I love lists. Heck, I love lists of lists. My parents used to have an old paperback copy of something called the Book of Lists and, as far as I was concerned, that was pure reading bliss. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that I’m constantly making little lists in my head of things to write about.
Any little news tidbit can inspire a mental list, whether it’s movies that Disney should be remaking (inspired by the recently-announced remake of The Black Hole) or overlooked properties from Disney’s past that are foolishly unexploited (inspired by their purchase of Marvel). Instead of reading an article discussing things like this, I’d much rather read it as a list. And heaven help you if I read a bad or lazy list, that refuses to stick to its own criteria or tries to cheat by putting in too general or vague selections. That makes me mad.
So occasionally I’m going to put up a mini-list of suggestions for Disney on a specific topic. I will do this on Fridays. Because Friday starts with an F, and so does the number five, which is how many items there will be on each list. I find alliteration almost always alluring. That’s a little peek behind the scenes for you kids as to how we make the magic here at Progress City. F is also for fake, but Orson Welles beat me to that one.
For my premiere Five for Friday, I’m going to pick a selection of people that I’d like to see Disney hire. With all the brand madness driving Disney today, I think the actual creative types too often get left out of the equation. I’d much rather see Disney hiring exceptional talent than purchasing the rights to different properties; after all, the right kind of talent will create the great ideas from which franchises spring forth.
I do have to say that Disney has done a much better job in recent years of reaching out to creative talent; after all, Iger’s first real duty as CEO was to mend the rift with Pixar. We’ve also seen the folks at the Muppet Studios come on board. There have been some wonderful surprises – hiring super-genius game designer Warren Spector to create Epic Mickey is foremost among these. Disney’s new production venture with Guillermo del Toro was also a pleasant surprise, as was the seemingly random signing of Brian Wilson by Walt Disney Records. And, lest we forget, Walt Disney Animation Studios has been slowly re-gathering many of the famous animators that had departed during the Eisner siege years.
There are still a lot of great talents at large, and far too many continue to be let go – especially at Feature Animation and Imagineering. I could (and probably will) do a monster of a list of talent that Disney has been foolish and short-sighted to let go. But Disney is doing better than they were previously, so that’s something.
In any case, there’s always room for more genius at Disney. So who to hire first… and let me warn you, fanboyism awaits.
#1. Joss Whedon. Oh Joss Whedon, you wonderful man. Writer, Director, Producer, Internet DeMille. Renaissance Man. Ladies’ man, man’s man, man about town.
In his career Whedon has worked on many projects, including a few at Disney; he had a writing credit on Toy Story and wrote a treatment for Atlantis. He’s best known, however, for his work in television, where he was responsible for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, and Dollhouse. During the 2008 writers’ strike, he, his brothers Zack and Jed, and Maurissa Tancharoen wrote and filmed the online musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog with actors Neil Patrick Harris, Nathan Fillion and Felicia Day. Dr. Horrible went along to win an Emmy, and its soundtrack broke into the top 40 despite being an iTunes exclusive.
It’s at this point where some of you are going to start hating, and I push the button that banishes you to ethereal purgatory. Some of you will see the words Buffy the Vampire Slayer and sneer, just in time for me to smack you in your stupid, stupid face. I know this because once I was you, and had not seen and did not understand. And I rolled my eyes at others, and judged them harshly. But then I watched, and I understood, and it was all clear.
Then my friends mocked, then watched, then loved. Then mutual friends mocked, then watched, then loved. You cannot stop the signal.
Seriously, it’s good stuff. Whedon is known for his long and involved story arcs, his incredibly detailed mythologies and fictional worlds, his snappy dialogue, and his massive and talented ensemble casts. By turns hilarious, dramatic, and allegorical, his work transcends its genre trappings to become something else entirely. Most importantly, it’s always entertaining. If you think Buffy is just another teen angst vampire romance, or that Firefly is just another shoot-em-up space opera, or that Dollhouse is about whatever it was that Fox wanted you to think it was about, you’re wrong. And it’s time for you to hit the video store.
So what could Joss bring to Disney? Oh so much. Do you want films? Well, he can write those. Best of all, he can create original material. He also has, should Disney be able to purchase the rights, a number of ideas that have yet to be fully realized. The short-lived series Firefly had its followup film Serenity, but that release was bungled by Universal and never reached a sizable audience. Fans continue to clamor for more. There’s also a market for adaptations of his older material, like the comic book miniseries Fray.
