Ed Catmull, resident genius and president of Disney and Pixar animation (yes, the guy behind Catmull-Rom splines, beautiful tools for computer animators everywhere) gave an address at my alma mater a while back, describing how his companies were trying to create a third Golden Age for Disney animation. I wish I had the talk on tape, since there were a LOT of great thoughts in it. For the moment, though, a few words on his comments about goodwill and B-work.
The Disney Direct to DVD division (DDTDD?) has been able to make money from such fare as Cinderella 2 and Jungle Book 2… but they just aren’t much to speak of as far as movies go. (Let’s also offer a moment of silence for the Land Before Time Neverending Sequelitis, shall we? It’s not Disney, but the same principle applies.) That’s what Mr. Catmull calls “B-work”, and not only is it bad for the soul of the artists and producers, but also the audience. Unnecessary sequels of beloved movies can taint the rose-tinted glasses that are a core component of our goodwill. I’m sorry, but John Goodman just can’t compare to Phil Harris as Baloo, and Herbie the Love Bug should have stayed in the 60s. (Not that it was all that fantastic to start with… but Lindsay Lohan? Really?)
Oddly, though I don’t like Goodman’s Baloo, I actually liked TaleSpin. It was on the tail end (ha!) of the golden age of Disney TV (DuckTales is still the best TV cartoon I’ve ever seen), and thoroughly enjoyable. I’d have loved to have a cloud surfer… thing. Well, that, and a parachute. Perhaps TV is “B-work” compared to film, but in their realm, DuckTales, Rescue Rangers, Gargoyles and TaleSpin were A-list productions. Modern animated fare doesn’t even compare; it’s like Yogi Bear vs. Scrooge McDuck, George McFly vs. Mike Tyson, Runescape vs. WoW.
B-Work can be profitable, to be sure… but it is soul-destroying mediocrity. In Mr. Catmull’s words: “B-work is bad for the soul.”
One of the key ideas that Mr. Catmull noted is that despite being decidedly subpar, B-work can still be profitable. Cinderella fans buy the sequels for their children on the strength of the name. Slapping “Disney” on the side of a movie almost guarantees sales… at least, for a while. Mr. Catmull suggested that those B-work sales are active withdrawals against the goodwill banked in the Disney name. The spectacular successes of Beauty and the Beast or the emotional heft of Up increase the value of the Disney name. Tarzan 2 callously cashes in on the appeal of the original and contributes nothing to the brand or parent name. It makes money because the original succeeded, and wouldn’t stand on its own as anything but the B-work that it is.
I’ve seen more than a few pundits suggest that Blizzard could put horse feces in a box and sell it for $60. They can sell a digital horse for $25 without even selling a box with it, and time will tell if StarCraft 2 is crap (only $100 for the Collector’s Edition of 1/3 of the game), so there’s some truth to the joke. Blizzard can bank on the goodwill generated by its history. It might be noted that they could have sold WarCraft Adventures, probably in record numbers… but they decided to scrap it because it wasn’t up to their internal demands. It’s hard to cut something like that with promise, but like pruning a slightly rotting branch on a tree, sometimes it’s necessary to maintain company health and brand reputation. People would still have bought the game, but it might have wound up being profitable in spite of its own quality, by withdrawing money from the goodwill banked in the Blizzard and WarCraft names. Blizzard did salvage the story from the game, both in a novel and as canon to the setting of WoW, so they didn’t totally throw that work away, but the choice to kill the game release was likely a hard one.
We can’t be sure, true, but it’s an interesting case study and comparison to the awful offal that sometimes comes out of the Disney Direct to DVD grindhouse.
We might also look at Turbine’s DDO “offer wall” slipup and subsequent retraction, as well as Mythic’s WAR billing fiasco and apparently repentant offerings to those affected. Compare that to Allods Online and their item shop pricing sucker punch… and how it wasn’t fully retracted and went downhill from there. (Yes, yes, the shop prices are merely economic Darwinism in action, and not really evil in themselves, but they weren’t managed well despite some glowing beta testing reports. That’s where the goodwill broke down.)
Goodwill is a currency, albeit a fuzzy one, and managing it can be the backbone of a company’s health. Daniel James of Three Rings (Puzzle Pirates) has argued that love is the heart of modern game sales in this article that I’ve cited more than once for good reason. (Tangentially, Mr. James was also writing about DRM, and for one great example of how DRM affects goodwill, need we look further than Ubisoft?)
The trick is to make great products that are profitable and deposits to the goodwill bank. Pixar has managed to do this very well, without a stinker in their library. Sure, some of their movies will appeal to some people more than others (I still don’t particularly like Finding Nemo, but I like it better than 90% of other movies), but I don’t think that any of their offerings have been an active withdrawal against the Pixar and Disney names.
It’s no accident that Pixar and Blizzard are giants in their fields. They deposit more than they withdraw from the goodwill bank.
…there are all sorts of political, sociological and interpersonal parallels that could be explored there, but I’ll leave that to the imagination.