Can Creativity Survive in Hollywood?

We live in an age when the creative genius of one individual can easily be lost in the crowd. Although some clever souls may labor alone to produce a masterpiece, that is less and less the case in a complex world where many must work together toward a common goal.

It may take scores of scientists and technicians on several continents, using huge instruments that cost billions of bucks, to carry out a single experiment in high energy physics. The days when one person, working on a single computer, could produce software that could change the world, are disappearing fast, if they are not already gone.

More often than not, these days, creativity seems to be a collective process. It's increasingly rare for a Nobel Prize to be awarded now to a single recipient for either science or medicine.

But, creativity is a very individualized process. It most often springs forth from the genetic background and personal experiences of one person who sees something no one has seen before, and somehow brings that vision to fruition.

Scientists say creativity stems partly from genetics — some are more disposed toward it than others — and partly from environment. A creative person is likely to be intelligent and more receptive to new ideas, and that inclination will likely be expressed early in life. True to image, a very creative person may also seem a bit odd.

Researchers at Vanderbilt University concluded a couple of years ago that creative persons are likely to live somewhere between normalcy and schizophrenia. They may be socially awkward, adept at finding new uses for old tools, but they are not sick. The researchers even gave the condition a name: schizo-type.

But, that's on an individual level. Can personal creativity survive large-scale collaboration? Is it possible for a bunch of highly creative people, working together on a single project, to produce a product that is more creative than the sum of its parts?

Sometimes, but it isn't easy, according to psychologist Dean Simonton of the University of California, Davis, who has studied creativity across a wide spectrum, ranging from Einstein's physics to the movie industry. Everyone knows Einstein was a scientific genius, but his work is revered as much for its creativity as it is for its insights into the fundamental workings of the forces that power the universe.

Einstein had a little help from his friends, but the driving force behind his revolutionary insights was just one man, working alone, creating concepts that were so extraordinary, that few then, and even now, really understood what he was talking about.

That's the way creativity is supposed to work. One person changing the world through a personal vision. And that's pretty much the way Simonton and other researchers had looked at the matter, until one day a few years ago, when a student in one of Simonton's classes asked him a question.

"What about the movies?" the student asked. "Isn't that a form of creativity?"

Simonton had already produced one book, and numerous technical articles, on creativity, but that question changed the course of his research.

"Psychologists study individuals," he said in an interview. "The focus is on individual creativity. And the problem with film is it's a collaborative effort — it's a group form of creativity."

So, Simonton began collecting movies by the thousands. He has since immersed himself in trying to understand how personal creativity can sometimes prevail in the firehouse atmosphere of movie production, where highly charged personalities compete amid budgetary constraints, conflicting goals and differing visions.

"You have a lot of people working together on the same thing, and usually, no one really has control over how it's going to turn out," Simonton said. "A lot of things happen that are out of control. A lot of people do not always know what the other people are doing. Some are working together, some aren't. The composer is off in his separate world. Creativity often doesn't survive that."

Simonton's interest is, primarily, in film as art. It may be easier to make a movie that makes money than it is to create a piece of modern art out of the souls of a bunch of disparate characters and talents. Basic formulas tend to produce successful films at the box office.

"That's what producers are interested in," he said. "They finance a film to make money. If you want to make money, do a sequel. It's fail-safe, it's risk aversion [although the critics might hate it] it's playing it safe."

Ah, but art, that's a different story. Is there a formula there as well?

It turns out that there is, to a large extent. Simonton said his research shows that certain conditions tend to allow creativity to survive the turmoil of making a movie, although there's no guarantee of success.

It helps, he said, if the film is based on a serious novel or play, which was based on a true story, and if the writer is directly involved in making the film (like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding"). Thus, one vision is more likely to persist.

But, it helps even more, Simonton said, if the project is run by one individual with a strong personality.

"The most successful movies are the movies where there is one person in charge," Simonton said.

That person is usually the director, who frequently participates in writing the screenplay, and may play a major character. Think Woody Allen or Clint Eastwood.

"They build up enough confidence, enough clout, that they can start calling the shots."

But, even the superstars sometimes produce bombs, so there's no guarantee of success.

Perhaps the best formula is to pick a creative genius, give him or her an unlimited budget, let him or her make more than one movie simultaneously, so the entire process can be controlled, and concentrate on a theme that would require enormous creative input from talents ranging from wardrobe to special affects. Then wait for the critical acclaim to flow in.

That sounds unlikely, and indeed it is, but it's also a bit of history.

Simonton noted that Peter Jackson was hired to direct the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and was given total control over the project. He spent $280 million, took eight years to produce all three films simultaneously and ended up with 17 Oscars and critical acclaim.

So, does that mean creativity is finally blossoming in the movie biz? Have we entered a new era?

Well, not exactly.

When Simonton was asked to name the best example of creativity in motion pictures, he picked one that was largely the work of one man who had complete control over the entire process, and even played the lead role.

It was picked earlier this year by the American Film Institute as No. 1 on its list of the 100 greatest U.S. movies of all time. The movie was "Citizen Kane," starring, directed and produced by Orson Welles. That was 1941. It fits Simonton's formula perfectly.

Individual creativity, in that, as well as other cases, trumped collective creativity, and one vision emerged. Rare, but beautiful, when it happens.

Lee Dye is a former science writer for the Los Angeles Times. He now lives in Juneau, Alaska.