Can a story clinch a $7.4 Billion deal?
Because that’s exactly what helped Disney acquire the hit-producing animation machine known as Pixar.
Now, these two companies – Disney and Pixar – are both master storytellers. In film, print, and in merchandise.
Disney we know about. Mickey Mouse. Snow White. The Little Mermaid.
And maybe you know that Pixar was born from a small computer division of LucasFilm back in the late 70s.
Then Steve Jobs bought it, and together with animator John Lasseter and techno-guru Ed Catmull, they built the studio that gave us Toy Story, Cars, and the Incredibles (my personal favorite, because, hey, it’s about super heroes).
Pixar blazed the trail for all the slick computer graphics that bombard us today … starting from scratch in the days when the promise of a full length, computer animated movie was something you could only whisper in your dreams.
Pixar had to fight hard to make those dreams a reality.
You could say they valued their independence.
In fact, Pixar was obsessed with preserving an open flow of ideas, encouraging dissent even with top brass.
Employees were empowered to think outside the box – even when it came to their job titles: Pixar employees had free range to “exercise their creative freedom with their titles and names on their business cards”.
In contrast, Disney was a mature corporation, structured along strong hierarchical divisions with clear cut titles and positions.
At Disney, if you stuck your neck out with a bold idea, you could get fired.
Which, by the way, is exactly what happened to a young John Lasseter 32 years before, when the future big shot was just a plucky animator with some crazy ideas about tossing computers into the artistic stew.
Not only that, but Disney had kindled Pixar’s ire eighteen months earlier, when the big company decided to play hardball in a previous agreement between the two businesses.
Essentially, Disney threatened to exercise an earlier contract option and produce Toy Story 3 — but without Pixar’s involvement.
The Toy Story franchise was the jewel in Pixar’s crown.
Seizing it from Pixar would be like informing Sir Paul McCartney that Justin Bieber had the right to record “Hey Jude” … Part 2.
(Or maybe Beebs would give it a “cooler” name, like “Hey Dude”).
Talk about stealing somebody’s baby.
So when the 800-pound Mouse licked its lips in anticipation of swallowing the smaller, fiercely independent company …
It’s an understatement to say that the Pixarians needed some coaxing.
Jobs was for the merger, but Lasseter and Catmull weren’t convinced that they’d be able to retain the free flow of ideas that had powered Pixar’s success.
Ed Catmull tells the story in his must read book — Creativity, Inc — of how Disney CEO Bob Iger wooed him to agree with the merger.
And Iger did it … with a story.
The first thing Iger did that night, says Catmull, “was tell me a story.”
Bob Iger said he had recently had an epiphany at the opening of Hong Kong Disneyland. He was watching the famous parade of characters, from Mickey Mouse to Snow White, when he noticed that the only new classic characters were from Pixar movies: Buzz Lightyear and Woody.
“It occurred to me that the only classic characters that had been created in the past ten years were Pixar characters,” the CEO of Disney said.
You can bet that got Catmull’s attention.
Iger went on to explain that despite Disney’s massive business interests – merchandising, amusement parks, merchandising, cruise lines, merchandising, resorts … did I mention merchandising? – that despite all these, animation would always be Disney’s lifeblood.
And expertise in animation, especially the new form – computer animation – was exactly what Pixar did better than anyone.
This story proved to Catmull one very important thing: Disney had no interest in squashing the freedom and creativity that had built Pixar’s greatness.
In other words, Disney wasn’t about to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs.
Now, I suppose Bob Iger could have simply said so from the beginning.
“We value the central role of animation in Disney’s portfolio,” he could have said, “and we value Pixar’s contribution to that.”
(Right … and I’m sure Catmull believes every reassurance he’s ever heard from a corporate suit.)
Instead, Iger started the evening with a simple, true story that drove his point home.
A story that’s also a shared experience: watching the parade of characters in Disneyland. The characters that are the true heart of the Magic Kingdom.
That shared experience made it easy for Ed Catmull to imagine himself right there — especially since Catmull had been a lover of Disney ever since watching “Uncle Walt” on Sunday nights when he was a kid.
It was easy for Catmull to think with his heart and feel a glow of pride “seeing” the parade of Pixar’s contributions to the animation pantheon.
That story set the perfect stage for the ensuing (successful) negotiation, and it demonstrated – not just explained – Iger’s sincerity in his pitch.
That’s part of the power of stories. They present us with a sliver of reality. Of authenticity. And therefore trust.
Oh, and the little deal Bob Iger put together?
The deal that made Steve Jobs the single biggest shareholder of Disney (now his widow), and made rich men of all involved?
It’s also born immense creative fruit, because Lasseter and Catmull were put in charge of both Pixar’s and Disney’s animation studios.
And Disney just last year released a monster hit – you or your kids may have heard of the little movie called Frozen – that became the highest grossing animated movie ever, surpassing the one billion dollar mark.
And in the many Academy Awards won for that movie, the names of Lasseter, Jobs, and Catmull were on many lips.
So the deal seems to have worked out pretty well for Bob Iger.
When you’ve got to win someone over – especially a hostile crowd – start from a story of shared experiences.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
Wherein you learn to let your tears write your stories for you