Saturday, June 23, 2007

Managing the Creative Factory

An old Imagineer once told me this about WED in the 50’s and 60’s:

“You had Walt, and all that great talent thrown together with him… something great was bound to happen! It was just a magical time!”

But was it just magic? Or is there some logical formula for managing the creative process to get superior results? Throughout the entertainment industry there have been many other times when just the right mix of people came together and exceptional things were created. Look at MGM during the 30’s and 40’s. We hear it was a factory that ran like clockwork, yet they produced classics like the Wizard of Oz, Grand Hotel, Philadelphia Story, Meet Me in St. Louis and so many other quality musicals and dramas.


The same type of thing happened at the Disney studio in the 30’s with the birth of feature animation and amazing films like Snow White and Pinocchio. It was also another factory with a creative product and Walt successfully figured out how to manage it. Later, he did the same thing with WED.

Today the same thing is happening at Pixar. John Lasseter knows how to manage creative talent and the result has been one mega-hit after the other. If you look back, you can come up with many other examples of the right mix of people getting together to create great films, television shows, and, of course, themed environments.

So what did these successful ventures have in common?

They all had a great leader and a commitment to quality product. And although they ran their businesses like factories, they realized that they were different than other factories that made things like paper clips. The difference was that these factories ran on the creative process.

So we can see three things those successful ventures had in common; a knowledge of how the creative process runs, a commitment to quality product throughout the organization, and a great leader. How or why did WDI stray so far from these basic concepts and is the current re-structuring considering these points?

Over time WDI began to be run more like a paper clip factory and a culture emerged where an artist or craftsperson that was better at working with administration was considered more valuable than those with exceptional talent. (Can you imagine if back in the golden days of MGM they sacked people like Vincent Minnelli or Clark Gable in favor of those who excelled in planning and scheduling meetings?) And some WDI departments are run with their own survival as the goal, rather than by the desire of producing the finest end product. It takes a special talent to manage a department that is part of a greater creative process. You can’t run it with blinders on as if paper clips are your only responsibility. One of the most important jobs of a manager is to be able to recognize talent and nurture it for the overall good of the organization.

Under Eisner’s direction the idea of producing top quality themed attractions was replaced with a commitment to product based on marketing calculations (Pressler). That’s how we got DCA. At the same time, the Oriental Land Company in Japan believed in quality product, and made the commitment to have WDI produce the fabulous Tokyo DisneySea project. So the idea of a commitment to quality product has to come from the top, and the people at the top have to know what a quality product is. Right now this is Bob Iger’s responsibility.

Finally, John Lasseter’s appointment as creative advisor to WDI makes perfect sense. But will he be able to fill the role of the great creative leader, or will he be spread too thin running Pixar, Disney Animation and WDI at the same time? With Imagineering easily being one of the biggest white elephants in the room at the Disney Company, one can only hope full-time attention will eventually be paid.

15 comments:

Adrienne said...

This is somewhat off topic, but I stumbled upon this blog a few months ago while searching for a job as an Imagineer. It was my dream to work for Disney as an Imagineer, I could see myself building and painting all the "sets" around the rides and I'm still in amazement when I go to WDW in Florida and I've been many times in my life. I was crushed after I graduated from college in 2000 to find out that most of the positions required some type of engineering degree. How does a passionate artist/creative person, not a cartoonist per se, get into imagineering without being an engineer? That would be one job where I'd work for very little money because Disney is one place that I truly love.

Figment571 said...

I agree with the first post but in a different way. What is something that is a synthesis between technical and creative that could be done at Imagineering. I can't figure out what I want to do at Imagineering but I am in high school and time to figure it out.

Foy said...

Great post. Disney is a "Creative Factory", as you call it.


It also reminds me of an old mill, in a way. It starts out very strong, with many people building up their lives upon their working at the mill. A whole town is built up around it. Then, it slowly starts to fade. Maybe whatever resource the mill is milling runs out. Maybe other technological advances have made the mill obsolete. Or maybe there just happens to have horrible management there. Whatever the case, the mill soon fades the non-existence, and so does the mill town. It becomes a ghost town.

I really hope that this does does not happen to Disney.

(Since everyone else is asking questions, I have one myself: How do I contact the "administrators" of this blog? Is there an e-mail address I might use? Sorry, and Thank you for your time.)

Anonymous said...

Most companies today have management, not leaders. And that is the problem.

Stop Rosie from Taking Over The Price is Right said...

The decline in quality and creativity is not just at WDI. Its quite apparent at Walt Disney World on the operations side of things. WDW has become nothing more than an industrialized assembly line producing manufactured magic. To understand the analogy, think about a quilt made by your grandmother. Now, think about the same quilt made by a factory on a machine. Visually they are both the same quilts made from the same material, but there is a difference between the two. Its subtle, but it is there none the less. A certain quality that I am unable to describe which uniquely sets the hand made quilt apart from the mass-produced one.

