or idea) and the individual. Relationship is key. There is an emotion attached to the relationship between the image and the products or services that it represents; moreover, this relationship is not without a practical component such as cozy fur-lined boots or an automobile with consistent impeccable quality. By extension, the relationship between an individual and a brand can create a sense of importance, safety, or class. Once a relationship is formed, then the individual experiences both physiological and emotional reactions to the sight or sound of the image or idea. Think of that feeling you get when you see the Disney castle or hear “Wish Upon a Star.” Or perhaps, imagine how you feel or react when you see a BMW or wear a Rolex. These are iconic brands that mean something to many individuals. The mere exposure to the sight, sound, or message will prompt a comprehensive response within the mind and body. As the maxim goes, “imitation is the highest form of flattery;” therefore a quality, successful product or service will be copied but never fully replicated because there is always a secret ingredient that makes the original unique. In addition to the aforementioned, when an image or idea becomes a recognizable brand, then there is a power endowed upon that image that gives that company (that owns the image, product, or service) a kind of soft power that cannot easily be quantified but it’s quite real and figuratively measurable.

Not unlike Rolex, BMW, and Disney, Alfred Hitchcock was and is also a brand–and a powerful one at that. He was the first director to become a brand; and since then, others have tried to brand themselves as well. Some with success and others with defeat. One of the keys to Hitchcock’s ability to combine the words of marketing and filmmaking in order to not only develop a reputation but become a brand, Hitchcock recognized early in his career (especially after coming to the United States) the importance of promoting himself–his actual image–in conjunction with the promotion of a particular film. He demonstrated a clearly intentional desire to ensure that his name was at the forefront of the conscious of the American public. When a particular director, who consistently delivers quality or groundbreaking films, links the outstanding performance of the films with his or her image, then the mere sight of or name of that director carries priceless value. Following the breakup of the studio system over the late 1940s through the 50s, there arose an increased opportunity for to claim authorship of a motion picture. Prior to the decentralization of Hollywood, most movies were completely packaged by the Studio/distribution company, with the director playing a minor role. With the new opportunities to connect a motion picture to the director during marketing, it paved the way for directors to advance their own careers as well as the success of the movie. As studio authorship decreased, individual (director or producer) authorship increased!

According to Janet Staiger in her essay Creating the Brand: the Hitchcock Touch, she outlines four significant criterion that apply to image or brand as it relates to showbusiness. (1) the character persona that is created by selection of performances in film, tv, web media, etc (2) the performer (acting ability) in those mediums (3) the worker/laborer that develops from what is learned about the individual’s professional life in respect to business dealings and (4) the private persona that derives from the individual’s off-camera personal life. Whereas these criteria are more aligned with an actor or actress, these elements can be applied, by extension, to understanding Hitchcock as a brand. Hitchcock’s character can be seen through his genre selection–the types of films that a director authors. Think of his genre selection as the equivalent of the types of characters an actor or actress chooses to play. We recognize the performer element in Hitchcock’s consistent ability to direct the motion pictures with incredible precision and innovate programming for then-new mediums like television. Hitch’s worker/laborer attribute is found in what we know about his behind-the-scenes work on set and in the business offices. Most famously is his near-departure from Paramount when he went to make Psycho, for which they earmarked zero funding. He self-financed the iconic film and used his Alfred Hitchcock Presents crew. Passion, determination, and commitment witnessed. In terms of his private persona, Hitch was famously a practical joker and a family man. In fact, his daughter appeared in multiple episodes of Presents. All these elements together combine to create Hitchcock’s image.

But there is more to branding oneself than crafting an figurative or metaphysical image. There is the physical image that is recognized by the naked eye. After injecting himself into film social circles comprised of well-established directors, screenwriters, and even critics and journalists, he had a well-known name. And even though a name can carry power, it needs a tangible representation. Although one may assess that Hitchcock came up with that trademark minimalistic nine stroke silhouette, the inspiration came from a series of director sketches that appeared in The Motion Picture Studio journal in 1923. There, we have a group of then and now famous directors with Hitch appearing sideways with his famous belly out and hands in his pockets. By the 1930, Hitchcock was being heralded as a master of suspense. And that description of Hitch’s work continued until the moniker stuck in perpetuity.

In addition to the soon-to-be-moniker, film magazines took notice of his notable weight. By the late 1930s, it is said that Hitch already weighed in excess of 300lbs. As the maxim goes, “there is no bad publicity,” and that can definitely be witnessed in how Hitch’s brand continued to develop during his early days in America. The constant articles about his weight, the unprecedented success of his films, his cameos in those films, and sketched of Hitch, all those elements together created Hitch’s image. You can very much liken the evolution of the Hitchcock figurative image and physical logo to the evolution of Walt Disney’s image and either the Mickey ears or castle logo. Whereas the content of the motion pictures that both produced/directed respectively are quite different, they share one important element in common. They both injected themselves into the production and marketing of their work as much as possible. Although Walt Disney made himself into a brand (most solidly after Snow White), it was Hitchcock who was the pioneer in the very idea of a director creating his (or her) recognizable brand. In many ways, Walt follow Hitch’s direction to make his brand. But where did the famous nine stroke sketch come from? Well, according to author Robert Kapsis in his book Hitchcock: the Making of a Reputation, he drew the sketch himself in 1927 for the purpose of making it into a gift for his friends and colleagues. He created a wooden jigsaw puzzle with the iconic image an placed it in a small linen bag. I cannot think of anything more Hitchcock. This parallels how Hitch injected himself into his cinematic work both in the story itself, as a cameo, and in the marketing of his films.

Hitchcock knew that to create a brand–as everything he has accomplished for this result has been completely intentional–he needed to make a connection between his films and himself, and then himself to his name, and his name to the abstract profile. Then when someone sees the logo, they are immediately predisposed to feeling a certain way about Hitch and his films. It’s a bi-directional highway, so to speak.

Part 2

Ryan is a screenwriting professor at the University of Tampa. If you like this article, check out the others and FOLLOW this blog!

Follow him!

Twitter: RLTerry1

Instagram: RL_Terry

Thrillz (theme parks): Thrillz.co