How do you find the things you love? Films, music, products, people, food? More and more, we’re turning to the internet to find pretty much anything. Or, we may not even be looking for things anymore. Amazon, Google, Spotify, Netflix are all recommending things, to varying degrees of success. Social apps recommend people we would like to follow. I presume that dating apps are showing you profiles based on a similar model, trying to connect you to people you would be more likely to choose.
Often, I scratch my head at recommendations, wondering what signals I provided that led to whatever the app has sent me. I am pleased when a song Spotify introduces me to a song that I never heard before and I love it. It’s delightful the one-in-twenty times that iOS suggests I want to set an alarm clock and I actually do.
So far, I haven’t experienced a recommendation so memorable, that I can recall it now. As with a lot of the brain power I’ve outsourced to software, these moments remain there, hovering in the code. No Spotify recommendation has replaced the sensation of a friend telling you that you should listen to X the moment they learned you loved Y, or the mythical record store clerk (sorry Millennials and younger, I am old. You missed this entirely.)
When Spotify does nail it, and recommends something I love, like this, I’m at a loss. I would share it with my friends who love music if I could figure out exactly why Spotify chose it for me.
The context around the thing can make the thing itself more important. That’s why I wanted to speak to Jeff Gomez of Starlight Runner Entertainment. He’s been working on taking stories we know, and building on them. Adding context. Connecting them beyond their initial container.
You can listen to this episode here.
17:36:59 Adam Pierno: Alright, Welcome back to another episode of The Strategy Inside Everything. I am amped. I am really excited. Sometimes I set these up and then I forget and we start recording, and I you know we have a great conversation but I was just looking at our guest’s resume, and this is going to be a great one. So I want to welcome today the CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, Mr. Jeff Gomez. Jeff How are you today?
17:37:26 Jeff Gomez: I’m fantastic Adam, so good to be here.
17:37:29 Adam: I really appreciate you making time I know you’re busy in addition to your work at Starlight Runner, you are an advisor for the Department of State, you teach. You’ve got quite a bit on your plate right now.
17:37:43 Jeff: It’s been a very busy week.
17:37:46 Adam: January began with a lot of phone calls, I would imagine phone calls, texts and all kinds of messages came in right
Adam: Yeah, point well taken. Hey, we’re going to talk about storytelling, and we’re going to talk about that in the context of streaming we’re gonna talk that in the context of potentially news. I’m going to really tap into your experience in your brain but before we do that, would you give people a sense of who you are and kind of what you’ve done in your career to give them a background?
17:38:16 Jeff: Sure thing. I was born and raised in New York City, a Latino. My upbringing was in a chaotic environment. We didn’t have much money at all. Lower East Side of New York. And I was a super super sensitive kids so I retreated from the world by reading fairy tales and mythology and studying dinosaurs and watching cartoons and just immersing myself in nerd culture. As a kid, and I guess I just wasn’t satisfied with enjoying it. I was really curious about how it worked. The way that some kids get into cars and car engines and things like that. How do stories work? How did Tolkien convinced me that Middle Earth was real? And, and I found my way, via a lot of libraries to studying ancient storytelling epic narrative theories like Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell’s assessments of story and archetypes, and I began to try and figure out how to tell my own stories.
17:39:43 As I got older, I, I found that the best way for me to tell stories was if someone was nearby. So, I didn’t have the patience to write books or the money to go make movies, so the oral oral transmission oral tradition exactly, particularly and participatory oral tradition, so I played fantasy role playing games Dungeons and Dragons if you want to get kind of geeky. And what that introduced me to though Adam, it was really life changing because it when you are creating a world in which your, your players need to kind of be able to wander around and do whatever they feel like doing that world has to be active around them, systemically.
17:40:38 In other words, the, the characters the locations the events that are surrounding them in my mind we’re all going on at the same time. Yeah.
