Sunday, June 25, 2006

Givin' 'em What They Want

Let’s go back a couple of decades to the opening of EPCOT Center. “Our goal,” wrote Marty Sklar, then a vice president at WED Enterprises (later Imagineering), “is to inspire the visitors who come here, so that they will be turned on to the positive potential of the future and will want to participate in making the choices that shape it.”

As an introduction to Richard R. Beard’s book Walt Disney’s EPCOT Center: Creating the World of Tomorrow, Sklar promised, “Remember that at our opening in October 1982, we are just getting started – there’s much more to come!”

Later in that book, Beard wrote, “While entertainment will continue to be a highly visible attraction of Epcot (sic) Center, it is the underlying educational value of Future World that is its most important contribution.”

Aw, c’mon. You can’t be serious. Education is boring. No one goes on vacation to learn. (Strange, then, that Kennedy Space Center remains such a draw.) Being inspired? Phooey. Participate? No way -- I'll do that when I get back home and go to the PTA.

That was the most commonly heard complaint about EPCOT Center in the first 15 years of its existence. It’s boring, it’s too serious, it’s too difficult. This vacation stuff is supposed to be entertaining and fun. Less of the tough stuff, please. More cartoon characters, please! More thrill rides, please!! MORE DISNEY, PLEASE!!!

Disney listened. And Epcot changed. Too much on both counts, if you ask me. (Well, you didn’t, but you’re reading my blog, so maybe you care a little.)

Now, I’m a huge proponent of listening to the customer ... when it comes to commodities and retailing. If your customer says s/he doesn’t like something, you do one of three things: you change, you innovate or you go out of business.

When it comes to artistic endeavors, though (and a theme park is most certainly an artistic endeavor, one of grand proportions), that’s something quite different.

We’ve seen over and over and over again how basing creative decisions on consumer sentiment leads to a bad product.

After all, Hostel, Madea’s Family Reunion, The Pink Panther and Scary Movie 4 each were the No. 1 movie in the country at some point in 2006. Financially successful? Yes. Creatively? You be the judge. Each was made because it appealed to a particular demographic or followed a routine formula that has led to success in the past, not to fill an urgent creative need. Each made a lot of money. Each will be completely forgotten 25 years from now.

When the public voted, American Idol said goodbye to Elliott Yamin, Chris Daughtry and Mandisa – all of whom were believed, at one point, to stand a good chance at winning the contest and were considered by virtually all critics to be better than eventual winner Taylor Hicks (who, I admit, I happen to think is OK). Hearing the outcry was always amusing; after all, how can viewers be shocked by their own actions?

See, the thing is, people don’t always know what’s good. I’m not being elitist, and I’m not saying that, individually, we don’t appreciate quality. Collectively, though, it’s very often a different story. The least-common denominator almost always wins out.

It’s truly important to listen to what your customer says if you’re selling soap, cars or candy bars. But if you’re selling entertainment, and you aspire to something out of the ordinary, you don’t listen to what others think. You just don’t. People who don’t make movies, who don’t write plays, who don’t design theme parks are not the people to trust.

They’re the audience, not the creators. Of course, they may have opinions (as I do, clearly), and it’s important to hear what they have to say. They may even hate what you have to offer. But if you’re committed, if you’ve got a vision, you stick to your design.

As a rule, consumers of mass entertainment will say they do not want to be challenged, do not want to be “inspired,” do not want something that’s different – they just want to be entertained.

Except when they don’t.

See, more and more people say that they don’t get enough out of movies, TV and, yes, theme parks. These diversions leave them increasingly dissatisfied.

Huh? Aren’t these the products that they said they wanted to see? Ahhh … strange how that works, hm?

Epcot tried offering guests an experience with “underlying educational value,” but they said they didn’t like it. So, it’s grown into a park that fulfills the thrill-seeking ambitions of a 14-year-old boy, but increasingly offers nothing new for anyone other than him. Disney spends hundreds of millions to upgrade attractions that appeal to boys and teens, but won’t spend a dime to improve those that are deemed to be “for adults.”

That’s what happens when you pay too much attention to what the public thinks – when you forget that you (meaning Disney management) are getting paid because you’re supposed to be an expert at creating a fantastic guest experience … not just at surveying park guests and interpreting the numbers. You're supposed to make the decisions, develop the concepts, do the fine-tuning -- you're not just supposed to ask people if they like what you've done and change it if they don't. The tougher task, the toughest task, is getting them to appreciate something that's difficult and challenging and "good for them." You know, just like it's tough to get a 9-year-old to eat broccoli, no matter how good, how worthwhile, how important it is. (Which may be why we're raising a nation of obese people ... it's much easier to feed ’em McDonald's -- to give ’em what they want.)