Magical moments are not about a cast member being told to go out, find a guest and do this or that. They are about the cast members going about their every day tasks, encountering a guest and saying "Hey...Welcome to our park...Would you like to see something incredible? Would you like to learn something amazing?'. Magical moments are about quality cast knowing their job, their environment, their heritage, the vision of the company, the guest and out of a genuine interest in the guest making the guest feel special, welcome, in on the secret, giving the guest something to special to walk away with.

Spokker said...

Things have improved, but if Pixar-based attractions are the status quo from now on, I don't think it'll ever be a return to the "golden age" that everybody, including myself, talks about incessently.

Time will tell if Pixar and John Lasseter are just pushing their own agenda or really do care about Walt's vision.

It should be noted that this blog is supposedly a collaboration between anonymous and not so anonymous people at Pixar. I really enjoyed your earlier entries about what is wrong with Imagineering and American Disney parks, but I think you guys should really shy away from turning this into a shrine worshipping Pixar and John Lasseter. Cultish stereotypes might start being thrown around.

pariartspaul said...

Hey spokker,

I agree with your comments completely, and also with the comment you made on the last topic. I’m as skeptical as you are. You’re right - so far we’ve seen only Pixar or Pirate improvements down at Disneyland, green-lighted because they ‘expand the brand’.

I suggest Lasseter could be the next great WDI creative leader only because he has proven experience running a phenomenally successful creative organization, and we all know that’s exactly the kind of talent they need in charge over there right now. And if he’s really as much of a Disneyland fan as we read about, he could just be the right one to really turn the place around. I’d like to see him move over to WDI full time and create some big fresh new concepts that harmonize with classic Disney theme park design philosophy. At the same time, he could kick ass straightening out some of the stale ways they do business there.

On the other hand, if we continue to see him only consult - resulting in more Pixar themed additions, the hope will fade pretty quick.

/bsdb said...

I suggest Lasseter could be the next great WDI creative leader only because he has proven experience running a phenomenally successful creative organization, and we all know that’s exactly the kind of talent they need in charge over there right now.

Can I get a witness? YES!

You are 100% correct regarding Lasseter's proven track record of running a creative organization such as Pixar, pariartspaul.

However... I feel having a creative leader such as John at the helm of Imagineering would solve only a fraction of their problems. There are other issues involving future directions for the parks and resorts that can only be partially addressed by Glendale. Burbank still controls the purse strings, and the management team which deems how the contents of said purse will be used. This needs to be addressed as well.

Placing John Lasseter in today's Imagineering would be like placing Remy in Applebee's. Sure, it's a restaurant. There's a kitchen. But the environment and support structure is missing. Utilizing Remy's talent to the fullest requires the proper setting and the proper funding. Applebee's offers neither.

If Mr. Iger is serious about changing Imagineering and making full use of Mr. Lasseter's leadership abilities... then the shakeout within Parks and Resorts must take place in the near future.

WDI deserves its own Gusteau's. But with the current executive team, they'll be slaving away in the Applebee's kitchen for years to come.

Joy said...

Adrienne,

To get a job in Imagineering, the first step - if you're not here already - is to move to Los Angeles. Otherwise, realistically, you'll never get an interview. There are plenty of people who want to work for Disney, but the ones who are most passionate about it come here.

(I was stunned at how easy it was to get a job with Disney once I was here. I should have moved to California years ago!)

Once you're here, just watch the Disney website and apply for any jobs you're qualified for. At the same time, try to meet as many people from Disney as you can, and let everyone know what you want to do.

And meanwhile, try to find jobs in related industries. There are plenty of companies in Los Angeles making sets for theme parks, museums, trade shows, commercials, films, etc. Build up your resume, don't give up, and good luck!

- Joy

Joy said...

Regarding the examples pariartspaul gave (MGM in the 30's, WED in the 50's, Pixar recently) it seems to me that they did have one significant thing in common -

They were all fairly new organizations, or at least trying to do things (like building theme parks) that they had never done before.

I wonder how much creativity is stifled simply by company history and employee longevity? How often does a long-time employee say "That's not the way we've always done it", or "That won't work, and I'll tell you why"?

When you put together a group of smart, creative people who don't really know what they're doing or how to do it, amazing things can result. But on the other hand, they can also waste a ton of money accomplishing nothing. And big, well established companies have little incentive to take risks.

- Joy

Lidstrom said...

