Ted Goranson - Personal Blog

The blog of Ted Goranson. This is both a personal blog and an ongoing update on his projects.

Disney Research

Published: 2 Oct 2015

Here is another thought experiment…

Suppose you were working for Disney Research. Right now it is a mashup of groups including the theme park guys, Pixar CG, some university folks, and a Swiss video technology group. I am supposing that there would be no advantage to combining these but that Disney would benefit from some clear notion about what they should be investing in that they are not.

Disney is the company likely to suffer the least as the world of movies is revolutionized, but I don’t think this will happen by accident. And it surely won’t happen if they simply follow the crowd. What would you do?

I suggest putting all research projects into three categories that I’ll list below, but first some views about what in Disney shows promise in my view.

Absorbent Stories

Stories that escape themselves and penetrate our lives.

The financial markets view Disney as a company that creates and delivers video content; robust supplements are their theme park and licensing businesses. Very likely, most in the company also see things this way.

But I see this in terms of stories. An ordinary content producer, say Warner Brothers, will worry about the things our redframer project does: what makes a story compelling. redframer focuses on the after-viewing experiences as well as the viewing one. Though related, we believe they are different; but the focus is still on a single artifact, the film (or video) and what it evokes.

Disney makes these kind of stories of course. They worry about a film (or TeeVee show or YouTube channel) being successful in all the ordinary ways and for many of their projects that is all there is. That is a lot just by itself; Disney and the rest of us have much to learn about narrative in this evolving work and research is needed in this area. That is what redframer is all about. But there is a broader notion of narrative that only Disney manages well.

I’ll call this Absorbent Stories, being narratives that leave the bounds of the medium and enter our lives via other media. We’ll see the skeleton of this in the artifacts that are conveyed: a disk or a view for the initial exposure, and licensed objects for the sustaining exposure. There are dollars associated with transferring these objects, but that’s just the skeleton of what is going on.

Somehow, a story becomes so open and hungry that it attaches itself to daily life. We as consumers of narrative want to enter that world and have it be a part of ours. As a kid, I remember seeing Disney’s Davy Crockett on TeeVee and falling intensely into that world and others by acquiring paraphernalia that gave cues. With new technologies, we have deeper penetration of these narratives, but theme parks and products with licensed images are just vehicles, and likely primitive ones at that.

This is big business, this absorbent story business. It also happens to be one of the most powerful forces in society, so there is pretty good incentive to understand it. Disney does produce home grown results in their princess franchises, but that’s almost too easy to credit. Otherwise, they just can’t crack this and instead have to buy absorbance from elsewhere. That’s why they bought Pixar, Henson, Marvel, Lucasfilm and Maker. They know how to ride the beast well enough to make money, but they don’t understand it well enough to build one.

So if I were in charge, this would be a big theme I would sell to executives. You are better suited than anyone to own the absorbent story ‘market.’ There is a solid science of this that you need to get to and master before someone else does.


Understand and clean up the making the making of making value.

No matter where I go, including heavy manufacturing, no enterprise adequately understands or supports the production process. The big picture is that enterprises spend their money on three things:

  • Work that directly produces value. This is fairly easy to identify in general but extraordinarily difficult to separate out from the two below.
  • Work that manages the work that produces value. It should be obvious that this should be appropriately light weight, frictionless, strategic and circumspect. In no Fortune 500 company is that the case and the only relief is that the direct competition is as broken as you are. Disruption comes from weakness here.
  • Work that manages the work of managing the work. In the art (of enterprise management) these are typically called metrics. They are extraordinarily constraining and expensive and include both what managers use to communicate and evaluate others, and what external stakeholders use for similar means.

Disney is possibly more vulnerable than others in this business because of legacies, scale, segmentation and obsolete methods. If you don’t put research dollars into this it will bite you, plain and simple. The world is changing and you cannot count on your competitors being as hobbled as you are.

Business Driven Research

Have sponsors and identified needs in the line organization.

So now about the three research areas.

I have a lot of experience with this; it is surely the trickiest of the three. Executives, the ones with influence and budget, rarely know what the future will bring or what to do to be ahead of it. That is not surprising. No one else can do this very well either; we do know that every significant invention — the ones that changed us fundamentally — were not foreseen, either in their basic nature or influence.

At the same time, these executives are worried about competition today, not tomorrow. None of them as a rule are there because they are proven visionaries. But we do know that disruption has characteristics that we can understand. I would ensure that half of all the research dollars (across all the labs) had an internal customer who believed that within five years the project could help the business.

At DARPA (when DARPA mattered), this was a valuable discipline. Some useful guidelines:

  • Don’t expect any executive to be strategic. It isn’t their nature. You have to elevate the conversation into the near future.
  • For this work, you really need the business case but do the work yourself of making it. The sponsoring executive will have the need and the power to support you, but you do the math for him/her, and be conservative.
  • Your sponsor has to have skin in the game. A useful technique is to give every operation a research allowance that actually comes from their budget but which can only be spent with the corporate research division or through them. But there should be some other commitment: a pilot project, or the disturbance of introducing metric processes in their work.
  • Early in the rebirth of the research group, a culture of failure has to be embraced. Failure is good; you have to be on the edge to be valuable, and take risks. If done well, a success can be a blockbusting one that justifies the several apparent failures that surround it. This is really important, but you cannot expect the culture of these executives to change to accommodate. Set things up so you, the researcher, will own the failure.

Core Competency Driven Research

Know what your business truly is and invest in understanding it.

No less than a third of the research budget should be allocated to reinforcing the core competencies of Disney. This is different than the above because the business case is generic. If a core competency, for example, is the ability to make lifelike robotics, then projects go in support of it. I would strongly lobby for absorbent stories being a core competency.

Quite likely a short list would also include animation rendering, character modeling, streaming and abstraction (instead of compression) technologies, temporal crowd dynamics and cognitive learning/embossing.

Disney has a hodgepodge of research centers. It is essential that these be less specialized, so some of the research in this category needs to be done in groups that are not the ‘best fit’ from a capability perspective.

The dynamics of accounting demand that these core competencies be redetermined every four years, and surely not five!

Researcher Driven Research

Let your good people be wise. Some will be.

Get good teams. Give them the ability to work on things that they think are important, regardless of what the executives think.

This will pay off in at least three ways

  • You don’t get the best people and build the best teams if you don’t do this.
  • Some of these ideas will be winners, big winners.
  • Whether you can directly use the results, a growing patent portfolio is tremendously useful.
© copyright Ted Goranson, 2015