Disney, A Mobile Company

In the central corridor of the animation building at Disney Studios there is a gold-leafed cupola hovering directly over a marble inlay of Steamboat Willie, the movie considered to be the debut of Mickey Mouse.

If you stand under the dome and speak, you’ll hear your voice reverberate. To everyone else standing outside the circle, your voice sounds merely human, but to the person standing in Willie’s shoes it sounds like an auditorium. This miniature echo chamber, to me, represents the danger that a self-sustaining multi-faceted company like Disney faces when making strategic choices.

When the company can do just about anything it wants — take any path — how does it decide which to pursue? And, more importantly, how does it not fall prey to its own echo chamber — how enabled do they feel to say ‘no’ to things? IMG_0882


Late last week Disney had a press event that — for the first time ever — gathered all of the disparate parts of its empire together to talk about what they’re doing in mobile. Television, movies, mobile games, console games, cruises, parks and its new Maker Studios acquisition all pitched new products and discussed how they were doing overall.

I kept my ears open for a narrative, but it proved a bit harder to suss out than I expected. For an organization that thrives on storytelling, and is remaking itself into a Procter & Gamble of perennial franchises, the threads that ran through all of the presentations weren’t emphasized as well as they could be.

But there were a few standout observations. Here they are in no particular order.


Throughout the presentations, from sports to The Avengers, the word “focus” kept coming up. Disney is, slowly, learning to say “no.” One example of this is the trimming down of ESPN’s app offerings and its consolidation under one look and feel.

All of the apps will now work the same, and most of them will bear ESPN’s branding. SportsCenter, while remaining a Disney brand, will no longer have its own app, for instance.

When I spoke to ESPN SVP of Digital Products Ryan Spoon after the presentation he noted that they had been slowly trimming down their app offerings over the past couple of years. Partially, he told me, this was due to the benefits that came from a shared stack between the various apps and verticals.

But there was also the matter of localization. The SportsCenter app was very popular in some overseas regions, but not so much in the U.S. ESPN as a brand is a global badge, which provides an easy calling card.

Atomization of Content

I’ve become a bit obsessed lately with this idea of pieces of content that are atomic units unto themselves. The concept of an ‘article’ or a ‘website’ being the base unit of measurement for content strikes me as largely over.

There was this trend for a few years — especially with large companies — towards attempting to create ‘internal networks’ for users to share content between one another. Now, the opposite is true. Bits of content (one item in a listicle, a video with a bit of writer commentary attached, a block quote, a paragraph of context) are being broken out in packages that can be shared in already existing silos — driving traffic and attention backwards, but also existing as monetizable entities of their own.*


That arrangement comes with a few major caveats — not the least of which is that creators are ceding a lot of influence and control to networks like Facebook and Twitter. Control that it may not be possible to regain, and that is used first and foremost to benefit Facebook and Twitter, not anyone else.

But, for now, it’s leading to major gains in audience and Disney is waking up to that. Cards of ESPN content, a team or a particular game or highlight reel are not only present on the new site, but they’re also shareable to Twitter and Facebook. They contain a bunch of content that can exist outside of Disney’s silo, but are still counted and (Disney was careful to mention) can also bring advertiser content like pre-rolls or sponsor logos along with them.

They’re crisply defined packets of content that can still be sold.

The same goes for the ESPN and ABC streaming apps, which have a new ‘FastShare’ feature that automatically clips out highlights and ‘shareable’ moments for people to send out with Disney messaging attached. These clips are atomized via a combination of automation and human curation, and Disney said they’re doing well, though it said it was ‘too early’ to share numbers as the features launched only recently.


If you’re a parent, or a Disneyphile of any sort, then you know that the quality of Disney’s mobile apps has not always been great. Frankly, there has been a lot of utter dross shipped on the App Store under Disney’s aegis over the years. Cheap ports and crappy rebrands that were disrespectful of the company’s brand.

Over the past few years, Disney has trimmed back on that stuff and is now focusing on a three-tier system.