Whedon’s natural medium, though, is television. It allows him to tell the long-form stories he excels at. The problem is, none of his shows have ever been allowed to proceed without network meddling that has hurt them in the long-term. He could develop a number of projects for any of the Disney or ABC networks, but the key would be to let his people do their job and not interfere. Not that such an idea would ever be possible in modern Hollywood, but oh well.
A prime-time series on ABC would be great, and a nice replacement for the upcoming void post-Lost. Of course, I want more Firefly but I’m sure the chap has plenty of other ideas. Heck, Whedon could actually bring some quality to the Disney Channel – with Disney’s purchase of Marvel, how about a serialized version of his excellent work on Brian K. Vaughan’s Runaways? Something with some taste on the Disney Channel? Is it unthinkable? Kitty Pryde: The Series?
The point is, the man has a history of creating franchises that receive critical acclaim and throngs of devoted followers. Disney would have a built-in audience of hard-core fans to build on from the start. The man is hardworking, prolific, and surrounds himself with the best writers and actors you can find. So yeah. HIRE HIM.
#2. Neil Gaiman. I’m not sure how to describe Neil Gaiman, except to say that I think he’s probably a wizard. He kind of looks like a wizard; maybe a wizard combined with the Fourth Doctor and a touch of mysterious Brit rock-and-roller.
Regardless of his potential brushes with the occult, Gaiman is a fantastic writer. His works span a variety of formats, from novels and short stories to a number of acclaimed comics and graphic novels. Gaiman’s works often touch on the mythic, but usually with a modern spin. His fantastic novel, American Gods, tells the tale of the gods of ancient myth, now dissipated from a lack of worshipers, wandering through the neo-mythic landscape of the American Midwest. Anansi Boys, set in the same world, brings ancient African trickster gods into modern middle-class London.
Gaiman explores similar themes in his comic work; the Sandman graphic novels and his miniseries Death: The High Cost of Living anthropomorphize figures from legend or the collective unconscious and bring them into conflict with the contemporary world.
And yes, he also writes books for children (and all ages). His novel Stardust was recently adapted into a live-action fantasy, while Coraline was just released this year as a stop-motion animated film by Henry Selick. The Graveyard Book, published last year, became yet another of his New York Times bestsellers.
He has also dabbled in screenwriting; for Disney, he adapted the screenplay for the English translation of Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. He also co-wrote MirrorMask for the Jim Henson Company.
So how could Gaiman be best used by Disney? Take your pick. There’s plenty of great material to adapt, although the rights are probably tied up elsewhere. I’ve long wanted to see a great adaptation of American Gods, either as a film or a miniseries. My pitch? American Gods, directed by David Lynch, with Viggo Mortensen as Shadow and Ian McKellen as Mr. Wednesday.
Unfortunately, most of Gaiman’s work in comics was done at DC, which is under the iron grip of Warner Brothers. That would make an animated adaptation of Sandman most probably impossible. One possibility in this area could be the character of Marvelman, who Gaiman had a hand in reviving during the 1990s. After years of disputes over the creative rights to the character, they were finally secured by Marvel Comics this year. Should Marvel proceed with the Disney buyout later this year, Gaiman could be called on to further develop the property.
Adaptations are fine, of course, and practically everything Gaiman has written could be suitable for Disney once any salacious bits are edited out, but his real utility would be coming up with new ideas. Instead of rehashing old fairy tales, why not hire someone who creates new fairy tales? A Fantasyland with a Gaiman twist would be a marvel to behold. Gaiman can deconstruct ancient tales and rebuild them anew, so that they seem fresh and relevant. What better skills for a company that needs to revisit familiar themes while treading new ground? And who better than Gaiman to continue Walt’s practice of mining the public’s collective subconscious for themes that could be distilled and manifested in the Disney parks?
#3. Eddie Sotto. Eddie Sotto should be a familiar name by now to readers of Progress City. He’s a former Imagineer who now has his own design firm, Sotto Studios, in Los Angeles. Aside from his work as a designer and creative consultant, he’s also part owner of the Riviera restaurant.
His work at Disney is well known. Projects he has touched include Disneyland’s Indiana Jones Adventure, Tokyo’s Pooh’s Hunny Hunt, Disneyland Paris’s Main Street, the unbuilt Sci-Fi City for Tokyo Disneyland, and other projects like ABC’s Times Square Studio and LAX’s Encounter restaurant.
