How Disney Companies Like Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm Maintain Their Creative Cultures

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With about 20 months left before he retires as CEO of the Walt Disney Company, Bob Iger is still playing it close to the vest as to who might be chosen as his successor. But at a conference in San Francisco Wednesday he said what quality he thinks will be most important in the boss who takes over in June of 2018.

“The most important quality that the next CEO of the Walt Disney Company must have is the ability to appreciate the value of great creators and the creative process,” Iger said, in response to an audience question at Vanity Fair’s New Establishment Summit. “Because the value proposition of the company, almost everything that we do, emanates from the creative process and the creators, that’s the most important thing.”

The woman asking about Disney’s next CEO had asked Iger whether the successor might come from the conglomerate’s current executive ranks, or from it’s board. He did not rise to the bait. “Where the person comes from, I can’t tell you right now,” Iger said, appearing on stage next to the leaders of Disney’s Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm units. “But that person must embody that appreciation, that sense of respect that comes with what these people do.”

The question of succession at Disney became murkier in April, when the company’s COO, Thomas Staggs, stepped down from his post after company board members privately suggested they did not believe he was the right person to replace Iger.

Iger’s remarks came at the end of a 40-minute discussion, in which Pixar boss John Lasseter, Marvel leader Kevin Feige, and Lucasfilm honcho Kathleen Kennedy all said that Disney and Iger had taken pains to make sure each of those companies maintained their own creative cultures, after being purchased by the entertainment giant.

Lasseter, Pixar’s co-founder and chief creative officer, said that — even within the greater Disney umbrella — the Pixar and Disney Animation units that he oversees do not share much talent.

“They are two completely different studios and we don’t really cross pollinate artists and stuff,” Lasseter said. “The only thing that we brought over to Disney Animation that we had at Pixar was the idea that it’s a filmmaker-driven business and they should believe in themselves.

“Everybody who works for us, they were put on this earth to make animated films. That’s all they want to do.”

Asked by an audience member about Pixar’s formula for producing consistently winning stories, Lasseter said he looks for three things in every film: heart, message, and the audience’s journey. The most important thing, driving all three, is to put the right people in place, Lasseter said.

“We bet on great people not great ideas,” said the Pixar leader, “because great people will take mediocre ideas and make them great. And mediocre people will take great ideas and make them mediocre. So we get great people.”