Batman, Blockbusters, and Biopharma

All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of Novo Nordisk.

This blogging thing is interesting.  I’m discovering one of the challenges with blogging on a regular basis is the back and forth tidal pull between length/quality and speed/relevance.  There are measured, thought-out, lengthy pieces I’m working on about things and concepts I am interested in exploring.  But at the same time I find myself responding to current events that spark a thought and connection, an Aha! moment, with quick reaction pieces.  Finding that balance is tough, especially since I like both kinds of writing and think they add to the general blog environment that I’m trying to create.  And time is limited.  In a given week I shoot for maybe 3+ posts, in an effort not to get too burnt out or disenchanted in the way described by Chuq van Rospach.  Sometimes, though, a combination of thoughts, articles and other bits of information come together and I find myself staying up to pound out those 500 or 1000 words to capture an idea in the moment.  All for the benefit of the 3 or so people who will skim this post, plus the random butt-click registered by some poodle sitting on an iPad.

But whatever.

So, Batman.

If you’ve been hiding under a rock, with Bose noise-canceling headphones on and a dead smartphone battery, you might not have heard that Ben Affleck has been chosen to play Batman in the next Superman movie.   This has created a bit of a public conversation.  I think we’re currently in the backlash to the backlash phase, where people are starting to ask “Well, why not Ben?”  We’ll see what the public dialog looks like tomorrow, when this post will go up (on a Saturday!  What, am I trying to purposefully kill any chance of a readership?).   What triggered this post is a twitter conversation I had with Jeff Carlson (@jeffcarlson) about the Batman news in which I was trying to figure out how and whether this Batman would fit into the canon created by Christopher Nolan, and also what storyline the movie would follow.  There have been reports that elements from Frank Miller’s Dark Knight classic limited graphic novel series would go into the new movie.

I mentioned to Jeff that this wouldn’t really help DC follow in the Marvel/Avengers path since the Miller Dark Knight series imagined an old, jaded Batman in a dystopian future.  Not the most appealing summer fare, Elysium aside.    And the movies would create an unlinked Batman from Christopher Nolan’s.  Jeff’s response was quite astute.  To quote his tweet: “…They’ll pick and choose what will get box office. They won’t care about a fragmented canon.”

This really resonated with me because I had just read an interview Fareed Zakaria did with Lynda Obst about her new book, Sleepless in Hollywood.  In the interview, they discuss the change that’s come over Hollywood movie making as the industry has had to adjust to changes in its customers and revenue streams.  Whereas the US market and DVD sales once filled the belt pouches of studios, the combination of technological advances in streaming,  broadband penetration, and emerging international markets has caused a shift towards movie-making that relies on familiarity and gimmicky “hooks” to keep cash flowing in.  New, exploratory, innovative film-making has a tough time getting funded, much less wide studio releases, because in order to bring in enough revenue to feed and support the infrastructure of Hollywood, sequels are viewed, probably correctly, as far more likely to succeed. At least in the short term.

Which brings me to drug development and biopharma.  The drug development industry is huge, really huge.  It brings in hundreds of billions of dollars in revenue each year, and in order to support its infrastructure it has to bring in that much money.  There are debates going on about “Me-too” drugs and incremental improvements versus novel, innovative therapies, and I won’t add to that other than to say I think both are necessary for the industry (although a nice discussion on innovation on LinkedIn, which informed some of my thinking, can be seen here).  But the similarities to what’s going on in movies and what’s going on in drug development are worth exploring.  Movies are responding to changing external pressures.  So is biopharma, due to pressures from payors, regulators and clinicians for new drugs that are both safer and better than previous ones.  Film-making has moved to “Me-too” movies as biopharma has done with drugs.

One area in which the analogy breaks down, though, and one of extreme importance, is the time frame involved in making a movie versus making a drug.  Movies can turn around in a year or two, sometimes less than a year, and audience response is more or less instantaneous.  A drug can take over a decade to be created and approved, and adoption (if it happens) can take several years more.  This creates a huge level of uncertainty and risk on the part of drug development companies.  This in turn does make innovation harder as currently it’s pretty difficult to know what will lead to a successful new drug, especially since the environmental conditions might be completely different once the drug reaches the market.  This has led some, such as David Shaywitz of Forbes, to speculate about the economics of biopharma and whether they’re really sustainable.  As he recently tweeted “if pharma doesn’t like economics (sic) of pharmaceuticals, time for them 2pick another biz 2b in?”  This is a concept worth exploring in depth in its own post.  

What does this mean for the future of these two industries?  If we follow the thinking of The Innovator’s Dilemma, these industries seem ripe for disruptive technologies to come along and potentially supplant them.  For movies, one can point to the explosion of amazing, innovative television shows coming out now as a possible contender in the area of entertainment.  Games may be in there too.  For biopharma?  I don’t know, but in the coming week I plan to post on some thoughts I have expanding upon how biopharma fits the definition of an industry vulnerable to the Innovator’s Dilemma, and what markets we might look to for hints of where this could be seen.  Stay tuned!  All three of you.  And the poodle, too.

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