In my mind, a large amount of the problems with Disney have come from trying to run the place like any other company. People come in that tell upper management that they should shake the place down for every penny they can find. They made the decision to not manage "magic", creativity, imagination. Instead, they decided to manage dollars and cents. They lost the understanding that the financial end will take care of itself if you do everything else well and began a fascination with money. I know how business works, but business people today are, in general, losing sight of a grander purpose. Not every business really needs to play the Wall Street big money game. They don't really have to sacrifice quality in order to bring in a higher quantity of dollars. I hope this ends some day, when companies are judged more on what they do, how they do it, and whether it gets the job done, instead of whether they counted more pennies this quarter than the last one.

Anonymous said...

I think the similarity between early Hollywood, early Disney and now Pixar is that in each case the people involved were at the cutting edge of a new field -- animation, theme parks, 3d animation, (less the case obviously with MGM). Now that the corporate world has seen the 3D dollar signs, the rest of Hollywood has jumped on the 3D bandwagon, Pixar has been gobbled up by Disney, and things could change for the worse.

Regarding moving to LA: If you do any sort of creative work in this town it's almost a struggle NOT to do work for Disney. They're unavoidable.

Nick Zegarac said...

I agree with the comment about the film making industry in general having too many bean counters and not enough visionaries.

Charlton Heston once remarked that "the trouble with movies as a business is that they're an art...of course, the trouble with movies as art, is that they're also a business!" But Heston's Hollywood was still a land rife with creative opportunities - something the current regimes at every studio frown upon unless a Harvard business degree is attached to the potential candidate.

The studio moguls of old, Mayer, Thalberg, Disney, Lemmle, Jack Warner et al. were, so it has often been written with a deliberate (and thoroughly misguided) tone of condescension, were men without formal education. My polite rebuttal has always been, "So what? They didn't seem to need a degree because they had an innate ability to understand what made for a good (dare I say - great) story.

The Hollywood of old produced art. Today's Hollywood produces disposable (and mind-numbing) tripe with little to zero staying power. We remember Disney classics today with a smile; Cinderella, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Lady and The Tramp, et al. These films were imbued - NOT with a clever sense of market research and demographic analysis, but with a genuine flair and consideration for the human condition. Animated - perhaps, though the staying power of these past glories has proven, in retrospect, to be a VERY tough act to follow.

What is required today is not more Ivy League graduates with their expensive degrees proudly hung on the walls behind their desks (which they temporarily occupy because they readily realize that more than 'smarts' is required to be a studio executive), but more visionaries and dreamers - more creative folk.

The happy balance of the old days is that the creative personnel ran the show while the bean counters knew their place - balancing the budget and ledgers. You need both to run a studio. But today we've only the latter to contend with and the current crop of lack luster footage being produced is a testament - not to great art - but savvy book keeping.

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately, by law a public owned corporation is supposed to do what is best for it's shareholders.

In the past, more people bought stocks and held them for the long haul. They were satisifed with a return increasing over time, so companies had more room to look at the future development of the company.

Now people trade like crazy. So if you have a year that you lose money due to developing things for the future, people look at the short term loss and start selling. They don't look at the fact that your R&D money spent today may mean a much higher stock price in the future.

I am not a money fanatic, but I read the big stories. There are quite a few corporations lately where the founding family or the board of directors is trying to buy up enough stock to re-privatize their companies. Why? So they can focus on their core business instead of the bottom line.

Hopefully, this is the beginning of a shift in thinking that will eventually spread to Wall St.

Personally, I think bottom-line thinking on Wall St. is the only thing keeping post-Eisner Disney from doing what need to be done to return it to it's former quality. (With quality, I am speaking not only of the WDI part of the business, but also of proper training retention efforts to get good cast members in the ops side.)

SpokeLife said...

What a fantastic blog, I couldn't agree more. I, like many, have applied for every single position I could possibly qualify, under-qualify and over qualify for with Disney. I have never, ever, received so much as a call. And it breaks my heart every time. But yet I still do it. I still dream of being an imagineer. And there is one reason why. Regardless of the loss of creative focus that (I assume) ebbs and flows within every company that poses some form of creative environment, and regardless of the real reasons behind most Imagineering projects now days, when I sit at the foot of Sleeping Beauty's Castle in Disneyland, with my 3 year-old daughter in my lap, and those dreams and images and fireworks sparkle in her eyes...I quietly, softly say to myself, "Thank you" to all those Imagineers who have ever worked for Disney, no matter the capacity, no matter the purpose, and no matter the job. They are bringing happiness, memories, and joy to so, so so many people. It must be hard to keep that enthusiasm day-in day-out as an employee, but if this is even seen by one Imagineer somewhere, I hope they know how much I appreciate, envy, and look-up to them and the happiness they bring to so many. And at the end of everything, no ammount of Marketing, financial configuring or "bottom-line" emphasizing can take that away.
So I go on applying...and applying...and...well you get the idea...