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Script Symbology: Contagious In Hollywood

By John Fraim

No, this is not some sequel to Sleepless in Seattle but rather a discussion of the application of one of the most popular books on contemporary marketing to the screenwriting and film community.

The book is Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Simon & Schuster, 2013) by Wharton School Marketing Professor Jonah Berger and it lists six key elements that cause things to be talked about, shared and imitated. Professor Berger lists these elements under the acronym of STEPPS which stand for 1) Social Currency 2) Triggers 3) Emotion 4) Public 5) Practical Value and 6) Stories. While all the principles might be present in some contagious things, not all are needed and often one or two of them is enough to make something contagious.

These six STEPPS principles come with a “tip of the hat” to traditional aspects of marketing such as product quality, price and advertising. But while they often contribute to a product’s success, they don’t explain the whole story.


Apart from these traditional marketing elements, the major component of Berger’s STEPPS is what the author calls “social transmission” or word of mouth. As he notes, “People love to share stories, news, and information with those around them.” And, as a result, things that others tell us, e-mail us and text us have a significant impact on what we think, read, buy, and do.

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While the principles of Contagious are meant to apply to all ideas and products, one cannot help but think that there might be specific “twists” or fine-tuning of these principles into various industries or activities such as contagious blogs, IPOs and travel destinations. Certainly, a natural area for application of Berger’s Contagious are film ideas. The six STEPPS making things contagious in general find a natural home in the land of film ideas.

Are there specific “take-aways” for Hollywood? For example, can the six principles of contagious be applied to various aspects of the film business such as story treatments, film pitches, film investment partnerships and screenplays themselves? Movies are full of product placements. Might screenplays be embedded with contagious elements to increase their social currency and word of mouth buzz?

I asked professor Berger about the application of Contagious principles to Hollywood. He answered there are “Definitely some specific take-aways for Hollywood, both for pitching films and bolstering consumer reception. Think about someone who gets pitched dozens of films every week. They not only have to like a pitch, they have to spread that enthusiasm to get other investors, supporters, etc. What’s going to make them talk about one film in particular? How can someone make a pitch so contagious that listeners just have to spread the word?” Berger continues saying, “It’s all about those 6 key STEPPS. The more talking about a film makes a potential producer look good (Social Currency), the more likely they will be to share it. The more they are Triggered to think about it, even outside the office, the more they’ll bring it up. The more it makes them excited, angry, or inspires awe (all high arousal Emotions), the more they’ll spread the word for Public, Practical Value and Stories.”

Berger notes the same applies to the consumer side with the marketing of films. “Advertising is expensive and not very efficient. Many big budget films are duds. How can film cut through the clutter by building a movement and by engaging consumers and getting them to tell their friends? The same 6 STEPPS apply.”

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While the book could have a huge effect on how ideas are spread in Hollywood, whether it will is another question largely because if goes against a few of the great prevailing myths that dominate Hollywood.

One myth it challenges is that generating word of mouth and success in Hollywood is all about finding the right people. It is the notion that certain special individuals are more influential than others. In fact, Hollywood (more than any other place) seems full of these "special individuals." The notion of “special individuals” to create buzz was made popular in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Tipping Point arguing social epidemics are driven “by the efforts of a handful of exceptional people” called mavens, connectors, and salesmen.

However, Professor Berger suggests this “conventional wisdom” in Hollywood is wrong. Answering my question to him about the application of Contagious ideas to Hollywood he writes, “It’s more than just a good story or gatekeepers. You have to get people (whether producers, investors, or even consumers) to spread the word.” The specialness of a few gatekeeper mavens "doesn't make them any more influential in spreading information or making things go viral.” Furthermore, Berger observes "by focusing on the messenger, we've neglected a much more obvious driver of sharing: the message.”

Another Hollywood myth challenged by Berger’s Contagious is that stories alone generate contagious film ideas. While Story is one of Berger’s 6 STEPPS for contagious ideas, it is only one of the elements. Yet the importance of stories has garnered important buzz in the current marketing community with books such as Jonah Sachs Winning The Story Wars (Harvard Business Review Press, 2012). And, certainly in Hollywood, great stories are often contagious. Yet focusing on stories alone can make one less aware of the other elements of social transmission and word of mouth that might also be at work. In effect, there are different ways of looking at how ideas become "contagious" in Hollywood than good stories placed in front of the influential gatekeepers in Hollywood.

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