Now Showing: Entrepreneurial Insights From the Entertainment Industry

Mike Peña, Stanford University June 23, 2014

Over the past academic year, the Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar has brought some of the sharpest innovators to Stanford for weekly talks. And even though school is now out, viewers around the world can still soak up all the great insights online, archived on Stanford’s eCorner, and on YouTube.

Summer is also a time to be entertained, of course. And while we can’t compete with blade-knuckled mutants or celebrities in futuristic exoskeletons, we can promise some deep perspectives from the people behind the box-office blockbusters, top-rated TV shows and chart-topping songs we just can’t get enough of.

A rat with a gourmet streak that sneaks around in a restaurant kitchen. A nonverbal, trash-picking robot roaming a junkyard planet. Neither of these sound very promising as a premise for a movie. However, Ratatouille and WALL-E both went on to achieve critical and commercial success for Pixar Animation Studios. The secret, as described by Pixar President Ed Catmull, lies in the studio’s “braintrust” of expert storytellers, along with a deep understanding of the creative process.

An important part of that process at Pixar, and in other organizations, involves protecting the “ugly baby” from the “hungry beast,” according to Catmull. This clip from his April 30 Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders (ETL) talk explains the concept:

Yes, Catmull runs a studio that consistently cranks out Oscar-winning films. But that doesn’t mean a less-proven filmmaker can’t break into the business as well. Gale Anne Hurd, one of Hollywood’s most respected film and television producers, gave an ETL talk the year before, saying that the entertainment industry today is ripe with opportunities in the age of YouTube.

It wasn’t so easy for Hurd, who rose through the ranks more traditionally: starting as an executive assistant to acclaimed film producer Roger Corman, ascending to head of marketing, and eventually going on to launch The Terminator saga and produce many of today’s comic-book blockbusters and sci-fi thrillers. Currently, she is among the executive producers of the AMC series The Walking Dead.

“There are at least 16 directors,” Hurd said, “who made films for under $15,000 — some of them for $400 — uploaded them on YouTube and are working in the business today, after one film.”

But before you dismiss the insights of pop-culture captains such as Catmull and Hurd, listen to pop-music singer and songwriter Nate Ruess, founder of the band fun. It is his distinctive voice that carries the pop anthems “We Are Young,” “Some Nights” and “Carry On.”

With a name like “fun,” you might expect the band to run with whatever sound is trending with tweens. But when Ruess came to Stanford in February, he spoke maturely about the influence of trends on his work, and how ignoring them can lead to irrelevance.

“I’ve become better — a better songwriter, just a better person — by acknowledging what’s happening right now,” Ruess said. “It’s been one of the biggest reasons for my success, is to acknowledge that there’s something in front of me and it’s happening.”

Wise words, whether you yearn to be a hit maker or an entrepreneur.