Bob Iger has spent much of his near decade at Disney wearing an additional corporate hat: CTO. The result? He has brought the coolest innovations from Lucasfilm, Pixar, Marvel, and ESPN into a single galaxy. ... “blue sky” experimentation has always been part of Disney’s ethos, going back to the days of multiplane cameras (to add visual depth to the background in the 1937 film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs) and early use of lifelike robots (Disneyland’s Enchanted Tiki Room, which features electromechanical singing birds, pioneered the concept in 1963). But more than six decades ago, when founder Walt Disney first created Imagineering as the company’s innovative arm, virtual reality chambers were almost as far-fetched as talking animals. ... while there are many lessons to learn from the way he has run Disney over the past decade, this one is right up there: Not only do today’s media companies need to start thinking like technology companies—their CEOs also need to start thinking like CTOs. ... a former upstate New York weatherman who began his career at ABC in 1974 ... Every few months the CTOs of Disney’s respective businesses meet—at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., or at the company’s development center in Seattle, or at another locale—to discuss challenges and share information. Over the past couple of years the CTO council has launched “hackathons” and convened a “Best of Disney” annual symposium in which 50 new innovations are on display for the whole company to view. They’ve also partnered on technology initiatives like creating a single user ID that customers can use with various digital products. More recently they’ve started strategizing ways to incorporate drones into Disney’s businesses, such as flying them over football games with high-resolution cameras. Last summer the company filed a series of drone-related patent applications. (Eighty-four percent of Disney’s active patents were filed during Iger’s tenure as CEO.)
Katzenberg admits his greatest motivator is, well, winning. An avid gambler, he got kicked out of summer camp at age 15 for playing cards (that was for M&M’s; these days he plays poker for much higher stakes). But DreamWorks wasn’t always a straight flush. The original production company never lived up to the expectations generated by its high-wattage founders: Katzenberg, Spielberg, and music and film mogul David Geffen. DreamWorks Animation, which became independent in 2004, had more success—but never attained the scale to secure its future in an increasingly conglomerate-heavy Hollywood. ... Still, under Katzenberg’s direction, the animation studio, based in Glendale, Calif., was prolific, sometimes profitable—and most important, prescient. In 22 years, including as a division of DreamWorks SKG, it produced 32 films, garnering more than $13.5 billion in worldwide box-office revenue. ... He was early to recognize that companies other than Disney could turn animated franchises into enduring revenue sources, early to see the importance of streaming-media distribution, and early to spot China’s potential to reshape the industry. ... Developing cartoon movies for kids, done right, can pay off big: If you create lovable and “sticky” characters, you can relatively easily monetize that initial IP investment across multiple movies, TV spinoffs, and lines of merchandise. ... The process is slow and costly. Films take three to four years to complete, progressing from ideation to storyboarding to using computer-generated imagery to animate minute details like the movement of hair and the texture of powdery snow. At DreamWorks Animation, a typical movie cost upwards of $140 million—not including marketing.
The performing powerhouse, founded in 1984 in Quebec, now encompasses 10 “resident” shows in the U.S. and Mexico, including O, and eight traveling productions, which tour to 130 cities around the world. Even as traditional circuses continued a long decline—in January, after a run of 146 years, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus announced that it would soon shut down—a stunning 10 million people saw a Cirque show last year. Its extravagant productions are famed for their mixture of daredevil acrobatics and lowbrow clown comedy, pop hits and New Agey compositions, and daring design. (O, for example, takes place in and above a 1.5-million-gallon pool of water.) But lately Cirque has branched out in unprecedented and potentially lucrative ways: There are plans to launch a theme park and a kids’ entertainment project, and to design an interactive NFL store in New York’s Times Square. There are—of course—plans to go big in China. ... The year before the acquisition, Cirque reportedly brought in $845 million in revenue. (By comparison, all the shows on Broadway combined brought in $1.37 billion last season.) ... sees Cirque as a way to play a bigger, counterintuitive trend: a yearning for live entertainment in a digital era.
The takeaway: Gaming may be mainstream entertainment, but game companies are hit-driven—and none has successfully expanded beyond videogames. ... Activision Blizzard hopes to be the first. It’s not just dragon-centric TV shows that are being spun out of its massive vault of proprietary characters ... There are multiple movies under development, loosely based on the bestselling war-game franchise Call of Duty. There’s a newly launched consumer products division, tasked with developing everything from comic books to apparel based on Activision Blizzard’s intellectual property. ... And most notably, there is an “e-sports” empire in the works—a major foray into the booming world of competitive videogaming. That genre, once merely a niche, is reaching a tipping point. About 385 million people worldwide are expected to view e-sports events in 2017—mostly online, but increasingly on cable television and at live competitions. ... It might be more accurate if ESPN not only distributed football games but also owned the National Football League—and made all the footballs in the world as well.