How Ava DuVernay Is Finding Blue Oceans in Hollywood

Several years ago, a friend/colleague challenged me to “be the Ava DuVernay in business.” At the time, I couldn’t even imagine what that meant. And so I started paying closer attention, watching videos where she was interviewed and studying what she was doing right. She would come up in dinner conversations about change-making. She would be cited as an example of innovator at work. And so… when she got nominated for 16 Emmy award nominations for the recent Netflix series, I thought it was a great opportunity to share what I’ve learned. DuVernay conquered a brand new market, by centering on that thing she valued. In doing so, she got to create value. For her, for her audience, and of course for Netflix. I wrote about her blue ocean in HBR this week.

HBR STAFF/J. COUNTESS/CONTRIBUTOR/GETTY IMAGES

Nine years ago, Ava DuVernay was a publicist. Today she is a breakout director, with her revolutionary “When They See Us” Netflix series reaching 23 million accounts in the first few weeks after its release and receiving 16 Emmy Award nominations. While her career trajectory could be called many things, from extraordinary to meteoric, a close look at DuVernay’s choices, actions, and raison d’être reveal something else: She is showing innovators everywhere how to conquer blue oceans.

Blue oceans embody the lifeblood of growth, profits, and innovation. They represent new customers found by bold individuals who have created and captured new perspectives from left field. Red oceans, by contrast, represent existing customers; each product fights mightily to earn even a sliver of market share.

Hollywood filmmaking today is a red ocean industry. Since the advent of American film, movies have been directed mostly by white men, have featured largely white casts, and have told mostly white-centered stories, even as audiences and actors, writers, directors, and others have grown more diverse. For example, while people of color were 40% of the U.S. population in 2016, 87% of film directors were white. Women represent slightly more than half of the population, yet in 2016 93% of directors were male.

It’s not just the demographic data of this 100-year-old marketplace that shapes the red ocean boundary; it’s also the conventional wisdom the industry tells itself. Consider that until just 10 years ago, many in Hollywood believed that women-led action films “don’t work.” It took the Hunger Games franchise, whose first two films set box-office records, to bust that myth. Or think of Black Panther — conventional wisdom has said for years that movies with black actors won’t be commercially successful abroad, yet Black Pantherreached $1 billion in global revenue within four weeks.

Conventional thinking in red oceans is why blue oceans go undiscovered.

New markets are found when someone stands in a spot that gives them a point of view distinctly their own. It is from this point, this centering spot of onlyness, that blue ocean markets are first spotted. It’s how Steve Jobs of Apple Computer found a blue ocean in the tech industry by centering design. It’s how Kara Goldin of Hint Water found one in the soda industry by centering health. And it’s how Ava DuVernay found a blue ocean in the film and TV industry by centering her work on people of color. But conquering blue oceans takes more than just believing that they are there. New boats have to be built, crews have work together, and currents found to build momentum and growth. DuVernay provides an excellent example of how to do all three.

Build the Boat

Like every innovator in any industry, she wanted to tell the stories that mattered to her. Selma, the 2014 movie about Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights march on Selma, Alabama, was informed by DuVernay’s childhood summers in that same area. Middle of Nowhere, set in DuVernay’s hometown of Compton, California, tells the story of a woman’s separation from her incarcerated husband, focusing on the texture of the lives of women who live there. In When They See Us, she retold the 30-year-old story of five African American teenagers falsely convicted of rape in 1989, shifting the narrative from the “Central Park Five” to “the exonerated five.”

Consider what it took for DuVernay to bring these ideas to market. In 2017 researchers Adam Galinsky and Joe C. Magee of Columbia University described how power and status act as self-reinforcing loops: How much status a person has directly affects whether their ideas are heard. People with high status (the Hollywood producer, the project lead, someone who looks like the existing leader) are met with greater receptivity early on, earning them the time and emotional support to develop nascent ideas into more complete and robust ones. This success then further boosts their status, leading to even more opportunity. Equally, a person of relatively low status — someone who lacks a pedigree or credentials, is too old or too young, is female, or is a person of color — is unlikely get any of the same support, not because their idea was weighed and deemed unworthy, but because it came from a person who was deemed relatively powerless, and therefore unworthy of being heard.

Facing this dynamic, DuVernay withdrew from the loop. After being dismissed time and again, she stopped seeking access and permission from the kingmakers and tried a different approach: She built a new boat.