17:40:46 So, so the the characters could literally feel free to go anywhere they want and encounter and talk to any other camera were you
Adam: Were you that kind of Dungeon Master?
17:40:58 Jeff: Let’s go. But what that prepared me for first of all was to be able to develop, video games, where you can navigate these 3D environments and encounter all kinds of creatures and yet there was a forward momentum to the narrative. And it allowed me to start thinking about story from a, a systemic standpoint story worlds and and so in the 90s, I created video games like to rock dinosaur Hunter, and the universe of Magic the Gathering the trading card game. And it enabled me to think about story and brand, and the communication of story across multiple media platforms, and that serves as the basis for my company Starlight Runner Entertainment, which was formed in 2000.
Adam: And I didn’t know any of that when I reached out to you by the way so that’s why I’m extra geeked out as I was reading this, when I once you responded to me and I, and I started reading it, I was like, Oh, this is amazing, like Turok and Magic and Acclaim comics, we were talking about earlier and some of the some of the great artists and people that came through there so incredible background and I am a little bit kicking out. The, what you wrote that, that caused me to contact you, was something about the way Netflix is positioning. It shows, and how that positioning. Well, I guess how that positioning forces them into a modality of presenting things that limits them against their by their new rivals that didn’t that we’re not rivals five years ago but Disney plus that has a different arsenal of tools, your Warner with HBO Max, you want to you want to just kind of reset us on what sure it doesn’t matter what talks about that?
Jeff: It’s totally fascinating to be the comparison and models Starlight Runner is involved in helping the big Hollywood studios and video game develop these narrative universe, it’s the story worlds that are capable of traversing multiple platforms. So, when Netflix, a company like we’ve worked for Disney we’ve worked for 20th Century Fox we work for Marvel Comics we’ve worked for all kinds of different companies. So when Netflix rises, and we see that they’re starting to spend billions of dollars to attract a massive subscriber base, but also to kind of fill that pipeline with content.
17:43:49 Our first instinct was, well, you know they’re there. they’re gaining hits like Stranger Things, so it would stand to reason that they would exploit those intellectual properties across multiple platforms to not just make extra money selling t-shirts
17:44:06 and comic books, but to cultivate a fan base to make people love, its intellectual properties and want to stay with them.
Adam: Yeah, let’s talk about that, let’s let’s pause there because I don’t want to run past comic books as a way to expand the universe. I- my exposure to Star Wars was a few years younger than the actual live releases of the movies, but the Marvel Comics additions of the Star Wars universe. Some of the novels which bindi canonized and now are kind of creeping out through thanks to Dave Filoni who’s bringing back some of those characters. I find it really interesting that you see the, not just the you quickly said it’s not just about making money and having a Stranger Things comic book, it’s about being able to let readers and viewers think about it more broadly and really explore what the world is versus what you get in those 45 minute episodes ish.
Adam: So is it, is it about the additional characters and about the additional time or is it just different ways to let your let viewers imaginations kind of latch into it?
17:45:18 Jeff: When I studied story. I, for many, many years. I got to learn what it is that that makes stories last, you know, of the millions and millions of stories that are created around the world throughout time. Only a handful comparatively speaking last four decades, or even centuries and and so what are the qualities about those narratives that are resonant and remain resonant with people.
17:45:53 Well, there is something compelling about the characters, there’s a, you know, a wisdom, and a philosophy and an aspirational value system, two stories that, that, that stand the test of time.
17:46:12 Adam: So when I look at the the stuff that Netflix puts out. There are once in a while, those kinds of narratives that that do stand out and and and why wouldn’t you want to, to make that last to get people to, to kind of have a fondness and affection for them.
17:46:38 And, and go for it. Try to transcend time try to move it forward.
