content, storytelling

Eleven Things “The Princess Bride” can teach you about business

When it comes to growing your business, “The Princess Bride” is probably not the first movie that comes to mind. “The Princess Bride,” a fairy-tale about a farm boy turned pirate who rescues his childhood love from the evil prince with the help of a giant and a vengeful swordsman does not seem to be Harvard Business School case study material.

But, you might be surprised by how this film’s scrappy start to fairy-tale ending has lessons that you can apply today to YOUR business.

Here are ELEVEN lessons from “The Princess Bride”

1 – It might take you awhile to really succeed:

The Princess Bride was published in 1973. It was immediately optioned for a movie but one studio after another failed to get it made. Various directors including Richard Lester, Norman Jewison, John Boorman, Francois Truffaut – even Robert Redford – were at some point rumored to direct. Production was on and off for over 10 years until Rob Reiner bought the production rights – with a financial assist from Norman Lear, who gave Reiner his start when Lear directed Reiner in “All in the Family.”

The film was released to theatres in September 1987. It was a modest success at the box office and a critical favorite. It was not until it was released on video a year later that it began its trip to cult classic. Thirty years after its video release, The Princess Bride still attracts new audiences.

2 – You don’t need an all-star cast, but you do need talent:

The relatively low budget of the movie meant that director Rob Reiner, had to recognize undervalued, unknown talent and create a cast of future all-stars. He leveraged a great script and combined it with great casting to create a film that was greater than the sum of its parts.

“The Princess Bride” featured a cast of mostly then-unknowns including Robin Wright, Carey Elwes, Chris Sarandon, Christopher Guest, and Wallace Shawn. The best-known cast members (Fred Savage, Billy Crystal, Peter Falk, and Carol Kane) were in cameo roles.

Cary Elwes had a few small roles when he auditioned for the role of Wesley. Reiner knew he had the Errol Flynn-good looks to pull off the role but was concerned that Elwes might not have the comedy chops. Elwes nailed the role when he pulled off a dead-on “Fat Albert” routine.

Cary Elwes as Westley/Dread Pirate Roberts

Robin Wright had a small role in a daytime soap opera at the time she was cast – and beat out nearly 500 other women who auditioned for the role including Whoopi Goldberg, Courtney Cox, and Meg Ryan.

Robin Wright as Buttercup
Mandy Patinkin as Ingio Montoya

Mandy Patinkin was known primarily to Broadway audiences – but director Rob Reiner was such a fan that he offered Patinkin any role he wanted. Patinkin chose Inigo Montoya because he had lost his father to cancer and the role reverberated with him. (Buzz Feed – 43 Inconceivable Facts about The Princess Bride)

Mandy Patinkin was known primarily to Broadway audiences – but director Rob Reiner was such a fan that he offered Patinkin any role he wanted. Patinkin chose Inigo Montoya because he had lost his father to cancer and the role reverberated with him. (Buzz Feed – 43 Inconceivable Facts about The Princess Bride)

3 – Your biggest fans will be your best viral advertising and promotion:

“The Princess Bride” became a word of mouth success because of its fans. They love to quote the film and recite parts of the dialogue back and forth. Fans argue passionately about their favorite characters and scenes. Fans convert friends who have not seen the movie into new fans.

In a nod to Internet popularity, according to director Rob Reiner, Mandy Patinkin (Inigo Montoya) is still asked at least once a day to quote his most famous line: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

In an interview with The New Yorker, Cary Elwes speculated that if social media had been around at the time the movie was released, it would have been a much bigger box-office hit.

4 – Fan popularity can gain you official credibility:

From its modest beginnings, it has endured to be listed on the American Film Institutes “100 Laughs,” “100 Passions,” and nominated for “100 Movie Quotes” and “10 Top 10” lists.

Fans routinely vote for The Princess Bride for a variety of awards. More fans mean more opportunities to be nominated. The owners of The Princess Bride keep their fans engaged and their fans return the favor by keeping the movie popular.

Since its release on video in 1988, approximately eight “special edition” and behind-the-scenes versions with exclusive content have been released. Short features, cast interviews, varying cover art, and games keep interest high – and fans buying new copies.

There are websites, fan clubs, YouTube videos, Facebook pages, and countless Pins and memes with The Princess Bride themes. You can buy Princess Bride t-shirts, mugs, tote bags, and chocolates. Fan engagement continues to increase.

5 – If you make it memorable, fans will want to take part. Great content (dialogue) rules:

• “As you wish.”
• “Inconceivable.”
• “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
• “Mawwiage, mawwiage is whha bwings us togewether today.”
• “You fell victim to one of the classic blunders – The most famous of which is “never get involved in a land war in Asia” – but only slightly less well-known is this: “Never go in against a Sicilian when death is on the line”!”
• “Death cannot stop true love. All it can do is delay it for a while.”

What gave The Princess Bride great quote-ability? Great content. The movie is well written with unexpected turns of phrase, sharp observations, and tag lines. All the elements of great content regardless of the media.

Ask any fan, they will probably each have their own favorite scene or quote. Mine is Wallace Shawn and Carey Elwes facing off in the poison cup scene.

Cary Elwes said an Iraq war veteran’s commanding officer used to send his troops off with a wave and a hearty “Have fun storming the castle” to inject a little humor into an otherwise deadly routine.

6 – Competitors can become allies when interests align:

Carey Elwes character, The Dread Pirate Robert aka Westley and Mandy Patinkin, Inigo Montoya, start out as enemies. In one of the epic scenes of the movie, they have a three-minute sword fight. Smartly, the book and movie treats them as equally skilled and gentlemanly. No low blows or anger. When Inigo is defeated, Westley doesn’t kill him (telling him it would be like smashing a beautiful stained glass window) but knocks him unconscious and continues his mission.

When Inigo regains consciousness, he and Fezzik (Andre The Giant ) follow after Westley and rescue him from the Pit of Despair. They take the “mostly dead” Westley to the Miracle Max, the local wizard. Max has no initial incentive to help – in fact he wants to remain uninvolved. Not until he realizes that helping Westley and Indigo can defeat and humiliate the king is he willing to revive Westley.

Westley wants to rescue Buttercup. Montoya wants to find the man who killed his father. Once they realize that the people who stand in their way are teamed up, Westley and Montoya set aside their differences and work toward their separate happily ever afters.

7 – If you are passionate about your quest, others will get on board:

Inigo Montoya has wanted one thing since he was a child: to avenge his father’s death. Westley has wanted one thing since he met Buttercup: to love her forever. Regardless of the obstacles, they both single-mindedly pursued their goals. They did not let Facebook updates or binge watching Game of Thrones derail their quests.

Because of their passion, it is easier for others to follow and become part.

8 – Don’t be afraid to ask for help:

Fezzik (Andre the Giant) had no real reason to help Westley and Inigo – but as unlikely as it seemed, the member of The Brute Squad was enchanted by the romantic quest.

Miracle Max (Billy Crystal) and Valerie (Carol Kane) had no incentive to revive Westley, but they also came to believe in the power of Westley’s love for Buttercup – with the bonus of humiliating and defeating the Prince who had dismissed and humiliated Miracle Max.

9 – Hook them on the story and keep ‘em coming back for more:

What many people forget is that The Princess Bride is actually framed within a story told by a grandfather (Peter Falk in a small role) to a grandson (Fred Savage) home sick from school. The grandson is initially resistant to hearing the story, since he does not think he wants to hear a love story. The grandfather starts reading the story – and soon the grandson is hooked.

When the grandfather offers to stop reading, the grandson begs him to continue. Great storytelling wins – and keeps ‘em coming.

Going back even further to the original manuscript, the book is framed as a retelling of an older folk tale – even though it is new material.

10 – Be willing to step outside your comfort zone. You might be surprised at what is waiting:

The grandson does not want to hear the story until he does. Buttercup does not believe that Westley is still alive and jumps off a cliff, surprised to find Westley following her rolling down the hill. Inigo Montoya does not want anyone to interfere with his mission to kill the six fingered man until he realizes that he and Westley can become an even more powerful team.

As for the actors, neither Mandy Patinkin nor Cary Elweys had any experience sword fighting. They devoted themselves so thoroughly to lessons that the only stunt doubles used were for the somersaults during the fight. It would have been easy (and probably cheaper for the production insurance) if they handed the sword fight off to professionals. Both Elwes and Patinkin have said it was one of the most enjoyable parts of making the movie.

11 – You can want what you want, but you must be prepared.

Westley was a farm boy whose only skill was pleasing Buttercup when he left to seek his fortune. After being captured by pirates, Westley learned the skills that would allow him to reunite with Buttercup: sword fighting, immunity to iocane, hand to hand combat, and the ability to lead people. He became the hero who could defeat the evil enemies keeping them apart – and threatening Buttercup.

Farm boy Westley would have been killed; Dread Pirate Roberts was ready. He had spent years fighting and living the life of a pirate (and becoming immune to Iocaine…) to be ready to overcome the obstacles to win Buttercup.

Inigo Montoya was the son of a swordmaker. He was 10 years old when the six-fingered man killed his father. At 10 years old, he was no match for the older man. When Inigo finally finds and confronts the man who killed his father, he has been preparing all his life. He is an expert swordsman and fighter and can defeat the six-fingered man.

How to apply the lessons of the Princess Bride

QUESTION: How did a 30-year old fairy-tale movie about lost love, a masked pirate hero, sword fighter avenging a murder, a giant, and rodents of unusual size not just survive – but thrive? And why do fans who were not born when the movie first arrived in theatres regularly recite dialogue and attend special midnight theatre showings?

ANSWER: With a couple of not-so-magic ingredients: great content and attention to the fan base.

First: great content.

Whether you are writing a technical manual or an advertisement, your first duty is to create something that not only serves the needs of your reader/viewer, but that delivers an unforgettable experience.

Yes…your user manual should be the very best user manual that your reader has ever held in their hands.

Second: attention to your fans and audience

The fan base attention is unusual in that the fans themselves continue to promote the movie. Sure, the studio helps things along with new releases. The actors don’t avoid their association with the movie. Carey Elwes wrote a book about being on the set and toured for its release.

So…how can you use the lessons of The Princess Bride to grow your business?

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