King Content: a Q&A with Michael Eisner
June 26, 2012 | Tom Gierasimczuk | Comments
The face of the Walt Disney Company for more than two decades, Michael Eisner is today pushing the storytelling limits with his incubator and still not taking any prisoners
If branded entertainment had a godfather, it would be Michael Eisner, the 70-year-old entertainment industry pioneer who has spun tales for big profit over the past four decades. While he toiled as chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company from 1984 to 2005, he transformed it from a theme park brand with great movie archives to an omnipresent entertainment empire, applying what he’d learned in his previous role as CEO of Paramount Pictures. Incredibly, he’s seemingly more entrepreneurial than ever as the owner of The Topps Company (yep, the baseball card guys) and founder and CEO of the Tornante Company, an incubator of opportunities and companies in the media and entertainment space. One holding—media studio Vuguru—produces and distributes original content for digital platforms and is bankrolled by Rogers Media. We caught up with Eisner at C2-MTL, the Sid Lee-curated celebration of commerce and creativity, where he joined other A-list storytellers like Francis Ford Coppola and Arianna Huffington.
In keeping with the spirit at C2-MTL, what is your creative process in terms of how you spot opportunities and creatively seize them?
It’s funny that you asked that—I don’t think I’ve ever thought about my creative process. It just is. It’s an evolutionary process. It’s not something that you learn in business school. All throughout school you learn how to get along with people, how to get organized and how to get from A to B.
If you’re in the newspaper, television, movie or digital business, you adapt to the platform. Once you adapt to the platform, it becomes: “What would be fun to do on that platform? What kind of plays could make you laugh or cry? Does this work on Broadway?”
You’ve got a seemingly disparate amount of ventures going on. Is it fair to say there’s a storytelling streak throughout them?
It’s been pretty clear in my career, and I think it’s going to be even clearer going forward, that content drives it all. Content defines the platform. People are now defining content in a lot of different ways. At the end of the day, it’s the story that makes you laugh and cry and draws the audience… What I do know how to do is find people and tell stories. I happen to think that’s the centre of the universe. Everybody tells stories. If you really professionalize it and make it great, then everybody’ll want to see your story. From caveman to Sophocles to Steven Spielberg.
Do you see storytelling as a way of bringing media, content and a bit of the agency world together?
It’s happening more and more in the digital world. I have a company that’s partners with Rogers here in Canada called Vuguru. We’re convinced that making content—meaning a movie—for the digital platform will be the future. And everybody laughed at us. Interestingly enough, three weeks ago we put on a 95-minute movie called Little Women Big Cars on AOL, of all places. They had something like five million views in the first 10 days.
I think AOL is ecstatic now because, holy cow, they’ve defined one of their missions for a change. If you give people something they want to watch, they’re not ADD and they don’t have to watch it in seven-minute sections. It’s entertaining the way the Movie of the Week is on broadcast television.
What are some brands that you see as doing really well in terms of storytelling, but also weaving in their brand?
I don’t believe in this “weaving in the brand” business. You either tell a story that happens to be on a platform owned by a brand or not. Telling a story around a Coca-Cola bottle is not in my interest. There are stories coming out of some really interesting places. Obviously Hollywood—great storytellers with the major studios and a lot of independents.
How does Canada stack up creatively?
Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto are big centres of creativity. Half the people I deal with in Los Angeles are from Canada. The more diverse the city is, the better the stories. In some of these homogeneous countries where everyone is raised exactly the same, every story is exactly the same. Pretty boring.
Yeah. Not a lot of campaigns coming out of North Korea.
Not North Korea. But there are a lot of stories you can do about North Korea.
Check out the July 9 issue of Marketing for more.