In 2010, DuVernay launched a tiny distribution company of just two people, now called Array. Array was to be a peer-to-peer grassroots distribution, arts, and advocacy collective focused on films by women and people of color. With Array, DuVernay was asserting her perspective — that stories centering on people of color needed to be told — as valid. By finding even one other person who cared about the same thing she did, she was creating the necessary condition for the idea to be heard. She hoped, more than knew, that it would lead to new markets.

Gather and Shape the Crew

We often think of blue ocean ideas as bright sparks of creativity, created by an individual with superhuman insight. In reality, every new idea needs a crew to coax it into being.

The crew at Array has now grown to 17 people, all of whom work together to redefine what is good and acceptable to create. Array intentionally became a purposeful place for like-minded individuals to shape their common agenda — to create stories that are centered on women and people of color and that don’t carry the burden of explaining women’s stories or black art and culture as they do so. In this context, they came to craft new stories, grow production capabilities, and gather as a collective to create market reach.

Even in directing A Wrinkle in Time for a major production studio, DuVernay demanded that those social constructs follow her even as she worked with a new company: “Don’t bring me a bunch of white men,” she said. “I expect you to…choose department heads who don’t look like the majority of department heads.”

This is how one reaches blue oceans, not by oneself, not as a singular hero or rebel or nonconformist but as a crew and social construct builder. The result is in, and it’s clear that with When They See Us, DuVernay didn’t show up to this 16-Emmy-nominations moment alone; she came with her crew.

You reach blue oceans as a crew working together. Because it is with our crew that we can ask new questions of one another, to center differently. It is with our crew we take the risk and trust each other enough to figure out what we don’t know, to then learn or relearn what we need to know. It is with our crew that we build the future.

Find the Current

Today scale happens in sharing. Connected people, enabled by social media, can now reach audiences and markets in ways that once only large organizations or the extremely rich could. Flattening access to scale means that new ideas can come from anyone and blue oceans can be reached without having traditional power and industry status. This makes it possible for small crews in seaworthy boats to find currents and build momentum.

Sharing is how an idea starts. It was the current that brought the story of When They See Usto her, through Raymond Santana Jr., one of the teens falsely convicted. In April 2015 he’d just seen Selma and he asked what her on Twitter what her next project would be, adding “#cp5 #fingerscrossed.” She messaged him, and the story goes on from there.

Sharing also changes reach. Since Netflix hasn’t released audience data for When They See Us beyond impressive high-level figures, we can turn to Black Panther for another example of using sharing to find blue oceans. In this movie, director Ryan Coogler told the story of a fictional African kingdom, featuring an almost uniformly black cast and strong women leads. As a result, Black Panther drew the most diverse theater audience ever — both in terms of race and gender — for any superhero film.

Many try to credit Black Panther’s reach to good marketing, pointing out that the movie was promoted to huge audiences at events like New York Fashion Week, the NBA Finals, and the halftime show of college football’s championship game. But it was Marvel’s choice of Coogler as director that set up a chain reaction. He knew the market he was aiming for, and by choosing to share the trailer in these spaces Coogler created a critical mass for the film without having to unduly rationalize why he wanted to create the film he envisioned. Similarly, Coogler’s choice of bringing in rapper Kendrick Lamar to curate the Billboard-topping soundtrack used Lamar’s network and reach to further scale the movie. Each decision led to a connection which led to sharing.

The truth underlying When They See Us and Black Panther shows how to catch new currents to blue oceans: Who we are changes what we make. What we center changes the product. Who we include changes what is created. What is then produced changes who engage with it, and shares it, and scales it.

DuVernay has shown us what the work of discovering blue oceans looks like: It is claiming that spot in the world where only you stand, even if that means leaving rooms where you’re being dismissed and marginalized. It is gathering your crew, those who share your commitment and purpose and will work to create new truths. It is finding the communities that can share your vision and scale it. These are unconventional ways to lead. Leaving. Social. Sharing. They seem counterintuitive and even wrong to those who lead red oceans. But they are how growth and progress and innovation happen. It’s what explorers do to chart new territory.

Do/Act/Next

Name who or what you “center.”  For example, I center those whose ideas are lost because are traditionally powerless in organizations or in society. Those who are ignored, silenced, oppressed (even by oneself).  Morrison centered on black people and told those stories without a white gaze. Jobs literally invented a “personal” computer industry by centering design and the ability for people to be creators themselves. By naming who or what you center,  you can be clear who you serve and why. It’s the starting point, the origin. Write it down, now. 

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