What impact can a business executive have on entertainment? If that executive is Michael Eisner, the answer is decades of industry domination and dozens of iconic pop culture properties. Gamesauce interviewed Michael, the founder of Tornante Company and the principal owner of Topps, prior to his keynote at Casual Connect on topics ranging from the importance of partnership to his strange strategy of extracting game-changing ideas with long, grueling meetings.
Gamesauce: Do you think that leaders who come from a creative or technical background have an advantage over those who were trained in business only?
Michael Eisner: I’ve never really met anyone who was “trained in business only.” This would require a person to never read a book, ride a bike, go to high school or college, see a play or concert, or watch television. What’s more, a great businessman, great deal maker, is usually very creative. That said, as an English major who loves the creative process, I absolutely believe that to achieve success in any consumer-oriented business — or any business for that matter — it is crucially important to have an inquiring mind that is not limited to things that can be quantified on an Excel spreadsheet. I am a big advocate of a liberal arts education. As George Lucas told my son who wanted to be a film director and go to USC undergraduate Film School, “Go there for graduate school, not college,” he said. “You see, anybody can learn to shoot a film. It’s like driving a car. The key is knowing where to drive the car to. Go to a liberal arts college.” So, I think the “advantage” goes to anyone with a broad education who then focuses on what he or she is really talented at.
GS: Partners force us to listen to the devil’s advocate, admit our mistakes and proceed with caution. After success, why do so many leaders try to do it on their own?
ME: I believe in partnerships so much that I wrote a whole book on the subject. I’ve benefited from three great partnerships in my life — Barry Diller at Paramount, Frank Wells at Disney and my wife, Jane, at life. As to why leaders try to do it on their own, you’ll have to ask them. I think it’s a bad idea since no one person can have all the right answers, not even Warren Buffett! Warren is the first to admit that Berkshire Hathaway wouldn’t be what it is today without his partner, Charlie Munger.
GS: How can an executive most effectively motivate, challenge, and inspire artists, writers and others dedicated to creative projects?
ME: Well, above all, it is a good idea to pick someone you feel has potential. It’s easier to pull back on the reins of a powerful horse than try to wake up a lazy mule. Then, the first step is to listen. It’s the polite and effective way to start. Any creative person is undertaking an incredibly difficult task — trying to craft something original. This is hard, nerve-wracking and fraught with risk. And, pretty much 100% of the time, they care passionately about what they’ve done. So, before you offer a single note or opinion, listen to them so they will feel heard. This will make the painful process of making suggestions or changes or restarts a good deal less painful for everyone.
GS: What can an organization do to foster creativity among its employees?
ME: Don’t overuse the word “creativity.” This is a precious word, and it has been cheapened by being overexposed in the business world. Build an environment in which people are not afraid to take risks and fail. Do this and creativity will happen, maybe. Now, the process I used inside the companies I’ve worked was odd, controversial and annoying. We set up long, tiring, exasperating, exhausting, endless meetings where, toward the end, everybody’s inhibitions are curtailed, curtained, evaporated; where status in the company is ignored, where an intern and the CEO are on the same level, where everybody is equal and everybody wants to go home. Often it is in the last five minutes of such a meeting when some brilliant idea comes forth.
GS: How do you balance the freedom necessary to unleash new ideas with the enterprise’s need for discipline, organization and order?
ME: This question contains the answer. You just do it by being constantly mindful of the need to maintain this important and delicate balance in everything you do. A little disorder for a good idea — no, a great idea — no, a fantastic idea — is sometimes worth it.
GS: Movies and television shows have often turned to games as an extension of the brand and/or a complement to other marketing activities. What is your view of the value of such tie-in games?
ME: At Disney, we used games as brand extensions all the time, but they had to do the same thing that made a brand great in the first place: Tell a great story. At Topps, we’re doing this now with our highly successful Lucasfilm Star Wars Card Trader app, which allows consumers to continue to enjoy the Star Wars story by collecting and trading these cards.
GS: Do you think the industry needs to have independent small or mid-sized creative organizations creating games to keep creativity alive? Or is there a way for larger organizations to foster creativity?
ME: Size can be a problem. At Disney, we tried to keep creative units small and nimble. This worked well with theme parks and movie and television production, at ABC and ESPN, at Disney Channels everywhere, in countries all over the world. Not sure we ever accomplished real success in the digital space. We really screwed up Infoseek, but that is a different story. But, I think we learned from those misfires, and at Topps, our Digital team is set up to operate like a tech startup within the larger organization.
GS: How can we create entertainment without borders?
ME: You could do a whole speech about this single subject. American creativity is unique and has been embraced in countries and cultures around the world. Whether it is because of our democracy, our heterogeneous population, our growing equality in the workplace, our weather, or the water we drink, from the silent film era until today, this has continued to be the case. Today, entertainment is our second biggest export, after aerospace. But we cannot rest on these laurels and must increasingly be mindful of the sensibilities of the rest of the world. When I began my career, the movie business was all about the U.S. box office; now the international market is larger than domestic. The same is happening in television and other products of the mind. Our challenge is to have an ear and an eye and sensitivity to the differences outside our borders. This is what all the entertainment companies and technology companies are doing. Everything that we’ve been doing at Topps takes these changes into account as we focus on sports and entertainment that is embraced around the world.
GS: People rarely discuss the importance of failure in growth and perspective. Are we doomed to mediocrity without failure?
ME: In a word: Yes. Failure is the price we must all pay for success. Failure is painful and gut-wrenching, but if we are able to pick ourselves up and analyze what went wrong, it can lead to great things. As Tom Watson, the founder of IBM, once said, “The way to accelerate your success is to double your failure rate.” What’s more, there’s this beautiful irony: The only way to avoid failure is to play it safe and just do what has been done … which will ultimately lead to failure, because the tried-and-true is boring.
Steve Kent is a staff writer for Gamesauce and content manager for Casual Connect. Steve loves superheros and spending time with his kiddo.