So, now, here we are 24 years and some months after Epcot opened with its grand ambitions, its promises of something that would blow us away. For a while, it did. But now that so many people have made Disney management second-guess almost every decision that went into the creation of Epcot, we’re left with the theme-park version of The Pink Panther or Taylor Hicks:

Bland, inoffensive, fun on the outside … and hollow within. Give ’em what they want, right?


And let them get what they deserve.

Can it be changed? Can Epcot regain its spirit and adventure and style that made it so different? Perhaps, if Disney listens to its creative geniuses, not to a hot, tired, cranky guest.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your article! Malcolm Gladwell had a similar interview about this posted at IT Conversations. If you have time check it out. It fits what you are saying about public input.

Epcot82 said...

Thanks -- that's a great discussion (albeit a couple of years old) going on there and a fascinating clip. I've been meaning to read "Blink."

I found this quote today:

"Giving people what they want is fundamentally and disastrously wrong. The people don't know what they want...[Give] them something better."

It's from a guy named Samuel Rothapfel, founder of the Palace Theater chain.

He said it in 1914.

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article. I agree entirely, and I get increasingly sick of companies catering to what the general public thinks they want. That's how we get reality TV shows, Jerry Springer, etc.

I realize that is a far cry from Disney theme parks, but the same rules apply.

I like the fact that you brought up Kennedy Space Center as well, that place has no rollercoasters, almost no real high-tech attractions, but it has what people expect and no one complains that it's educational.

Ivonne R. said...

Another wonderful blog and one I certainly agree with. I was talking with my mom not long ago how sad Epcot has become. We discussed how not only have their not been any major additions to World Showcase since Norway opened but that she really couldn't enjoy that many things in the park anymore ever since World of Motion and Horizons closed and were replaced with thrill rides. Not only that but like me she misses the old Journey Into Imagination and the former Living Seas. It's sad to think that probably in a few years Universe of Energy will also be closed down and be replaced by something really sad. Like another Pixar inspired attraction.

By the way, this is the girl who sent you the link to the Epcot shirts that she made. :)

Epcot82 said...

And nice shirts they are!

I agree (obviously) and am also worried that Epcot will move so far into the Pixar-based and/or thrill-ride realm that it will never be something that everyone can enjoy equally. Geez, I'm only in my 30s and I'm already getting to the point that my back won't allow me to ride anything that goes too fast!

Besides, as you've probably guessed, I am one of those who *liked* being educated and entertained at the same time.

Anonymous said...

All of you blogs about EPCOT I feel are great and explain excatly what I am feeling right now about EPCOT. I myself like you appears to want to call it EPCOT Center. Your blog is great and I truly enjoy it.

Scott said...

In my opinion, American Idol is a glorified karaoke contest.

Anyway, Disney was (at the end of the Eisner era)/is?(I hope not, but I guess it's too early to tell.) run by the number crunchers. A lot of people say it's run by MBAs, but I don't like to say that because I'm getting an MBA in a year and I'd choose creativity over money. Disney needs to let their creative people work, green-light the truly excellent projects, and then make sure they're done properly. Let the number crunchers worry about other things.

Anonymous said...

Those lovely MBAs started coming aboard around 1994. They served a purpose at the beginning, keeping the creative side of the company in check.

Then they started taking over. In a big way. There was a time when virtually every "non-creative" job in Burbank was described with those dreaded two words: MBA preferred. Marketing execs weren't considered if they didn't have an MBA; those who had served the company well for many years were terminated in favor of those with MBAs.

MBAs are great for finance jobs. They're even good for some marketing positions. But there has to be a balance. Disney is at its core a CREATIVE company. Pixar, I assure you, puts no great emphasis on MBAs or even education.

But once you start getting a few Wharton and Andersen grads in there, they want their own kind. They start analyzing everything with an eye toward cost-savings, investment returns and incredibly esoteric stuff that most of us don't even understand.

Sadly, though, the stereotype tends to be right: They don't get the parks, they don't get the "heart," they don't get the appeal. They think Disney is for little kids, and they're making it be that. (Witness the continued selling out the other day of the Disney name by licensing Disney DOG FOOD!) Guess what? More and more people believe that's all Disney is, and in 20 years, we'll have an entire generation who believes that once you get past 9, you're too old for Disney.

Snow White, Cinderella, Pinocchio, Dumbo, EPCOT Center, The Great Movie Ride, Tom Sawyer's Island ... these and many more things will be forgotten by the public, because Disney's MBA mentality either never knew or never cared that they existed, and didn't know how to appreciate them.

Think it'll never happen, that Disney is forever? Remember the cautionary tale of three little letters that used to define Hollywood for the country: MGM.

Where is it today? The maker of schlocky direct-to-video movies and one sagging spy-movie franchise. No studio lot, no stars, no clout. It's basically gone. And once, like Disney, it reigned supreme.