Roger Ebert once said, “A movie is not what it is about, but how it is about it.” Riffing off this, Tom Asacker writes, “If your business is struggling with disengaged employees, fickle customers and razor thin margins, it’s because you believe that your brand is what it is about instead of how it is about it.”
The post reminds me of the MacGuffin, a filmmaking concept used frequently by Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock’s description of the MacGuffin:
[It’s] the device, the gimmick, if you will, or the papers the spies are after…The only thing that really matters is that in the picture the plans, documents or secrets must seem to be of vital importance to the characters. To me, the narrator, they’re of no importance whatsoever.
In an interview with Francois Truffaut, Hitchcock discussed the importance of keeping the MacGuffin as simple as possible:
When I started working with Ben Hecht on the screenplay for Notorious, we were looking for a MacGuffin, and as always, we proceeded by trial and error, going off in several directions that turned out to be too complex…So we dropped the whole idea in favor of a MacGuffin that was simpler, but concrete and visual: a sample of uranium concealed in a wine bottle.
David Mamet has discussed the power of the MacGuffin too:
The less specific the qualities of the MacGuffin are, the more interested the audience will be…A loose abstraction allows audience members to project their own desires onto an essentially featureless goal.
Update: A couple of commenters mentioned the suitcase in Pulp Fiction as another example. Pulp Fiction co-author Roger Avery said:
Originally the briefcase contained diamonds. But that just seemed too boring and predictable. So it was decided that the contents of the briefcase were never to be seen. This way each audience member would fill in the blank with their own ultimate contents. All you were supposed to know was that it was “so beautiful.” No prop master can come up with something better than each individual’s imagination.