When you think about Disney, you probably think Mickey Mouse and fairy dust. But Disney has been doing pretty well for themselves lately, and that’s partially because they’ve been reinventing themselves not only as a brand, but as a business. A very tech-savvy business.
Disney’s current technology kick can be traced back to the 1980s, when computer generated imagery (CGI) was just taking off. One of the biggest supporters of CG in filmmaking was George Lucas himself, the creator of Star Wars. His company Lucasfilm had a small computer division called the Graphics Group (later Pixar) that mostly justified its existence by selling high-end graphics software and computers to medical imaging companies. Lucas was supportive of the team and could see the future of CGI but in 1983 he and his wife Marcia went through a particularly disastrous divorce. The same year also saw the original Star Wars trilogy come to a close (and thus the merchandising sales drying up). Lucas no longer had the financial stability to support Pixar, so he began looking for a buyer. Specifically, someone who could afford to let them keep working away until good things came about.
Pixar’s savior came in the form of Steve Jobs, who had just gone through a divorce of the corporate kind that saw him ousted from the company he created, Apple. Jobs had money to invest and saw a kindred spirit in John Lassetter, the leader of the Pixar crew. For almost ten years, Jobs funded the Pixar team as they honed their technology on corporate commercials as well as short films. He was surprisingly hands-off, realizing that animation wasn’t his forte. He knew the Pixar team was passionate and didn’t need his infamous micromanagement. Jobs was always willing to back Pixar with his vicious boardroom manner whenever Disney, who was producing Pixar’s first film Toy Story, wanted to pull the plug on the seemingly doomed project. Pixar prevailed and Toy Story became the first fully computer animated feature film in cinema history which led to a film distribution deal at Disney.
Jobs also found something of a Bill Gates equivalent in hotheaded Disney chairman Jeffery Katzenberg. Katzenberg is often credited with leading the studio out of its 80s slump into what has been dubbed the “Disney Renaissance” (he was responsible for hits such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King). Katezenberg left Disney in a rage just when Pixar was getting its footing; he was passed over for a top position after Disney’s president Frank Wells was killed in a helicopter crash. Shortly thereafter Katzenberg rushed his newly-minted Dreamworks (co-founded alongside Steven Spielberg and record mogul David Geffen) to their first CG film. This project was Antz, a none too subtle effort in undermining A Bug’s Life, which Disney and Pixar were developing when he made his loud exit.
Throughout the next decade, Pixar grew unhappy with Disney. Though Katzenberg had often been frustrating to deal with, there was no denying that he was an animation guru. Under CEO Michael Eisner, Disney was not only unable replicate the string of hits that Katzenberg had produced, they also began to focus heavily on low-rent sequels to hits from decades prior. Eisner became so unpopular that Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) began a shareholder revolt to have Eisner ousted from the Mouse House. Pixar and Jobs were also frustrated with the new Disney and made it known that they would be seeking out a new distributor for their productions once their contract was up.
This was when Bob Iger showed up. Iger, who had been the president and COO at Disney for a few years at this point, was a problem-fixer who had great aspirations. Iger and Jobs became such fast friends that when he eventually sold Pixar to Disney, Jobs gave Iger a chance to back out of the $7.4 billion deal by confiding something that not even his family knew of – his cancer had returned and he only had five years left.
Under Iger’s drive, Disney acquired Marvel and Lucasfilm (for a cool $4 billion each) which gave him access to some of pop culture’s most iconic characters. The acquisition-based business model of the tech world that Jobs hailed from was undoubtedly rubbing off on him. (The two would have meetings to talk about who they could buy and revamp into something greater. Yahoo was in their sights at one point).
Now Iger is looking a little smaller, but with just as much enthusiasm and potential for growth. Last year saw Disney jump into the startup incubator pool with the Accelerator Program. Each year, ten startups from around the world are selected to come spend three months working with entrepreneurs and tech-minded Disney executives to bring their ideas to full potential. The ideas that Disney has shown interest in are ideas are those driven by technology or software that has interactive and entertainment capabilities. The companies still own their intellectual property when they leave the accelerator in three months and are free to continue on their own, usually wiser and richer with the experience and spotlight. Disney seems to see this as an opportunity to have the first crack at new and emerging technologies before other competitors, as well as a way to encourage growth beyond the typical startup avenues. There’s very little fine print.
The Walt Disney Company seems to be taking a leaf out of Apple’s book. Like Apple, they have had a very successful run after a period of less than desirable results, and a good portion of that has been in smart buying (they also own ESPN and ABC in addition to Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm). Since the earliest days when Walt himself was crafting the first animated feature with color and sound, the Disney mission has remained the same: explore the bleeding edge of new technology with the ultimate purpose of creating compelling characters and telling a satisfying story.