While there are many other extremely talented ex-Disney folks that I could suggest from Imagineering or Animation, I’ve picked Eddie because I know exactly what Disney should ask him to do: Fix EPCOT. I came to this realization when I read an interview with Eddie last May, in which he chose EPCOT as the project he’d most like to see refurbished out of all the Disney empire. In the interview, he describes a vision of what EPCOT could become that is so perfect, so spot-on, that it made me realize that it’s exactly what I believe EPCOT should be, but I just never had the smarts or vision to put it into words.
Since his interview made such a big splash in the Disney blogosphere, Sotto has held court in a massive discussion thread at WDWMagic, answering questions and carrying on a very insightful and informative discussion with all comers. It shows a level of engagement that one rarely sees with Imagineers, and it shows how devoted Sotto is to the Disney ideal and to the theory and practice of themed experiential design.
Even more interesting is what it reveals about the possibilities of current technology in the area of theme parks. Sotto is incredibly well-informed about the latest developments in various fields of technology aside from the more obvious realms of architecture and design. This broad view of multiple fields would be invaluable to someone who needed to try and re-imagine EPCOT’s various pavilions while still drawing them together to create a unified thesis.
I know that I’m prone to hyperbole, but I’m deadly serious when I say that reading Sotto’s comments completely open my eyes and snapped into focus exactly what EPCOT can be. I’ve always been so concerned about fixing what Eisner screwed up – the tragic losses of certain attractions, and the addition of so much tackiness – that I rarely thought about what could happen if we didn’t worry about restoration but rather we pushed the whole park forward into something new. Sotto’s mindset, and his ideas about using the latest and greatest concepts and technologies, reminds me exactly of what EPCOT felt like in 1982 when the sky was the limit, and when EPCOT wasn’t about trying to keep up with the present but looking 100 years ahead. The greatest single thing that could happen to any Disney park right now would be for the company to hire Sotto and let him take creative control of EPCOT just as Joe Rhode stewards Animal Kingdom. It would be spectacular.
#4. Will Wright. If Neil Gaiman is a wizard, I don’t know what that makes Will Wright. His passion for immersing himself completely in a field of study, picking it apart and converting its complex concepts into endlessly playable software toys has made him one of the most legendary game designers in the world.
Wright rose to fame at Maxis, the software company he founded in 1987. His breakout hit, SimCity, was released for PC in 1989. It spawned an entire genre of “sandbox” games; simulations in which there was no set objective, or win/loss scenario to speak of. The focus was instead on the player’s own creativity, which is why these games are often referred to as software toys.
Wright’s greatest hit was The Sims, which first arrived on the scene in 2000; the virtual dollhouse of sorts has spawned endless sequels and spinoffs. His most recent creation was Spore, a bestseller released in 2008.
I wanted to pick a game designer for this list because Disney seems to be constantly making failed attempts to seriously enter the software market and never seem to make much of a dent. They’ll have some big initiative rev up only to fizzle out soon after. But when I heard that they’d hired Warren Spector, I knew that something was different this time around. The fact that they’d go after talent like that – someone so known and respected in the gaming world – shows that they’re giving more than lip-service to their ambitions.
There were two people I wanted to talk about, but Wright makes this first list because he seemed like the best fit for Disney. His games are, as the old saying goes, easy to understand but difficult to master. They’re as complex as you’d like to make them; you can spend your time in SimCity setting fires or making earthquakes, or you can really use it as a gateway to the ideas underlying urban design. Heck, I remember SimEarth‘s game manual actually had a bibliography.
What should Wright work on for Disney? That’s up to him – I wouldn’t even begin to guess where his interests would take him. Sadly, Maxis was purchased by Electronic Arts in 1997 and suffered the same fate as so many of the innovative studios that have been swallowed up by that behemoth. With his studio mostly relegated to cranking out derivative cash-ins based on The Sims, Wright left in 2009 to run an entertainment “think tank” called Stupid Fun Club.
That means he’s available, and given the chance who knows what insane experiences he can create for Disney’s game division. More intriguing are the possibilities of letting him loose at Imagineering; with all the attempts to integrate interactive game experiences into the parks, Wright’s knack for experimentation and innovation would come up with some truly unique ideas.
#5. Ken Burns.This one’s short and sweet, because filmmaker Ken Burns has been around for ages making his epic documentaries about various facets of Americana and most everyone is familiar with his work. So why do I put him here? Because when I’m sitting at home, watching a ten-hour documentary about the National Parks, I think: Man, I’d like to see one of these about Walt Disney World. Disney need a real documentarian; someone who will dig deep and give the fans what they want – lots and lots of obsessive detail.
So that’s my first pass at a Friday list. Who’d you like to see come on board at the House of Mouse? And – hey, Disney! HIRE THESE PEOPLE.