Getting the Story Right

Organizational Transformation

The film industry loves the sequel.  The artistic argument revolves around a chance to more fully develop characters, explore new plot lines, and tell an even better story.  However, the track record for most sequels falls under the category of underachievement. Given that reality, it is also illuminating to consider the economic argument.  An established fan base, previous success, and a workable formula for production and marketing greatly reduce the economic risk.  Despite being an industry driven by creativity, risk mitigation plays a big role in the decision making.  So, how do film companies find the balance between enabling their creative staffs to bring forth the next “amazing” production while reducing the risk that they may be making the next major box office flop?

Ed Catmull in Creativity Inc tells how his company, Pixar, has fought this battle better than most. Pixar is hardly an overnight success.  George Lucas recruited Catmull to head Lucasfilm’s computer division nearly 16 years before the release of their first animated feature film. During this time period, Steve Jobs bought the company and eventually signed an agreement with Disney to make and distribute an animated film.  Five years after the agreement, Pixar released Toy Storywhich became the high grossing movie in 1995. 

 In 1996, Pixar was working on A Bug’s Lifeand also started to make the sequel to Toy Story.  The creative team that created Toy Storywas engaged in making A Bug’s Life, so Pixar put two skilled animators and a first time director to lead the development of Toy Story 2.

Pixar leadership made the following assumptions

  • Since it was a sequel it would not be as difficult. An outline of the story had already been written by John Lasseter, director of Toy Story.
  • An inexperienced team when backed up by an experienced team would be able to replicate the success of the first film.

About a year into the production of Toy Story 2, problems began to surface. The directors were requesting more time with the experienced team indicating they were not coming together as a team and growing in their confidence. The periodic screenings of the movie’s progress revealed an alarming lack of improvement. After completing A Bug’s Life, John Lasseter and the experienced team finally had a chance to really evaluate Toy Story 2.  The first word that came to Lasseter’s mind was “disaster.”  The story line just didn’t make the emotional connection and provide the humor that audiences expected with a Pixar movie.

Despite placing the company in a near impossible time frame to complete the movie in only a year, the best option seemed to be to start over which meant replacing the current directors with the experienced ones. Like a Hollywood movie, the story had a happy ending. Toy Story 2 became the first animated sequel to gross more than its original and broke box-office opening weekend records in United States, United Kingdom and Japan.

Some of Catmull’s “lessons learned” from this experience relate to recruiting and development. He writes, “If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they’ll screw it up. But if you give a mediocre idea to a great team, they’ll make it work.”  Even though there was a story and a proven approach from the first Toy Story, the initial team couldn’t elevate it to the needed level. Developing the right people is also essential because you can’t manage creative people into producing a great product. Catmull emphasizes providing freedom, support and a healthy dose of feedback from everyone. This requires creating an environment where everyone feels safe to offer their ideas.

Pixar went beyond simply recording lessons learned in a file folder but created organizational alignment mechanisms to keep the company striving to optimize their creative talent. One approach became known as the “brain trust.” A group of experienced story tellers meet periodically with the movie’s director to offer peer to peer feedback.  There is an explicit understanding that the director retains decision-making authority and the intent of the discussion is not to solve the director’s problems but to help him see what is missing. Catmull writes, “People who take on complicated creative projects become lost at some point in the process. It is the nature of things – in order to create, you must internalize and almost become the project for a while and that near fusing with the project is an essential part of its emergence. But it is also confusing.” (He also commented, “early on, all our movies suck.”) The brain trust works because everyone understands the creative challenge and brings empathy, humility, and a common passion for telling a great story.

Organizational leaders need to ask what are they doing to move beyond lofty statements of collaboration to create safe spaces where passionate and constructive conversations are sharpening both the people and the product. Pixar doesn’t get it right every time but they have created a culture where they set high expectations and continue to challenge their best thinking both during and after each creative endeavor.