Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Disney Needs a Visionary (but not the George Lucas kind)

Most companies that produce goods for public consumption, be they entertainment companies like CBS/Paramount or consumer electronics companies like HP, operate in pretty much the same way. They conduct tons of market research to determine exactly what kinds of things schlubs like us want to buy, and based upon the results of that research they either formulate products for our consumption or concoct an ad campaign to sell us the stuff they already have. Market research is very important to the serious people in suits who run these companies, because on their own they frankly have no idea what we wormlike members of the public want. They understand us about as well as we understand the Mucous Beings of Planet Glornax.

Now, companies that operate in this way do manage to produce useful things. I’m writing this post with Windows Live Writer on a Dell PC running Windows 7, and it works pretty well for me. However, when I drive around the college town were I live, I never see cars with Dell or Microsoft bumper stickers. You know what logo I do see, though? Apple. Those white Apple stickers that come with new iPods are in car windows everywhere. Outside of some professional sports franchises, no business organization in the world commands loyalty and affection like Apple. Every time they launch a new product, it dominates the 24-hour news cycle. Major news magazines like Time and Newsweek fall all over themselves to devote cover stories to how awesome the new product is. Apple’s success is even more amazing when you consider that the company was pretty much dead in the late ‘90s. What changed? The answer, of course, is Steve Jobs.

Unlike its competitors, Apple makes innovative products that we never knew we needed. Sure, during their late ‘80s-to- mid ‘90s Jobs-less period they came out with some impressive devices like the PowerBook and the Newton, but overall the company’s succession of traditional CEOs who ran things in a traditional way was an unmitigated disaster. Because he was one of Apple’s founders, and because the company was in such poor shape when he returned in 1997, Jobs was able to force Apple to do things his way. In fact, the way that Steve Jobs runs Apple reminds me of another company with a charismatic founder who had a unique way of doing things: Disney.

Like Apple today, Disney during Walt’s time was famous for giving us amazing things we didn’t even know we wanted, like full-length animated movies, the modern theme park, and Audio-Animatronic shows. After Walt’s passing in 1966 enough of his creative energy remained in the company (in the form of people who had worked with him) to give us some pretty amazing things, among them EPCOT Center and a new bunch of animated films that have become modern classics.

However, just like Apple in early 1997 Disney is largely coasting on its reputation these days. The uniqueness that Walt brought to the company he founded has largely been drained away by traditional corporate executives that can’t blow their nose without consulting a focus group. Unfortunately, unlike Apple Disney has no legitimate competitors, at least not in the theme park industry. It’s not going to slide into oblivion unless a visionary CEO comes along and saves it. And anyway, there aren’t a lot of visionary CEOs out there to be had. It’s easy to point to specific things that Disney is doing wrong: Team Disney Orlando is too cheap, the Disney Channel is nothing but vacuous shows aimed at ‘tweens, etcetera. However, the overall problem is that Disney is the kind of company that needs to be helmed by a visionary CEO with the unquestioned power to do whatever he wants, and it does not have that. Disney needs a Steve Jobs. Or even a Mark Cuban. If it never gets one, you can be sure we’ll see more of this:


And less of this:


And that would really be a shame.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Tow Mater vs. Someone You Never Heard Of

Two posts ago I talked a little bit about Duffy the Disney Marketing Bear, and how his marketing campaign seems to be borrowing from the Transformers/He-Man/GI-Joe playbook from the ‘80s that used commercials disguised as entertainment to sell toys to kids. Now, I’m going to tackle a somewhat-related topic: how Licensed Characters have taken over Disney theme park attractions, and why it’s kind of our fault.

Pretend for a minute that you’re a movie studio executive, and that you’re asked to give $200 million of your studio’s money to someone that many film critics consider to be one of the worst directors in the business. The proposed script for the movie reads like it was written by a super-caffeinated person who has only a passing familiarity with linear thought. It features two prominent characters who are obviously racist caricatures, a small, annoying character who vigorously humps the leg of the female lead, and a main character who spends most of his time running away from explosions while shouting scintillating dialogue like “Whoa-whoa-whoa-whoa!” and “Wait-wait-wait! No-no-no-no!” Now, if you have any common sense at all you will laugh in this director’s face and ask him if this is some kind of April Fools’ prank, and maybe even inquire as to what kind of complete idiot he thinks you are. And you would probably get fired, because the director is Michael Bay, many of the characters in question are giant robots, and the movie is Transformers 2, which turned a budget of $200 million into a worldwide box office gross of over $800 million, and that doesn’t count the profits from merchandise and DVD sales.

