There’s an exhibit at the Walt Disney Family Museum about the birth of Mickey Mouse. It mostly details the rise of Mickey after Steamboat Willie, but there’s a short anecdote in the exhibit that I’ve been thinking about:
“Walt had difficulty selling [the first two Mickey cartoons, Plane Crazy and The Gallopin’ Gaucho] to distributors, because no distributor had ever heard of Mickey Mouse.”
This isn’t too different from what an animator with new IP would experience today. It’s hard to make a short film, and even harder to convince an established distributor that your film will sell. So, what would happen if Walt Disney was trying to get Mickey Mouse off the ground today?
What if Walt made Mickey an Instagram? What if he tested new material on his Story, posted short clips, and engaged with followers that DM’d him? What if Walt built a scalable way to produce short animated content without starting from scratch on every show? What if he chose to zero-in on the content that resonated most with his followers, and designed Mickey’s character to deliver on those expectations? What if he was able to build a bigger following by doubling down on the content that made his most engaged followers happy? What if he was able to convert individual followers who trusted Mickey’s brand into paying customers? What if Mickey wrote a song in a show and made that song available to stream? What if he made a whole album of these songs? What if he published a coloring book and made it available to download? What if he started a podcast and name-dropped sponsors on the show? What if he sold prints? What if he sold digital stickers? What if he sold real stickers, along with other physical merchandise? What if the animation pipeline used to make Mickey real was being refined throughout this process? What if this process gave Walt the market validation, data, and capital he needed to invest in something bigger?
Maybe the story would go…
Walt introduced Mickey on social media. He tested gags with short-form content and engaged directly with his audience. As the content became more entertaining, he built a following that engaged with Mickey on various surfaces— they streamed his music, they bought his merchandise, they downloaded his apps, and tuned into his livestreams. As the following grew, distributors came knocking— it was a no-brainer for Mickey to star in his own show, and everyone wanted a piece of this new animated character’s fame.