March 24, 2023

Disney’s Hopes Riding on New Video Game

But it was an accompanying app called Disney Infinity: Action! that summed up what’s at stake for the company. The app allows users to place themselves inside the game and make short videos of the action. As an example, Disney showed a video of a digital Capt. Jack Sparrow aiming a cannon at John Pleasants, co-president of Disney Interactive, and lighting the fuse.

Kaboom! Mr. Pleasants disappeared.

It was all in good fun. But Mr. Pleasants is on a very hot seat, no doubt about it. Infinity, which cost Disney over $100 million to develop, according to analysts, is viewed as a make-or-break effort to turn around the company’s money-losing gaming and Web division after years (and years) of trying.

“It’s the most ambitious creative undertaking we’ve ever done,” Mr. Pleasants said on Sunday at D23 Expo, a biennial convention for Disneyphiles.

Infinity allows users to mix and match Disney and Pixar characters in rollicking video game adventures. Players collect action figures – Woody, Mickey, Sulley, Mr. Incredible, Rapunzel – and transfer them into the game’s action by plugging them into a sensor base. (A starter kit, which includes the base and several figurines, sells for about $75; other figures are sold separately.)

“The answer to the question, ‘Can I do that?’ is simply, ‘Yes,’” Mr. Pleasants said, referring to the mash-up nature of Infinity, which he oversees.

Disney is taking a risk by releasing Infinity at a time when parents are mostly concerned with back-to-school shopping. (The release was initially planned for June.) Part of the Disney’s hopes turn on schoolyard chatter — that early Infinity buyers will rave and turn it into a must-have holiday item. Disney also wanted Infinity to land in stores ahead of new merchandise from Activision, which sells the similar Skylanders game series.

How Infinity will fare is anyone’s guess. Independent sales data will not be available until late September. But the game, backed by an aggressive advertising campaign, has the early earmarks of a success.

It is generating substantial buzz among gamers, an audience that has not always been the friendliest toward Disney. (“It’s even better than I had hoped,” wrote the influential gaming site Kotaku last month.) The Infinity booth was mobbed at D23 Expo last weekend, with people waiting in line for more than an hour for the chance to take the game for a test drive.

And Infinity has about 533,000 Facebook “likes”; Skylanders, which has generated $1.5 billion in sales in the last two years, has about 451,000.

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NBC’s Fallon-for-Leno ‘Tonight’ Shift Is a Bet on Future

NBC executives are hoping that their planned transition from Jay Leno to the network’s emerging star, Jimmy Fallon, will bring as much long-term success to “The Tonight Show” as Mr. Rodgers has to the Packers. The move — which includes relocating the show to New York City — is expected to take place by the fall of 2014, even though Mr. Leno has won the ratings race for NBC for two decades, and is still winning.

When his time as host comes, Mr. Fallon will almost surely start out earning considerably less than Mr. Leno because there is much less profit to go around in late-night television. Even as it gets more crowded (names continue to be added, including familiar ones like Arsenio Hall), the business of late-night television is financially challenged and increasingly affected by changing viewing habits.

Mr. Fallon, 38, may someday be declared the ruler of late-night comedy, in the way that Mr. Leno’s predecessor, Johnny Carson, once was, said Robert Morton, once the producer for David Letterman. “But Fallon will be the king of a very small kingdom,” he said.

Longtime producers and executives working in late-night television concede that NBC is taking a risk in planning changes to one of the few remaining areas where the network finishes first. NBC, though, is encouraged by the fact that Mr. Fallon seems to appeal to many of the older viewers who have stuck by Mr. Leno and at the same time is popular with a host of younger, more Internet-focused viewers.

Mr. Fallon “has a real chance to be great,” said one veteran executive in the late-night business, who like others interviewed for this article asked not to identified because of continuing business with different networks and relationships with late-night hosts.

Among the viewers who determine financial success in late night, those ages 18 to 49, Mr. Leno still leads the network late-night shows, but with an average rating of just 0.8 (about 996,000 viewers) for the season. Jon Stewart does better on cable, with an average rating of 1.1. But the true leader in late-night ratings is a machine, not a comic. The best rating in the time period from 11 p.m. to 1 a.m., according to Brad Adgate, senior vice president for research at Horizon Media, is “recorded playback on the DVR.”

DVR playback of recorded shows is averaging a 3.1 rating — or almost four million viewers. The late-night comics are threatened by cartoon characters, too: shows in those hours on the Cartoon Network are averaging about a 1 rating, or about 1.3 million viewers. (Mr. Fallon is averaging a 0.5 rating for his NBC show in the 12:35 hour — that’s just 632,000 viewers.)

With diminished numbers come diminished profits. Mr. Leno once made about $150 million a year for NBC. Now the number is probably between $25 million and $40 million, a senior network executive said.

Part of the reason is cost. One executive who has worked on late-night budgets estimated that the bigger network shows like “Tonight” still cost $50 million to $70 million a year. (This is after NBC forced budget cuts this season and won a reduction in salary from Mr. Leno.) That number has to be tightened further for the shows to continue to make money, the executive said.

Another reason is competition. Mr. Leno now faces not only his longtime rival, David Letterman, on CBS, but also Jimmy Kimmel on ABC. Despite initial expectations, though, Mr. Kimmel, 45, has not overrun Mr. Leno, 62, whose resilience (critics call it obstinacy) is something of a television legend. But Mr. Kimmel does edge out Mr. Leno among viewers ages 18 to 34.

