Survey as Probe

From Strategy Safari to 
Hollywood Safari

John Fraim

Waltz for Debby / Bobby Shew


One of the most important books I’ve ever read is Strategy SafariA Guided Tour Through the Wilds of Strategic Management. It was written by leading management thinker Henry Mintzberg and his colleagues Bruce Ahlstrand and Joseph Lampel.  I read it in 1998 when it was first published and am not surprised that it has become a widely recognized classic on business strategy. Managers, consultants, and academics all over the world have found this book an important tool. It has been translated into more than ten languages, including Chinese, Russian, and French, and has been used in top MBA programs worldwide.

Strategy Safari is unique in offering a survey and synthesis of the history and evolution of strategic management. In doing this, the authors make sense of the rather confusing landscape of business strategy. It was an area that made little sense to even those involved in it.  Mintzberg, Ahlstrand, and Lampel paired a sweeping vision of the creation of business strategy with an authoritative catalog identifying ten schools of strategy that emerged over the four decades since the 1960s.

One of the things that struck me was the book’s uniqueness and rarity as a survey. At a time when almost all business books were concerned with building their brands, pointing at themselves rather than surveying a field, Strategy Safariwas more concerned with not arguing one method but in showing a number of methods. Here, for the first time was a book that surveyed the various “brands” of management strategy from firms like Boston Consulting Group, McKinsey and Bain. 

Rather than argue one point of view, Strategy Safari was more intent on taking the reader on a “guided tour through the wilds of strategic management.” For most people these “wilds” were invisible and something only dealt with at the highest levels of corporate leadership. But for those involved in the area, the book offered a perspective on an entire area of knowledge.

* * *

The book lingered in the back of my mind for many years. Much of its effect on me was that it offered that rare “survey” of ideas at a time when surveys were an increasing rarity in the world. As the world moved into the new century, there was increased division and segmentation in fields of knowledge just like there was segmentation in our academic departments. More and more was known about less and less. Becoming an interdisciplinary scholar was not the way towards tenure in academics. 

What interested me was the fading genre of “surveys” of fields of knowledge in the world as people increasingly retreated to isolated silos of news and social media. In effect, I was more interested in survey as a “medium” of communication rather than the “messages” or contents of the survey. A real survey – like Strategy Safari – offered a number of ideas to readers but did not attempt to persuade the reader towards any particular idea. The rhetoric of persuasion was given secondary importance to the importance of providing – as Marshall McLuhan might say – various “probes” or questions. 

I reflected on Mintzberg’s book in relation to my years growing up in secondary school, in college, law school and the business world. There had been few books that came along in my life that made me step back and look at a field of information or knowledge like Strategy Safari. In effect, I realized most non-fiction books pointed inward at themselves rather than outward at the world. But then this was part of something much larger than just a book on business strategy. Rather, it was part of the zeitgeist of the post-modern world with pieces fractured like shapes in a Picasso painting. People increasingly saw the world from one of these fractured pieces. From their bunker positions in cultural, social and psychological “silos” of the modern world.

* * *

The problem was that these pieces in the landscape of a particular area of knowledge, were flashy and loud and meant to attract attention. I came to increasingly believe that modern control in the world was no longer done by the force of guns and tanks but by the symbols of culture. One of the great goals of cultural symbols was not to inform or enlighten but rather to distract attention away from wanderings about larger things in life. Away from the constant distractions from the content of cultural messages. Not punishments. But as Neal Postman put it, “amusements” in his prophetic book about this distraction function of modern entertainment the production of cultural content, Amusing Ourselves to Death

I wondered if a modern way of a cultural maintaining power over its population, distraction, was in having the populace be distracted to looking at the content of objects. Rather than the context, or scene, contents always exist within. The time, place and emotion of a scene. In a narrative. Sometimes frozen in time by a photo or recreation of this scene in perhaps a diorama. 

