Friday, September 29, 2017

Creating a Franchise Story

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Hello friends
Everyone today is looking to buy, create or reinvent a story that is capable of being a big, commercial, franchise...

Whey then are there so very few of them that have worked as such?

It's not for lack of trying. The primary reason is that those stories are not being structured and developed in ways that enable the broadest possible adoption and usage by the audience. Come and join us on Sept 13th in Santa Monica for our latest Seminar "Creating A Franchise Story" where we'll unbox this specialized craft in great detail.

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Friday, September 22, 2017

Why Toy Companies Struggle With Story

I must confess to having a relationship with the performance of the toy industry that is like a sports fan to football. When they do things right I leap from my chair and cheer them on. When they are running the wrong way on the field, I have passionate things to say about that as well!

When it comes to the toy industry and its hit-or-miss relationship with story development, I see lots of running about wildly on the field and once in a while, someone making a brilliant touch-down.

 As someone who makes a living as a story doctor for franchise narratives I have some overall observations to share on why toy companies have on and off struggle with story.

I am sharing these notes not as a harsh criticism but as a love-letter to the industry that I see so much potential for growth if the companies can recognize the massive shifts that have occurred and evolve rapidly to get in front of them.

Every toy company is different and as such, not all of these points apply to all toy companies because some have started along this growth curve or have individuals within their organizations with some of these competencies.

So here’s my top 5 reasons why toy companies struggle with Story:

1.     The Heroic model has evolved
a.     When a toy company conceives of a story, the model they tend to use for their “heroic” or aspirational characters tends to be overly simplistic, far too perfect (unflawed) and lacking in relevance. In short, it tends to be an idealized list culled from mom/kid-research mixed with industry beliefs about what has worked in the past.
b.     Relevance is achieved by casting and creating characters who are the heroes that face off against the challenges and fears kids (and the kid in us all) are all facing today. Those heroes must behave in ways relevant to the future that parents want and kids are living into. This is true for conflict based properties. Preschool learning properties have a different kind of relevance that is no less critical to achieve.

2.     Toy companies want maximum Screen time for plastic
a.     There is a true-ism for toys that goes something like: “The toys that are on screen more sell more so I want my toyline maximized on screen.”
b.     Like all trueisms, it’s true…ish. The problem is that nothing should be put on screen unless it is advancing the story. Even more important is that it must be meaningful and support the central themes of the story. When in doubt leave it out!!
c.     There are quality ways to make this work but they must happen as part of the story’s development in story-friendly ways that inspire creators and developers.
d.     I have personally watched direct toy input and notes into stories cause the failure of the narrative (and a lack of success) of major live action and animated movies and TV shows. This is not a trivial statement: If notes are not well thought through and rigorously conceived to speak in story terms, the story development team may find themselves in a box they can’t get out of. Story is exquisitely hard to crack and relevant/evolutionary stories especially so. It’s easy to break this process and generally well-meaning toy folks are telling story people what would drive their toys when they should be telling them why the toys are helping to advance the creators stories.

3.     A Focus on Context not Meaning
a.     In every franchise story there is context and meaning. Context is all the cool stuff we see and where it all takes place. Meaning is how the idea of the story impacts our lives.
b.     Great context sells toys: Lightsabers, space ships, Batmobiles, and deep worlds that invite you to play.
c.     They also need compelling characters whom you want to be, or spend time with. “Collectibility!” that brass ring of the toy world.
d.     What really makes a story compelling and context work is the meaning. Characters are only aspirational when they are meaningful! There are more than a few toy shows and movies that have very weak or non-existent meaning and as a result, demonstrate limits on success or even failure.
e.     There is a big difference between a powerful, newly relevant, narrative meaning and a brand’s benefit positioning. I often see the latter substituted for the former.
f.      Additionally, elements in a story become powerful, gotta-have, toys only when they are structured into the story metaphorically and heroically correct. I won’t unbox this here as it is a larger conversation but it’s important to note that there is a clear process and skill needed to do this without diluting the story.

4.     Story is now King
a.     Stories are the new currency of power in the world of consumer brands. You only need to look at what drives the growth of licensing these days to find the proof. Millennial Families “adopt” stories into their lives and USE them in great variety. “Collecting” or “Playing” are only a fraction of what use means. They wear them to express the themes that are meaningful to them. They use the language as verbs and nouns in their social postings. They gather with others who like them and they decorate their homes with them. They want to share in them as a family and play…toys…serve multiple roles in the use of the story for adults, teens, tweens and preschoolers. 
b.     All that being said, the story itself is paramount and nothing short of excellence can break through in our world of exploding entertainment choices and become one of the few stories that get adopted by these families. This is a challenge for toy companies because it means elevating the health, newness and excellence of the story, to the highest position in their decision-making behavior (something that is very hard for a product-driven company to do). There is virtually no risk that toy companies will not give enough attention to making the toys a success. The risk lies in making the story a second-class decision.
c.     I believe very strongly in the simple human truth that “you always get the behavior you incentivize for.” Toy company’s executive incentives are built around creating, manufacturing, marketing and selling toys. This means there is not strong incentive to make hard decisions to make the story better when it seems to conflict with maximizing the toys. This can be done but it requires learning the rich and complicated craft of creating, managing and giving input on the development of franchise stories. That brings me to my next point.

5.     There is no training in place to teach story to toys or franchise to writers/creators
a.     I am not aware of any toy company that has a program of any depth to teach their executives, marketing staff, designers and research, the basics of story structuring let alone one that covers the unique story challenges of world properties and how to develop quality narrative that intersects with play patterns. I have found that there are individuals with varying degrees of these skills. They are rare and you find them using those skills at those toy companies that do these things better.
b.     It is also very fair to say that the world of entertainment (and the colleges that feed them) don’t have ANY programs to teach these highly creative/commercial skills either. There are many great storytellers who don’t fall into the much smaller subset of great world builders. And of the great world builders, there are even fewer who instinctually create in ways that enable big franchises and play.
c.     I believe the big opportunity is for both toys and entertainment to intentionally and constantly invest in learning these very specific skills so that the entertainment can be excellent and drive commercial opportunity as well. Both sides of this equation must be speaking the same language in order to achieve this.

Net/net, there’s big opportunity for companies that make stories and make things based on stories to supercharge their business by evolving their story competencies and incentivizing their management to do so.

Hope you enjoyed the post. Definitely a personal passion for me. Cheers to all.

PS: come join us for our seminar “Creating A Franchise Story” in Santa Monica on November 13th.