Jeff: These big entertainment franchises that are coming from. The Walt Disney Company and other video game companies and things like that that’s what they’re doing, they’re meeting the audience across different media platforms and through licensing and merchandising and and those companies are in the business to make a lot of money. My point in that post was that Netflix hurled, you know, it has to be over 100 billion dollars maybe more. Over the past 15 or 17 years to garner a certain number of subscribers. You know, it’s it’s a like 150 million, 160-70 million people are subscribed to Netflix worldwide Disney plus a jumped up, you know, about a year ago, a little over a year ago.
17:47:36 Adam: Right.
Jeff: He have now a 75 to 80 million subscribers. Okay. What did they do, they threw up stuff that all of us have access to already in our dirty. Adam: Yeah, I already have the DVD collection, in my MoviesNow.
Jeff: That’s right old kid and all that stuff. Yeah, well what they did do. And this is widely acknowledged, even by The Walt Disney Company, is that they put up the Mandalorian, a transmedia extension of the Star Wars universe that resonated completely with the cross section of fans fans of every aspect of Star Wars there was something in that show for them.
17:48:20 At the Mandalorian was a series of half hour shows that that costs, you know, maybe 80 to $100 million per season it’s expensive but not building a fire hose of billions and billions of dollars. And this was enough to generate a, a subscriber base that right now in one year is half the size of Netflix that’s astounding. Yes, it is the power of storytelling, and particularly the power of this new kind of storytelling, which I practice which is called transmedia storytelling. That’s, that’s where I want so when I think about the mandatory and I think about the potential now, right now we’re in pandemic mode.
17:49:05 Adam: So, there’s not a lot of action going on at Galaxy’s Edge at Disney but but had the man Mandalorian. When you could go to Disney and experience that that would have been, I mean when they’re able to open that. So hopefully in the fall, they’re able to do that. There will be the Mandalorian and Boba Fett walking around Galaxy’s Edge now they’ll have the expanded universe of all those characters.
17:49:31 Jeff: And that’s something.
17:49:33 Adam: So if Netflix I was looking around, getting ready for this conversation I was thinking about Netflix and what I watch Netflix for is mostly like classic films I used to use it for like, J-Horror and things that I couldn’t get, but now it’s like garbage crime. It’s, you know kind of what their new releases are and I was thinking about what is something that translates in a fantastic way you know Stranger Things is a good example. But the remember the film I think it was about three years ago with Will Smith called Bright.
17:50:03 Jeff: Yes.
17:50:04 Adam: What that would have been a great opportunity for them to break down the walls because they, it was a whole new world. And I’m wondering how you how, what could they be doing differently you know they don’t have the theme park division, and they don’t have all the comic book tie ins that HBO Max has, you know they’re actually reverse engineering comic books to the to their streaming service. All on Marvel.
17:50:32 What can Netflix do with something like Bright or with, well, you know even stranger things which is something more.
Jeff: I don’t think they’re going to do much of anything, frankly, and that’s because Netflix is a tech play, it’s a it’s a Silicon Valley approach to business which essentially means that it’s some set of heavy duty pipes. The object of the game is to use the the preference data that they are taking from their viewers and and tweaking the content or the acquisition of content in order to fire it through the those pipes.
17:51:16 So, you know, I, it’s obviously worked for them. But my feeling is that, that it’s not going to work forever. You can’t keep spending. 10s of billions of dollars a year on on entertainment content. It’s, it’s, it’s just not gonna, it’s not sustainable. Truly the, what they could be doing is starting to a build an aspect of their own company so this has less to do with the actual content, as it has to do with philosophy.
17:51:57 What are going to be the Netflix set of brands, what are the story worlds The universe is that they will be invested in that they can take equity.
Adam: Right. They’re acquiring intellectual properties without even taking equity in the video game or the comic book or the novels or, or the merchandise?
17:52:18 Jeff. They don’t care about that that’s that’s all outside those agreements, by and large, yes. So for Disney yeah no requires your IP. It’s gone. Take every part of it. Yeah, that’s right, that’s right. But they have to set themselves up to, to then leverage that take advantage of that and that requires a slightly different more long term mentality with regard to cultivating, not just the intellectual property, but the fans.