(Note to myself. Put in the Jacques Ellul materials here & also my review of Peter Fallon’s Propaganda 2.0 from the Canadian McLuhan journal New Explorations. My notes about the selling of the formulated theories about the world. A much louder group than “surveys” of theories. Is it that surveys is too much of that hidden genre of survey or probe to be acceptable. They use that ancient technique formulated by Aristotle called rhetoric and persuasion to convince that one idea is correct over others. Bernays and PR industry. There is little interest (or money) in providing surveys today. Not selling or branding oneself. Not attempting to distract someone. There is only a Robert Parker of surveys in the wine industry. But then, I’ve learned to never say never these days.)

* * *

It seems to me that the brilliant survey or generalist is a medium that is to be avoided today. Certainly, in the academic world. There have been few greater generalists or Renaissance men in my life as my father and father-in-law. The culture and society of their times continued to beat them into submission with rules. But both of them were really artists who bypassed its set boundaries that attempted to direct to direct one’s attention to message. Like a magnet. And in the process, ignore the greater, unseen environment out there of medium. The continuing cultural musak is in the background of everything today. Like it once was in the malls of America. Surrounding everyone like the invisible medium of water to around fish. This environment – ecology – that is hidden from us. 

But hidden less so because of Marshall McLuhan and his idea of “cool” and participation of readers or audience through questions or probes more than answers. (For anyone interested, there is a fascinating interview of McLuhan in the 60s in via the probe style of a Playboy interview). In this sense, one method of cultural distraction and control is have one idea – or thought or image or sound – presented at one time. This takes on the nature of a one-way broadcast type of communication. McLuhan called this hot media or media allowing for no participation of the receiver of the information. It was just the broadcaster broadcasting to the listener, receiver.

Yet, when a number of ideas and theories are presented at one time, there is the effect of presenting a number of probes or questions at one time. For no chapter in a good book on surveys attempts to provide answers as much as questions. By reading the book, or going on a type of “safari” with the author, the reader participates with the author in creating something new. Control in culture – as I’ve argued – is based on distraction. And when a number of ideas are thrown at someone at the same time, this causes one to be, as we say, distraction from the distraction process. 

* * *

One of the things controllers of culture might be concerned with is when a number of ideas or probes are directed at the populace at one time. As in a well-done survey of a particular area of knowledge. Like Mintzberg’s Strategy Safari. This is what I had in mind when I decided to create a survey of the screenwriting world in a book started in 2013 and completed ten years later in 2023. Hollywood Safari. A survey of screenwriting theories. In 2023.

I started Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Theory in 2013. My wife and I had left Ohio for California thinking we both wanted to return to my home state and her adopted state. I had moved to Ohio from California trying to save a failing marriage. Palm Desert was a good place to stop off at on our way back to California as my mother had lived there since 1970 and it had always been my second home since then. A good way to test the waters after having left the state – living in Sonoma – ten years before.

When I started writing Hollywood Safari, at had none of the above thoughts were on my mind. At least in any conscious manner. All I knew was that something was directing me to try to make sense of the tangled situation of the screenwriting business. Some muse calling out to write about something. Like she had done so many other times in my life.

So many things had happened in it since I grew up in LA. Gone are the grand old dramas of Hollywood screenplays like North by Northwest. A screenplay and story that had no guidance (luckily) from the current divided state of screenwriting theory in America. But few want anyone to see the theories of storytelling that are now competing against each other for dominance over others. Genres of stories continue to grow into sub-genres and even smaller micro genres of storytelling. Almost as quickly as the greater and greater concentration on smaller and smaller things by academics today. 

* * *

I read about the incredible haphazard way the screenwriter Bernard Hermann and Alfred Hitchkok came up with the screenplay for North by Northwest. Not from being captured by the studio system at the time. In fact, both of them hiding from the studio the true nature of the film they were creating. They were not captured within the brand the studio was trying to promote. They provided new perspectives towards looking at life. From multiple narrative perspectives within a story. Of Gary Grant. It provides a new perspective towards seeing life.

Many are captured within the leading brands and products of today. It is perhaps the irony of that the freedom of a capitalistic system has also created a type of trance towards the various products and medications of the current culture. All products of our advanced system of creating the things one wants in life via a capitalistic system. Whatever one thinks of capitalism, it is impossible to admit that it does not direct the populace’s attention – distracts this attention in fact – from consideration of the overall containing medium or context of one’s life to those things that exist in this context. 