Yes, Transformers 2 may have been universally reviled by critics and ripped apart on the Internet, but it was a huge hit with the average  moviegoing public. You probably won’t admit it out loud, but you probably went to see it. I know I did. In fact, if the last decade or so has taught us anything, it’s that movies based on recognizable and beloved licensed characters are virtually guaranteed to make money, no matter how bad they are. Theme park attractions are a lot like movies, when you think about it. Both cost many millions of dollars to make and must appeal to a broad audience. So, since the general public love its licensed characters, what are you going to do if you’re Disney and you own a huge stable of them? Obviously, every time you need to create a new attraction or rehab and existing one, you’re going to cram a licensed character in there! After all, the people have voted with their wallets; it’s what they want. And if you’ve made a habit of going to see movies featuring licensed characters, then you’ve voted with your wallet, too.

Ah, but why must Disney always simply do whatever the rest of the entertainment industry is doing? Why can’t they dare to be different, blaze new trails? It worked out pretty well for them in the past, after all. I’ll be taking up that topic in a post next week. Thanks for reading!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

This Looks Familiar . . .

Today, the tech blog Gizmodo published an article and some images of a new HP tablet. As an EPCOT-lover, the picture of the tablet’s back side really caught my eye:


Hey, what better way to make your product look futuristic that to mimic the look of one of the most futuristic things in the world? For the record, Spaceship Earth’s aluminum-encased look was futuristic back when Apple was still encasing their products in beige plastic.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Duffy Bear, meet Optimus Prime

In a new effort to give EPCOT’s World Showcase more kid appeal, and to give the parents of said kids an exciting new opportunity to shell out more money for merchandise, Disney is bringing in reinforcements from Japan . Duffy the Disney Bear, a teddy-bear-like character who’s been very popular at Tokyo Disneyland, will get his own Meet-and-Greet on October 4th, at the gateway to the World Showcase. Also, Duffy will be for sale in each World Showcase country, wearing a country-specific costume.

A lot of old-school Disney curmudgeons like myself are irritated by this. Unlike Mickey, Donald, the PIxar characters, or the princesses, Duffy did not begin life as a character in an animated feature. He started as a piece of merchandise, and now he’s being promoted as though he were a “real” character all for the purpose of selling toys to children. Those of us who grew up during EPCOT Center’s 1980s heyday just can’t remember a marketing campaign ever targeting children this way:


Optimus Prime disagrees

Except the most treasured pieces of our childhood, that is. Yes, the 1980s were chock-full of toys that were given their own Saturday-morning cartoon shows for the express purpose of marketing them to children! Transformers, He-Man, GI-Joe, My Little Pony, Rainbow Brite: these things that virtually defined childhood for anyone who grew up in the ‘80s weren’t created to bring joy to little kids, they were there to wring money from the parents of elementary-school children. None of that mattered to the kids, of course. We just loved our licensed characters and the cartoons in which they appeared. We may have known that the cartoons were only created to market the toys, but we didn’t care. Personally, I wouldn’t be surprised if Duffy gets his own Disney channel show or direct-to-DVD feature in the near future.

Of course, the whole Duffy thing does seem to point to a disturbing mindset on the part of Disney Parks management, a mindset that the parks exist primarily to sell merchandise and the attractions are simply there to implant a desire for whatever is sold in the gift shops they exit into. Speaking as an adult, I find this kind of thing to be crass and almost offensive. But back when I was a six-year-old, and the Hasbro corporation was using a red-and-blue truck that transformed into a giant robot to separate my parents from their money, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Next time, I’ll be talking about Disney’s tendency to tie almost every new attraction into a licensed character, and why this is all our fault.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Technology Unchained or The Symphosizer: 2083’s Answer to the Magic Trackpad

The creators of Star Trek:The Next Generation envisioned a 24th century full of comfortable environments where technology, although heavily utilized, was very much in the background, deemphasized. Gene Roddenberry called this philosophy “technology unchained”. It wasn’t exactly a new idea, however. For almost four years before TNG’s 1987 premiere, Horizons at EPCOT Center had been giving thousands of people per day a three-dimensional look at just such an environment. Let’s take a trip to the world of 2083, as we imagined it in 1983:


The Nova Cite apartment was my favorite Horizons environment. It’s also the one that holds up the best twenty-seven years later. Some production designers tasked with creating a futuristic environment make the mistake of cramming it with complicated-looking futuristic equipment, as if its occupant had just gone on a shopping spree at the local Best Buy. Such displays tend not to age well. The best “future” technology is something that looks simple. Let’s take a closer look at the Symphosizer:


