Nick Geoghegan, strategy consultant at eatbigfish, argues that brands and creatives can learn from budget ‘bottle episodes’ to turn constraint into creativity.

Last week, I was listening to The West Wing Weekly, one of my favourite podcasts (ok, ok I’m a nerd). The subject was ’17 People’, a seminal episode in the story arc of The West Wing.

 At the beginning of the podcast, the hosts read a quote from legendary creator and writer, Aaron Sorkin, on how he had approached the writing of ’17 people’. “It was born from a budget crunch… we’d spent a lot on the season opener and I was asked to write a show with no new sets, no guest cast, no locations and minimal extras.”

’17 People’ is what is known in the industry as a ‘Bottle Episode’, a phrase that originated on the set of the original 1960’s Star Trek show. In order to create spectacular space adventures, Star Trek would transport its viewers to outlandish worlds to meet alien creatures. But this cost money. A lot of it.

To give themselves budget to commit to these extravagant episodes, the show’s producers would save money by occasionally ‘putting the ship in a bottle’. There would be no outside interference, no planets, no battles. They would concentrate only on the drama and tension that could be created amongst the existing cast and set.

This has now become something of a television series tradition… create lean, stripped down episodes once or twice a season that help ‘pay’ for the bigger, more ambitious spectacles. But how do we deal with these budget restrictions that could potentially derail the spectacle?

The Transformer Mindset

In ‘A Beautiful Constraint’, Adam Morgan and Mark Barden speak about three mindsets that occur when faced with a constraint: the mindset of Victim, Neutraliser or Transformer.

In this case, a budget-constrained script writer might make you a Victim whereby you say a reduced budget leads to a lesser quality episode. Ambitions must be lowered. You could be a Neutraliser and find a way to create a show of similar impact, by finding ways around certain issues and cutting corners. Ambitions are equalled.

But what I love about the world of ‘Bottle Episodes’ is how they encourage writers to embrace the third mindset, that of Transformer. When faced with a constraint, Transformers aim to create a show that is even better than what they would have originally done. The ambitions are exceeded, and entirely because of the constraint.

“So I wrote a play” said The West Wing’s Aaron Sorkin of his Bottle Episode. Going back to his theatrical roots, he created a three act episode of tightly woven character interactions, two plot lines, and simmering tensions. By removing the usual distractions, the actors are given more room to breathe, not less and Richard Schiff was nominated for an Emmy for his performance.

Bottle Episodes have a reputation for creating truly memorable moments. A stripped back set often allows show runners to explore relationships and tensions, forcing characters to rub up against one another. At other times, a reduced cast can lead to experimental technical challenges that might not be possible in a regular episode.

The lesson for challengers

Let’s think about how the ‘rules’ of Bottle Episodes might be applied and lead to better creativity for challenger brands and businesses.

There will be times when we as challengers might feel we must limit our ambitions on some ideas or activities for us to be able to overcommit resources to other areas we think will have greater impact.

Or perhaps our brand is the Bottle Episode within a broader portfolio of brands… the one that always seems to be last in line when it comes to resources, the one being tasked with treading water, while everyone else is given the means to excel.

Let’s then think like the creators of Bottle Episodes and ask ourselves a few simple questions:How do we strip this idea back to its purest form?

  • How do we remove the distractions to allow room for this idea to breathe?
  • How do we create added drama from what we already have?
  • How do we reframe our own ambitions to exceed what we would normally hope for?
  • How do we try something new that we might otherwise have ignored?
  • Let’s as challenger brand owners look at the glass walls around us and embrace them for what they are: an opportunity to see the world differently and unbottle some magic.

And if you’re interested, here are a few other memorable Bottle Episodes:

‘Fly’ – Breaking Bad, ‘The Suitcase’ – Mad Men, ‘Creative Calligraphy’ – Community, ‘The One Where No One’s Ready’ – Friends, ‘The Chinese Restaurant’ – Seinfeld, ‘The Conversation’ – Mad About You (A ‘one shot’ episode), ‘Pine Barrens’ – The Sopranos.

This article first appeared on The Challenger Project, produced by UK-based strategic brand consultancy eatbigfish