Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Billion-Dollar Kiss

I want to recommend a book called Billion-Dollar Kiss: the Kiss that Saved DAWSON'S CREEK and Other Adventures in TV Writing by Jeffrey Stepakoff. Besides being a memoir of Stepakoff's progress as a writer, the book is also a very good history of the regulatory and economic forces that have shaped American TV since the 1980's.

There's relatively little in the book that directly relates to animation. Stepakoff was involved with the scripts of Brother Bear and Tarzan at Disney, though coverage of these projects is brief. He does speak highly of the storyboard artists at Disney, though.

That is one of the strengths of the book. While it relates many questionable policies and decisions that the author encountered, the book is free of derogatory remarks about the people Stepakoff has worked with or observed. One would hope that would serve as a standard for future industry memoirs and (dare I say it) blogs.

The parallels with animation are present, though. When the FCC changed the regulations allowing broadcasters to own their own programming, rather than buy it from independent producers, the broadcasters went on a spending spree signing writers to exclusive development deals. The thinking was that writers were the ones to create hits, so the broadcasters wanted to monopolize the talents of the writers with the best resumes. The problem was that the competition drove up the cost of the contracts and the results didn't justify the expense, causing many writers to be dumped and the networks to have to move to cheaper programming like reality shows.

In animation, the situation is similar to the '90s boom where studios like Disney, DreamWorks and Warner Bros. fought to sign up art talent, driving the cost of that talent through the roof. The expectation was that Lion King-sized grosses would continue and when they didn't, the studios eventually downsized, leaving many artists out of work.

The competition for talent, and the resulting rise in costs, seems to make sense in the short term; a company can't afford to let its competitors corner the market on talent. However, the competition is ultimately self-destructive as the frenzy to hire is rarely balanced against realistic income expectations.

There is one amazing quote in the book from an internal memo written by Michael Eisner. I'm not quoting it to vilify Eisner but because I think it's a perfect expression of a certain kind of short-sighted business mentality.
"We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective."
The first irony is that at the time Eisner wrote this, he was the president and CEO of a company that had been built completely on making history, art and a statement (Steamboat Willie, Flowers and Trees, The Three Little Pigs, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Fantasia, Disneyland, etc.). The other irony is that if you eliminate making history, art or a statement, the only thing remaining is formula. The problem with formula -- any formula -- is that it's a recapitulation of something that's already been successful, which limits a company to imitation and eventually dooms the audience to boredom. When an audience gets bored, a company built on a formula is stuck with little salable product. Surely, it was pressure over the quality of Disney's product and the resulting decline in revenues that was responsible for Eisner's ouster, meaning that Eisner was a victim of his own business philosophy.

Unfortunately, that philosophy is all too common inside media conglomerates and while Stepakoff is somewhat optimistic about the future of television (perhaps because it's still where he earns his living), Michael Eisner's approach suggests to me that television's future is far from certain.


Thad said...

I guess Eisner, during his time at Disney, surpassed what we call, "usual evil"

Anonymous said...

The problems with content go back far beyond the ownership / Fin Syn rules - I would look at the UHF tuner ruling for one, as well as the "cable-favorable" rulings. The only way TV could afford "art" was as an oligopoly - even #3 made money no matter what was on. Paul Klein was a very funny man, and his listeners may have thought he was joking, but Least Objectionable Programming also covered TV's Golden Age.

Same was true for features - one reason "art" died in the late '40's was the Paramount decision.

Midodok said...

Thanks for the book suggestions and your insightful summary!

Anonymous said...

The Eisner memo cited in this blog is inaccurate and misquoted.

here is a more accurate (though redacted) version:

“We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make a statement. But to make money, it is often important to make history, to make art, or to make some significant statement[…] In order to make money, we must always make entertaining movies, and if we make entertaining movies, at times we will reliably make history, art, a statement, or all three. We may even win awards[…] We cannot expect numerous hits, but if every film has an original and imaginative concept, then we can be confident that something will break through.”

One will find this version to be significantly less sinister.

Perhaps even more serious is the mistaken assumption
that Eisner wrote that memo as CEO of Disney Corp.
It was in fact written in 1981, Eisner was CEO
of Paramount Pictures at the time.

Eisner became CEO of Disney
in 1984, well after drafting that memo.

The combined effect of the inacurrate quote
and the error in related fact results in disinformation.
Thus creating an environment that prohibits genuine
analysis of the value of the data and meaning of the subject.

We must guard against hasty assessments
based on unreliable sources.

-- David Lemay

Mark Mayerson said...

David, can you please cite the source for your version of the quote? All I had to go on was Stepakoff's version of it. As Stepakoff worked at Disney, I assumed that it was a memo that he saw during his time there.

If the quote has been mangled and there's a more complete version of it in print, I would be very happy to withdraw my comments and call attention to the error.

Anonymous said...

The "Stepakoff version" is very easy to find
as it is frequently used by a great many.

I think that, aside from its neat and lean format,
it is due, in part, to its shock appeal and how
it is just what most of us like to think about
the folks at the helm of such behemoth
corporations as Disney.

Playing in to our bias, it tells us
just what we want to hear.
Making it easier to believe.

Although this, in no way,
reflects my opinion of
the work or its author,
the version I used
can be found in print in:

Disney War

By James B. Stewart

Simon & Schuster, February 2005
ISBN-10: 0-7432-8390-2
ISBN-13: 978-0-7432-8390-8

For what its worth that book
won the Gerald Loeb Award
(for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism)
in the business book category in 2006

Hoping this will be useful

-- David Lemay

Mark Mayerson said...

I've got Disney War on order from the local library and will definitely follow up after reading it.