1. Co-development with an outside studio.

2. Licensing.

3. Vertical, in-house development of their first-party titles.

The in-house team focuses on just a few titles a year, attempting to keep quality up. Co-development focuses on applying Disney branding to well-known games or archetypes. Examples of this include Temple Run: OZ, which is actually pretty fun and was developed by the original creators in conjunction with Disney producers. Where’s My Mickey, another good example, combines Where’s My Water with the (fantastic) animation style of the new Disney shorts — themselves created by some of the team behind Spongebob Squarepants and Dexter’s Laboratory.

If you poll your way through Disney’s offerings on the App Store today there is still some ‘fluff’ that could probably get cut, but it’s a far cry better than it used to be. The catalog is more focused and of generally better quality than it once was.

And a lot of that comes from Disney realizing that — for much of their demo — the second screen is actually the first screen.

The First Screen

Disney shared a bevy of aggressive mobile statistics throughout its presentation, but a few stood out as telling.

  • People have spent more time playing the co-developed ‘Frozen’ match-3 game than they have actually spent watching the movie.
  • Over 55% of ESPN’s traffic in a record September was exclusively mobile. Not just ’also mobile’, but ‘only mobile’.
  • Disney Infinity for iPad has more daily users than ALL other platforms (console, PC) combined.
  • 350k Toy Box creations have been uploaded from iPad.

And this is all before the Disney Infinity 2.0 app, which will add iPhones for the first time (and multiplayer). Disney could have its own Minecraft on its hands here, another virtual world which is proving incredibly popular on iPad.

I played with the app a bit at the event, and it’s really well done. It looks great, has a super high framerate and plays the exact same Toy Box levels with no restrictions on features or controls from the console versions.

Sean Patton, a producer and developer of the app, told me that Apple’s new Metal frameworks contributed greatly to this. They’re able to do things that they never would have even tried on older mobile devices.


Notably, Infinity is not on Android and Patton said that they had ‘nothing to say’ on that at the moment. Largely, this is because Disney aims for the broadest possible compatibility for its apps and the fractious nature of Android’s graphics chip landscape makes it impossible for Disney to count on Infinity 2.0 being playable on more than a handful of high-end devices. Meanwhile, the Infinity 2.0 app will work on devices down to the iPhone 5, and Metal builds will be available on the 5s and up.

Disney’s offerings are appealing to mobile users in an enormous way. This is likely due to a host of things. Fantasy Sports are incredibly popular on mobile. People want to tweet about shows just as much as they want to watch them. Disney’s younger demographic has near constant access to phones and tablets, which is where they watch shows and play games non-stop.

The stat about people playing Disney Infinity on iPad more than all other platforms combined is pretty staggering — and is an enormously key statistic for the future at Disney.

Mobile Majority

In his kickoff speech, Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger told a story about the first time Steve Jobs showed him the video iPod. Iger had asked Steve to chat about putting ABC content in the iTunes Store. Jobs met with him, slyly pulling Apple’s mobile video progenitor device out of a plain paper lunch bag.


Jobs would go on to introduce the video iPod in late 2005 — along with Disney programming for sale in the iTunes store.

“In the last four or five years — I think about it as the digital-mobile era — we’ve seen breathtaking changes to just about every corner of our business,” says Iger. “When you think about a technology or a change that sweeps over a business that affects every single aspect of it…It would be easy to look at something like [mobile] as being highly disruptive, particularly to a media company that by and large is in traditional media businesses.”

Iger said that the decision they made in 2005 to commit to mobile helped them to ‘ride that wave’ instead of being ‘swept over’ by it.

If you’re a recent student of the Apple/Disney relationship then you may not remember that it was in the crapper in 2005, due to the approaching end of the Pixar/Disney tie-up and bad blood therein. The arrangement to sell Disney content (via ABC) was seen as a step towards burying the Pixar hatchet, which we all know happened.

But, more importantly, it was the first step in a chain that has continued to link Disney to mobile.

If there’s one thing that the past few years has made evident for Disney it’s that making sure your products are ‘on mobile’ and fully embracing it are different things entirely.

The lesson: when you believe that you’ve done enough, it’s worth honestly evaluating to make sure you’re prepared for a world where mobile is everything, and everything else is just the echo.

*This, by the way, is what your boss says when he says that your media organization should find ways to ‘be more like BuzzFeed’, even though he doesn’t realize it and probably thinks he means ‘make more lists of stuff you found on reddit’.