Still, youth has always been served in late night. What matters increasingly is how much additional exposure the comedy generated by these hosts enjoys on sites like YouTube and Hulu.

Those areas have been strengths for Mr. Fallon and Mr. Kimmel, both of whom have created widely viewed videos. Mr. Fallon’s dance video with Michelle Obama, for example, has now exceeded 15 million views on YouTube. A version of “Call Me Maybe” with the host and his band, the Roots, accompanying Carly Rae Jepsen on classroom instruments (like kazoos) has surpassed 13 million views. And Mr. Kimmel has churned out hit after hit on video.

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DealBook Column: Taking a Risk, and Hoping That Lightning Strikes Twice

Sean Parker, co-founder of Napster and managing partner of the Founders Fund.Simon Dawson/Bloomberg NewsSean Parker, co-founder of Napster and managing partner of the Founders Fund.

Sean Parker, the 32-year-old billionaire and former president of Facebook — played by Justin Timberlake in “The Social Network” — was sitting on the top floor of his town house in the West Village of Manhattan last month, lamenting that too few entrepreneurs continue taking big risks after their first great success.

“Every good entrepreneur I know ends up in the wasteland of being a venture capitalist. It’s really frustrating,” he said.

Mr. Parker was sitting, or more accurately, slouching, on a couch next to his best friend and business partner, Shawn Fanning. Together, they founded Napster in 1999, the online music service that upended the entire industry before closing and filing for bankruptcy after losing a court case over piracy.

“How can you as an entrepreneur that’s had success, has a reputation, ever build the courage to go and do something again?” he asked, almost rhetorically. “Most entrepreneurs don’t remain entrepreneurs. It’s just too psychologically draining to have to constantly start over.”

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More than a decade later, however, Sean and Shawn are at it again. The two recently started a video chat service called Airtime. (Think Skype, mixed with Facebook and a twist of Chatroulette.)

Mr. Parker and Mr. Fanning are the exceptions to the successful-entrepreneurs-still-working theory. Sure, there are a handful of serial entrepreneurs out there in Silicon Valley: Jack Dorsey started Twitter and Square, for example, and Elon Musk, who was behind PayPal, now runs SpaceX and Tesla.

But the career trajectory of many tremendously successful entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley often looks like a rocket ship that stops in midair. Less charitably, Mr. Parker suggests some could be called one-hit wonders.

“The list of people who have started from scratch over and over and succeeded systematically over a long period of time is incredibly short,” he said. “The only person I can think of off the cuff is Jobs who had Apple, Next, Pixar, continued doing Pixar and Next and then Apple again, which is really a different company.”

He said that the tendency of great entrepreneurs was either to become merely an operator of one company or, like Sumner Redstone, move into an investor-ownership role.

The Silicon Valley version becomes a venture capitalist. For example, Peter Thiel, who co-founded PayPal, has gone on to be a successful venture capitalist through his firm Founders Fund, investing in other companies’ businesses, like Facebook and Spotify. But Mr. Thiel hasn’t endeavored to start a new company himself. (He did start a hedge fund, but that’s still investing.) He happens to be in business with Mr. Parker, who is a partner in the fund, which also invested in his Airtime.

Marc Andreessen, a longtime star of Silicon Valley, co-founded Netscape in 1994. He started two companies after that: Loudcloud and Ning. Both had modest success, but neither was comparable to Netscape. Mr. Andreessen became one of those venture capitalists Mr. Parker dreads, but with an extremely successful track record of having invested in some of the most promising technology companies, including Facebook, Groupon, Twitter, Zynga, Pinterest and Instagram (which was sold this year to Facebook for $1 billion).

Perhaps surprisingly, Mr. Andreessen said of Mr. Parker’s theory: “I sort of agree with him.” In an interview, he said many “former entrepreneurs crossed over to be V.C.’s and it hasn’t worked out well.” He added, “You don’t want to be Michael Jordan playing baseball.”

Mr. Andreessen said he differentiated his decision to pursue investing from that of other entrepreneurs-turned-investors, because he approached it as an entrepreneurial effort to “rethink the model of venture capital.” He has sought to reimagine the way a venture capital firm works from top to bottom, and so far, it appears to working quite spectacularly.

Still, to Mr. Parker, most entrepreneurs who seek out investments do so as “a total cop-out.” He explained his thinking: “You have a whole portfolio, you only focus on your successes, you ignore your failures and you get to continue looking like a player, but you’re ultimately not in control of anything.”

He continued: “Everything is probabilistic, nothing is deterministic, so you never have that satisfaction of knowing that you’re in control of an outcome. So you spend all of your time managing your reputation, managing your relationships and you spend almost no time thinking creatively or doing the things that an entrepreneur is good at doing.”

If it sounds as if Mr. Parker is talking only about others, he’s not. He’s also talking about himself.

After stepping down from Facebook in 2005, he joined Mr. Thiel’s Founders Fund and for several years worked on making investments, including in Spotify and Votizen.

He also worked on Causes, a site to raise money and awareness for issues and nonprofits. That venture only muddled along, and he said he did not commit to it wholeheartedly enough.

He said the biggest challenge for any new start-up by a previously successful entrepreneur was focusing too much “on downside protection, which is just assuming failure from the outset.” Being worried about failure and its effect on one’s reputation, he said, is “very dangerous.”

He said he was reluctant to start a new company like Airtime until just recently.

“The expectation thing definitely weighs on me. There’s a sort of fear of launching something and failing,” he said. “I had to decide I am going to try to go the road less traveled and just be an entrepreneur that’s willing to go back and start things from scratch.”

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