17:52:49 You know, and encouraging dialogue with the fans and and supporting their curiosity.
Adam: Yeah. And to your point earlier about being a good Dungeon Master, giving them the open world version of Stranger Things, where, you know, If Disney owned that property, there would be a, an upside down, place that you could go visit somewhere, And it’s.
17:53:14 Jeff: Yeah, and it just seems.
17:53:25 Adam: When I read your posts and listening to you now, it’s just trapped value inside of Netflix that it’s all this IP that just lives in these pixels that it’s like, oh, I just want to. There’s so many more things you could do that that would keep people interested engaged recommending. And, you know, watching more hours which is ultimately their metric. But here’s, here’s a thought that I’ve been pondering. Once you’ve seen a Netflix film, or even a series.
17:53:51 Jeff: It’s very rare to to go back. Yeah, there’s, there’s so much there, you might as well just go on to something else and so forth. Let’s pick out one of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is weak links. Okay, Thor part two.
17:54:06 Adam: Terrible Yeah, or to not such a great movie.
Jeff: Right. The, the thing about Thor two is that everything you need to know about the Infinity champions is in Thor Two. So, as the various movies unfold. And mentioned things that were first raised in Thor to your audience your fan base is driven back to that a catalog property and needs to go and watch door to which is making Disney money
Adam: Yeah, you think back to time and comic books where would say the asterisks that would say as seen an X-Men number 193.
Jeff: I’m going to go out and buy that 193, I remember any interesting yeah moments in time.
Adam: Yes, it was the Avenger crossover events that made me buy 20 more comic books that I wanted to that summer.
17:55:02 Jeff: Yeah, you got it that’s exactly. So, you know you want to keep your catalog operational, you know, in this day and age where companies are purchasing entire music catalogs and and and streaming services are going out looking for TV series that haven’t been picked up yet.
17:55:22 You want to somehow generate interest in that older content.
17:55:28 Adam: What’s the-you’ve explained why Netflix does this, their viewpoint on business so they’re just trying to build that strong pipeline of content and just try to build subs right there trying to grow subs keep subs. Why would they, is it just to enhance talents, it kind of the offer to talent that, hey, we’re going to pay you and you keep the IP and do what you want with it outside versus, you know, is there a downside to to the opportunity to build these transmedia opportunities, transmedia world or transmedia experiences that that build on the story of besides cost?
17:56:04 Jeff: The downside is, is that you need a fairly elaborate infrastructure, and you’re, you’re, You’re, you’re pushing the limits of your, your attorneys your representation and and your diplomacy. A. Transmedia franchises require a lot of different people to play in the same sandbox, you’re going to the licensing show. You’re, you’re dealing with manufacturers around the world. And you are responsible to a degree for how your celebrities behave. And, and you’re engaged with fans who are notoriously prickly, and who can make trouble for you.
17:56:54 Adam: You know it too. I can’t blame them in a way because we’ve seen problems between big media franchises and their own fan bases which, you know, can be a real pain.
17:57:08 Jeff: I think there are ways to deal with them, you know, a positive fantastic and profitable way, but that takes a lot of work does.
17:57:19 Adam: We thought Netflix had this huge head start, we see Disney plus gaining on them, HBO Max is going to figure out some way to gain on a boat, you know, faster than I think we thought now part of that is the pandemic and everybody’s home watching TV, but what are you thinking what are you seeing in the tea leaves that Netflix could be doing to, you know, I don’t think of them as a company that’s in danger.
Adam: I think they’ll keep about but people that just are habitual users that, like me, so it’s like I’m just gonna keep paying them the 12 or 13 bucks and every 18 months, they’ll take another dollar.
17:57:55 I’ll think it’s mediocre but it’s like it’s replaced TV for me so that’s where I go to watch them something. What do you see for them as, as the real. Is it real risk that they’re kind of –
Jeff: They’re going to be fine. You know we’re seeing these unprecedented actions like Warner media, putting their entire 2021 feature films slate on HBO Max. You know, that’s going to be hit and miss, you know, I’m not sure how much HBO Max benefited from putting Wonder Woman 1984, on, on the, on the service. When that movie. According to the fan base was not terribly good.
17:58:41 Adam: That’s the problem. It didn’t do a service to either the the DC brand or the HBO Max brand.
17:58:49 Jeff: So a lot of it is just contingent on whether they’re dynamite enough movies for people to pick up on it. I think HBO Max will be okay. A Netflix, I think, is enacting, some interesting you know strategies for example, Developing multiple projects based on a single intellectual property or or an author like Roald Dahl.
Jeff: Willy Wonka and James and the Giant Peach, these different movies based on his works are all going to be on on the same on the same service. And they’re doing that with he man and the masters of universe and you’re going to see a few of these kinds of multi project same world kind of things to keep people there. I’m wondering if they’re going to service, a children’s content by altering some of their rollout strategy. When children are young people watch their favorite animation on Netflix, they’ll do it all at once right you know and burn through the whole show and move on to something else in a weekend. That does not build a relationship, again you have a fandom situation except it’s a child. So, Without the relationship to the characters, there isn’t a tremendous urge to go out and buy toys, but for children’s animation toys and merchandise again are
18:00:34 really important. There’s been a call on Netflix to dole out the content on a weekly basis, similar to the way Disney did with the Mandalorian which started this incredible conversation around that show.
18:00:52 Adam: That really proved the value of that programming, you know, weekly or whatever having a cadence to it versus just dumping it all. Jeff: That’s correct. So I believe we’re going to see a little more of that from Netflix for specific types of shows.
18:01:04 Adam: It’s interesting you know we just watched the new season of Cobra Kai was live and my son. He’s too young for it but we watched it anyway so I guess I’m not a good dad but he wanted to watch. He wanted to watch it all at once I mean it came out and he was downstairs saying hey let’s let’s throw this on Let’s burn through the whole season. Like no. We’re gonna watch one at a time, because I need to make this count while you’re willing to sit with me for 30 minutes and 40 minutes it is, it’s also more value to it.
Jeff: Especially with something like Cobra Kai which is for a simple little show about karate has some moral complexities, to it and and that I’d love to tease out of a young viewer, who’s trying to you know take sides or or understand why the conflicts are escalating and continue to escalate and escalate and escalate in this show. You know just swallowing it all up. You only get one conversation out of 30 episodes.
Adam: It’s true and as we’ve watched this, as we’ve watched it we’ve had, he’s 10, where we’ve had conversations about oh you know he was, he was quote unquote bad, and now what do you think he’s changing sides you think he’s right or do you think he’s wrong and actually being able to have a conversation like that with your kids is there’s no natural way into those kind of moral conversations, so it is, it’s lovely to use it as a perch for for a dad is tremendously valuable and and and and the services don’t quite think of it that way.
18:02:39 Jeff: The relationship is not quite human. There’s a lot of data going on, and and and not enough warmth. That’s where other services can grab a foothold on on Netflix.
Adam: Yeah, I think your point about bringing in viewers from other places you know Netflix comes in from a conversion funnel. But for Disney there’s a lot of ways in not just by virtue of the properties but by virtue of your experience with how you how those properties touched your life, there’s so many ways to be exposed to marvel comics and Marvel stories that make you say it’s worth the monthly fee whatever it is today. So I just, it’s, it’ll be interesting to see how they develop and what Netflix does if they decide to, if they try to expand, because they have some properties. But you made a good point earlier there’s not a lot of stuff you go back to and watch again once you’ve watched it right and and again they’re, they’re not quite at least at this point incentivize to do it.
18:03:44 Jeff: I’m hoping that that the Mandalorian gives them pause and and causes them to think about the power that that developing iconic archetypal content that does traverse different media, what that can do for them as a brand and as for them as an entertainment company.