I know, you can’t wait until 2083 so you can have your own periwinkle leisure suit with matching plastic booties

The only visible controls are 14-16 large colored keys that don’t appear to move or depress in any way. It would be easy to deride it as a cross between an old Simon game and a Fisher-Price My First Piano, but its apparent simplicity could very well be deceptive. After all, who in 1983 would believe that a telephone in 2010 would look like this:


. . . or that the computer mouse, a very cutting-edge device in those days, would be replaced by something that looked like this:


Could anyone familiar only with early-1980s technology look at those pictures and get the slightest idea what those devices were or how they worked?  Most likely, they’d simply dismiss them as nonfunctional slabs of plastic and aluminum. So it is with the Symphosizer. If we were to go back and slap an Apple logo on it, most people today would instinctively realize that it must be more complex than it appears. In fact, maybe the “Symphosizer” isn’t really its name. Maybe it’s called the iMusic.

It’s good to know that, in the world of 2083, Steve Jobs (or more likely, his brain downloaded into an iPad) could still be coming up with ideas. Or at least taking credit for them.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

The Beginning

If a new Star Trek series ever materializes, we’ll learn about it a year in advance. Before we watch the first minute of the pilot episode, we’ll already know everything about it (and probably the next few episodes, too) thanks to the Internet. In 1987, of course, none of that was possible. The only way one might learn that a new Star Trek series was in development would be through a magazine or newspaper article or maybe a television report. As a nine-year-old kid, I didn’t have access to a lot of magazines. Our local newspaper, the St. Augustine Record, was much smaller in those days and didn’t offer much national entertainment coverage. And since my mother firmly believed that too much television would turn me into a brain-dead juvenile delinquent, I didn’t get to watch tons of TV, either. (Then again, it’s not like there was much to watch. We didn’t get cable until 1989.)

My point is that I had no detailed information about Star Trek:The Next Generation before it premiered on September 28, 1987. In fact, I only knew two things: it was set almost a hundred years after the Original Series, and there was going to be a new Enterprise. I’m sure that Starlog or another magazine probably had an issue chock full of pictures and interviews as the premiere date approached, but I never saw it. In fact, the only picture I remember seeing is this one, in the Entertainment section of a Time or Newsweek magazine in a doctor’s waiting room:

 1st_tngcast[1] Why do half of them look grim, and the other half look stoned?

Who were these people? Why did the crew of the new Enterprise include old bald guy, a dude with a womens’ hair accessory on his face, and a teenager in an ugly sweater? I had no idea. But as soon as I got home I Googled “star trek the next generation” and—actually, no I didn't, because, as I might have mentioned, there was no Internet. Also, we didn’t own a computer and “Google” was not yet a verb, just a misspelling of the number “googol”. What I really did was wait until “Encounter at Farpoint” premiered on September 28. I may have seen a few brief TV promos beforehand (I distinctly remember one that described Worf as “the friendly Klingon”-and even as I type that I can hear Worf’s voice in my head saying “I protest! I am not a friendly Klingon!”) but that was it.

It is safe to say that I was stoked beyond belief for the premiere of the new and improved Star Trek. And I was not disappointed. Star Trek:The Next Generation instantly became my new favorite show. “But how can that be,” you ask, “given the fact that most of TNG’s first season was so bad it induced seizures in laboratory animals?” I’ll let you in on a little secret: nine-year-olds are notoriously poor judges of quality. At this point, I was only aware of two categories of Star Trek episodes and movies: the ones I was allowed to watch, and the ones I was not allowed to watch because my parents deemed them too violent or whatever. I enjoyed “Spock’s Brain” just as much as “Balance of Terror”.

In my next post, I’ll talk about TNG’s pilot episode “Encounter at Farpoint”; my impressions of it in 1987, and how it shaped my view of what futuristic technology looked like, a view that heretofore had been influenced mainly by the Original Star Trek and EPCOT Center. Oh, you might have noticed that futureprobe has a Twitter account now. I plan on using it mainly to let people know what blog-related thing I’m currently working on, and perhaps I’ll also include the odd EPCOT-related thought or tidbit of info that isn’t “big” enough to warrant an article here. I included the Twitter gadget on the right-hand side of the page so you don’t have to actually go to the Twitter website if you don’t want to. I’m not really into the Twitter thing (which makes me a member of the Internet Amish, I know) so it probably won’t be updated very often. For now, though, I’ll leave you with this, the original “Encounter at Farpoint” promo spot that ran immediately before TNG’s world premiere: