Disney's first Chinese TV co-production demonstrates the value of people, process and perseverance.
BAN JIN BA LIANG (《半斤八兩》), Magic Dumpling Entertainment's animated Chinese stone lion buddy comedy and Disney's first Chinese TV co-production, is now China Central Television's #1 children's program, topping the ratings on CCTV14. In reflecting upon the trials, tribulations and ultimate success of the show, I come back to three key factors: people, process and perseverance.
Pixar's Ed Catmull has famously observed that great people are more important than great ideas, given that a strong team usually elevates unremarkable content while a weak team usually deprecates remarkable content. More commonly, a great team keeps great content on the rails during those times when the going gets tough (which it inevitably does). Great teams see great ideas through to fruition. But what constitutes a great team?
Great teams combine talented individuals with complementary backgrounds, skillsets and viewpoints. In my time at Walt Disney Feature Animation in Burbank, this meant building a CGI team comprised of traditional artists and animators, certified gearheads, seasoned veterans, young upstarts and odd ducks. Subsequently, at Magic Dumpling Entertainment in Beijing, this meant leveraging on our co-founders' distinct backgrounds (myself the American ex-pat, Yi Yan the old Beijinger, and Wen Feng the Taiwan transplant) to create Chinese characters and stories with authenticity and charm. And on the Disney China Local Content team, this meant building upon our experiences to cultivate an eclectic team of creative talents from across greater China.
The key to building successful interdisciplinary teams for creative endeavors is to engage "T-shaped" people: those with a depth of experience (the vertical) and a breadth of understanding (the horizontal). "T-shaped" people are also referred to as "versatilists" or "master generalists:" those who specialize in a given area but can adapt to another role as needed. In a world of rapidly evolving creative demands, this ability is essential. "I-shaped" people – those with a singularly focused core competency – are oft admired (including by themselves) but lack the lateral skills required for creative collaboration.
Creative collaboration is facilitated by process. No matter which procedural method(s) you apply, fostering a culture of experimentation and risk is fundamental. This is something that many people pay lip service to, but few truly have the stomach for (especially when corporate coffers and careers are on the line). As in the stock market or in Silicon Valley, success in entertainment necessitates that you bet correctly against the conventional wisdom. Betting with the conventional wisdom yields limited results, whether you are correct or not. Betting incorrectly against the conventional wisdom exposes you to ridicule, loss of support and worse (which is why so few take the chance). It's incumbent upon those up and down the organizational chain to rally around a culture of informed risk-taking, and to celebrate "failures" as learning experiences on the road to success. This sounds like buzzword bullshit unless you actually commit yourself to it, in which case it usually pays off (BAN JIN BA LIANG being a case in point).
The author Thomas Friedman once put forth the formula "CQ + PQ > IQ", where CQ is "curiosity quotient" and PQ is "passion quotient," as a way of stating that the impact of curiosity and passion together can exceed that of intelligence alone. At Magic Dumpling Entertainment and in the Disney China Local Content team, our brainstorming / brainstreaming process was designed to leverage upon the curiosity and passion of our "T-shaped" talent. Most folks have heard of "brainstorming," but may be unfamiliar with the term "brainstreaming." Simply put, after restraining editorial criticisms and decisions during the freewheeling brainstorming process, you turn your internal "vicious editor" loose during the more focused brainstreaming process (directed at the ideas, not at the individuals). Brainstreaming channels brainstorming's turbulent waters into a flowing stream of ideas targeted to your teams' creative and business objectives. Knowing when to transition from one phase to the other is essential, since premature brainstreaming can be just as counter-productive as prolonged brainstorming (especially when the former so often promotes the illusion of progress). Brainstorming and brainstreaming depend upon a safe creative environment where people are free to express themselves equally in the context of agreed-upon rules of engagement.
The creative process must ultimately produce an authentic product that is true to the material and resonates with the audience. When it comes to China, I believe this requires a primarily Chinese team (including creative leadership positions) with everyone's boots on the ground here in the Middle Kingdom, Chinese and foreigners alike. Just as success in Hollywood requires being in Hollywood and success in Silicon Valley requires being in Silicon Valley, success in China requires being in China. Phoning it in over the Pacific or visiting Shanghai for a few weeks just doesn't cut it. Audiences can smell unfamiliarity and insincerity a mile away, especially when garnished with a patronizing approach. Your people and your process must be steeped in the culture you are speaking to.
Perseverance is steady persistence in pursuit of a goal, despite difficulty and discouragement. Throughout my career, I've found that perseverance usually takes three successive forms on any creative endeavor (including the development of BAN JIN BA LIANG):
- Early in the creative process, when few people know about the project and nobody cares, perseverance takes the form of your blind faith in your idea, motivated by your curiosity and your passion (your CQ and your PQ).
- As the thrill of a new idea is replaced by the hard work of fanning the spark into a flame, as the project takes shape and begins to attract attention, as opinions roll in and hard choices are made, perseverance takes the form of keeping your nose to the grindstone and your eye on the ball.
- Finally, as you're nearing the home stretch and seeing the cold hard reality of your original idea, as you're facing self-doubts and the doubts of others, perseverance means finishing strong while under pressure (perhaps even under fire). The image of a sniper shooting at a woman delivering a baby may be shocking, but it's an apt metaphor for what creators often face (usually from within their own organizations) as they labor to deliver their projects. And when the baby is successfully delivered, they get to watch others (snipers included) jostle to take credit for the birth.
Such is the lot of the creator. Fortunately, creativity is an insatiable fire that keeps burning and keeps moving. You can't contain it and you can't control it. But you can summon it and you can dance with it.
It's been a privilege to dance with BAN JIN BA LIANG, and gratifying to see them win over Chinese families. I never had a doubt.