Single viewpoints and broadcasts of McLuhanesque one-way “hot” media exists in the brands of life that dominate the distractions in life. The products or modern life that distract the population from consideration of their overall situation within the context of contemporary life. The present in time. 

Hopefully, my Hollywood Safari will at some time be considered as a collection of probes or “cool” two-way participative media. The purpose being to engage the reader as if the reader on a particular “safari” with a guide provided by the author. 

In all of this, we are in the area of intellectual ideas and the battle for one particular idea over another. It is somewhat a nerdy world of things few understand. Or should. That is, if there are a few “guides” in surveys of the area to explain it all to them. Of course, travel guides to areas of the world that serve as distractions from the normal are popular. But then, these travel guides have themselves gotten popular. 

The way Hollywood tells its stories has always started (in many ways) with the way Hollywood screenwriters told their story with Hollywood. I had a little difference perspective on all of this as I was born and grew up in LA. 

As one might expect. In the early years there were few guides to screenwriting about structure. Grand novelists like Faulkner, Chandler and Fitzgerald had been brought to Hollywood to see if Hollywood could pull the magic of this special power and force from their art.

* * *

But the growth of various brands of screenwriting or storytelling over the years was something that I simply had to continue writing about. In the years since 2013, the version of truth in the world had been sliced up and segmented like some pizza. No one really saw or knew the whole story of a particular area of knowledge.

At the same time, what if it was possible to present a survey of a particular area/time of knowledge to readers. All at one time as is the nature of these surveys. In the case of my manuscript Hollywood Safari, the things said in the Introduction of the manuscript have nothing to do with what is said here about the true inspiration for my manuscript. It was really inspired by the inspiration and boldness to present a survey of brands in the era of brands. 

Relating to Hollywood Safari, the brands of screenwriting and storytelling competing for attention in 2023. For the attention of those seeking guidance in telling stories. Most of this guidance is within the screenwriting and playwright community. The practitioners and the academics and the popular gurus and authors of “how to” screenwriting books. 

I lived in Palm Desert and had started a group called Desert Screenwriters Group when I first began writing Hollywood Safari. I was reading and reviewing a lot of screenwriting books. I had consumed more of them than most screenwriters in LA I am sure. I had a regular column called “Script Symbology” in Script Magazine a major journal of screenwriting. I started writing about the number of types of screenwriting, storytelling brands there were out there. There was little doubt in my mind that ownership of brands and ways of storytelling were a great atmosphere or weather phenomena existing the background zeitgeist of my model. If in fact models contain their own zeitgeist. 

* * *

Gurus (in any area of life) attempt to own something another wants. The power over this is not to want things in life. This has been many things in life. Sometimes it is the theory and structure of a method of storytelling called a screenplay. In Hollywood Safari, the reader is offered up the leading theories in screenwriting and storytelling today. Offered up for the reader to mix like they are their own alchemist. Rather than someone simply giving one ingredient to something, they are given the full cocktail already mixed by someone else. It is important that there is no need for mixing on their part. This is the way that most information is delivered to people today. Not as a spectrum of probes via the survey form. But rather as a product or brand. Not a probe or question. Rather, an answer. There was so much difference in the power and effect of each of these actions.

So, presented with these notes, a new perspective on Hollywood Safari from the perspective as part of the medium of perspective on the world. A step back to provide some type of space so ideas might mingle and mix for the first time in defining the alchemy of a new story structure. It was/is a story structure so obvious once one stop’s focus on one’s own structure (or the structure one has been sold) and look at the world from the perspective of a survey. A survey of answers in particular theories of screenwriting. 

Yet the answers, all presenting aspects of questions to the true explorer via the probes of McLuhan. Or, the “safaris” of Mintzberg. Perhaps the questions of my Hollywood Safari? It was perhaps really about the survival of the survey form of brands. In the age of brands. 

Leave a Reply