Wednesday, December 12, 2018

If I Were Disney CEO Part 31 - ESPN Films and National Geographic Films

ESPN was "one of the best acquisitions maybe of that whole century."
Michael Eisner, former Disney CEO

"National Geographic is another tremendous brand built on quality, one that has global reach and cross-generational appeal. We also like that its values are vital and relevant to a planet facing environmental challenge.  Our goal is to support Nat Geo's expansion around the world and provide the additional resources required to position the brand as another major provider of content.  And we see numerous other exciting opportunities for this brand across our entire company, including in the ecotourism space."
Bob Iger, Disney CEO

I've decided to group the last two studios in Disney's studio entertainment portfolio into one blog entry, largely because they represent similar niches for Disney.  Both have been primarily broadcast and documentary studios.  Both reflect genres of content that Disney has successfully offered in the past.  And both reflect stronger brands for their chosen niche than Disney itself.  ESPN Films and National Geographic Films.  I'll discuss ESPN first, then National Geographic.


Created in March 2008, ESPN Films produces films covering sports-related stories, including the critically acclaimed 30 for 30 and Nine for IX series, and SEC Storied.  ESPN Films has also produced television films related to sports stories and has produced the Queen of Katwe feature film with Walt Disney Pictures.

True life sports films have a strong connection with Walt Disney Pictures, particularly over the past few decades. Cool Runnings, Remember the Titans, Miracle, Glory Road, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Invincible, Million Dollar Arm, and Queen of Katwe all have carried the Disney banner They generally have fit into the family friendly entertainment model of Disney and most often represent stories of great triumph, of the good guys/the hero winning.  Sports films, however, do not neatly fit into the categories outlined for live-action Walt Disney Pictures (beyond the generic past category), and would be better served by a studio with a sharper focus on sports stories and greater brand recognition with sports enthusiasts.

I would expand the current ESPN Films division into a full-fledged theatrical release studio, focusing on dramatizations of the true-life sports stories, told by the artists at the top of their game.

Primary Goals for the Division:
  • Identify a Leader - The film division will need someone to guide it.  It's Kevin Feige, Brian Henson, Kathleen Kennedy.   Some kind of story trust to ensure a certain level of quality product.  This should be the first priority.
  • Look Broadly for Stories - There are a lot of untold sports stories.  Lists the these two could prove useful in identifying places to start.  Likewise, many of the stories told in the 30 for 30 series could prove to be great feature material.  The Black List has great sports scripts including The Prospect, a film about Michael Jordan's year in baseball as he dealt with his father's passing.  The division could even get into costume dramas with something like Marathon, regarding the first running of the 26.2 miles and inspiration for the races.  The possibilities are limited only by the desire to dig for them.
  • Experiment with Artists -  Further, this should be a division where the artists are brought in from from a variety of different backgrounds.  I would love to see what Alfonso Curon or Joe Wright could do with a sports film.  What kind of sports movie is Quentin Tarantino itching to tell?  Just as this should be a place for a wide variety of sport types, this should also be the place for a uniqueness in the storytelling.
  • Maintain the Quality Documentaries and Move Them Into Theatrical Releases - The addition of feature films should in no way come at the expense of the documentaries.  The documentaries are working well and I'd like to highlight them and release them for Academy consideration.  Documentary filmmaking should remain a cornerstone of both of these film divisions.
  • Expand the ESPN Sound Into a Fanfare - The feature film division will need a title card and fanfare.  For brand strength, the sound of ESPN heard in all the broadcasts should be expanded to a fanfare for the feature film introduction.  It's something that can be played with as the Walt Disney Theatrical card is, but it should be upfront and generally, instantly recognizable.
  • Use the 30 for 30 Short Films as Paired Shorts With the Feature - ESPN Films already has a thriving short film division, creating 30 for 30 shorts focusing on a specific point of view of the filmmaker in a more flexible format.  These could be paired with the feature to great affect, perhaps highlighting a different point of view or aspect of the events portrayed in the feature film.

National Geographic
National Geographic Films is likewise the film subsidiary of the National Geographic Society.  It has been producing documentaries since 2002, including the Academy Award winning March of the Penguins.  Through the acquisition of 20th Century Fox, Disney will own National Geographic Partners, the joint media venture which publishes the magazine, and produces its film and television offerings.

The Disney Company has a strong history of animal and nature films dating all the way back to Walt's True Life Adventures showed as theatrical shorts and aired as part of the Disneyland and Wonderful World of Color television programs.  Disney further started an indpendent film unit for nature documentaries following the success of March of the Penguins.  Disneynature was announced on April 21, 2008 and has released twelve films so far, with two in development.

While Disneynature has enjoyed a modest success, it is clear that National Geographic is the stronger of the two brands.  For that reason, I would suspend the Disneynature line and fold all properties into the National Geographic Film division.

Primary Goals for the Division:

  • Maintain Leadership with Jean-Francois Camilleri - Jean-Francois Camilleri is the current head of Disneynature and senior vice president and general manager of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures France.  Through his leadership, Disneynature has had a consistent vision and direction and he would provide needed stability in the reorganization.
  • Focus Squarely on Documentaries - This is not a division for dramatizations, with very limited exception.  Old Yeller or Homeward Bound would cheapen the National Geographic banner.  The only limited exception that I could envision would be historic dramas based on true life exploration and expeditions.  The discovery of King Tuts tomb, the discovery of the Titanic by Robert Ballard, a biography of Jane Goodall, etc.  This type of film should be developed only in limited circumstances though.
  • Make Use of the Iconic Bernstein Theme - Again, an iconic theme and image that should not be wasted.  
  • Utilize the True-Life Adventure Banner for Short Films - Pair the National Geographic documentaries with a True-Life Adventure short film, complete with Disney's iconic imagery of the globe and compass.
  • Continue to Explore the Vast Regions of the Globe - Disneynature films have so far covered the continents and oceans.  The beauty of the National Geographic brand is that it also expands the studio to cover more than just animals and nature.  It can cover civilizations, discoveries, exploration, and preservation.  Such films should continue to keep a global vision and reach.
  • Strengthen the Charitable and Conservation Partnerships with Each Film - Each of the Disneynature films has had a specific conservation charity partner that has benefited from the success of the film.  African Cats benefited the African Wildlife Foundation, Chimpanzee benefited the Jane Goodall Institute, and so on.  This program should be continued and strengthened through the National Geographic brand.

With those two final studios, I feel this places Disney Studio Entertainment in wonderful position to release a truly diverse film slate that will reach across age groups, genres, and platforms.  It creates a specific niche for each studio and presents a specific type of experience at the theater for any Disney studio film.

As always, thank you for sticking through this series.  Next week, a Christmas bonus entry.

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