18:04:10 Adam: When you think about when you get an assignment or when you’re thinking about expanding a story so someone brings you a story or a universe that’s somewhat established.
18:04:19 Jeff: Sure.
Adam: What are what’s your approach to me neck and that’s almost infinite and to me that’s a, that’s hard, that makes it hard to solve creatively a problem when there’s really no limitations, how do you frame that for yourself.
18:04:35 Jeff: The, The first thing we go to because you’re right.
18:04:39 You know, sometimes. In the case of Halo, a video game. We were handed a terabytes of information.
18:04:51 Surely, a truly open world like you could go anywhere in the open world, you can go anywhere. It was 200,000 years of history. In the Halo universe. It had been going for a decade before we we were contacted and and and the question there as well.
18:05:10 A Halo is super successful on one media platform of the Xbox, how do how do we make it successful as in film or television and, and to turn it into a timeless franchise the Star Wars a Harry Potter.
18:05:28 The first thing we always go to, is what is the essential and fundamental messaging, of, of this world. What is it telling us that that is timeless and resonant and meaningful to people and how does it central character, or characters incarnate that message for a video game. Frankly, that not that much thought was put into it. You know, so you almost are obvious yeah so you work backwards into a brief almost that to turn it into the core of the story and then from there.
18:06:09 Adam: How hard is it to distill that story down? I mean I guess it varies by property.
Jeff: Well, it is distilled when we get to the core of the story this is the foundational narrative, the brand essence. And from there, we then streamline those terabytes of information into a kind of super narrative that serves that messaging that core fundamental messaging. So it’s like a fractal in Halo if Master Chief incarnates this message. How does that message, a grow upon itself and become a giant cosmology. What is the philosophical system that that makes that fundamental message, practical, and and and meaningful, if, if the player cared to look for it would learn something from it and frankly, Adam. That is how I rose out of chaos and poverty. I would read these stories and learn that there were systems of wisdom that the characters took action on. Yeah, which forms a ladder, which allowed them to climb out of the situations they were in, and succeed.
18:07:25 Adam: It’s the hero’s journey.
Jeff: Yeah, it’s the hero’s journey with the acknowledgement that we are that it is very rare to live a completely linear life, that is like a tube between the beginning middle end yet. So, so the adaptation really, from my perspective is collective journey. We live in systems, yeah and and the new storytelling is a systemic storytelling, there are characters all over the Star Wars, or Marvel Cinematic Universe is each of them represent some aspect of a comp complex system that has flaws. How do we clash with each other but also how do we reconcile with one another in order to affect repairs on the system. If we don’t affect repairs. The system is going to crack and break and then Winter is coming.
18:08:24 See what I’m saying?
Adam: So what is it when you, when you take something like Halo, and you and you do that you create that distillation and you figure out what the philosophy is that was not top of mine or front of mine for the people making that that plot that series? How hard is it to make it clear to people that are going to experience it in another format, without hitting them over the head, you know you want them to feel like if you’re creating a live experience, you know I think Disney on Ice.
18:08:59 Jeff: You want them to feel like, oh yes okay this makes sense to me I’m in this space. This space is now the version of Halo that I’ve played.
18:09:07 Adam: How do you, what or how do you translate it?
18:09:12 Jeff: Well, there are two edges to that question. First of all, we rarely make up that that messaging and that wisdom system right that the people who make these blockbuster movies James Cameron who we’ve worked with Walter parks the producer of Men in Black and all these wonderful Spielberg movies. They’re, They’re extraordinary talented people. So, we initiate an inquiry, we asked them what is informing this this story Who are you, and what’s our view. What have you is in avatar, you know, or Pirates of the Caribbean and and they’re, you know, they’re able to answer that question it takes a little work sometimes but they do answer that question so we have the that that essence in its pure form and and so then the job on the other side of your question is simply to infuse that into the, the foundation of the content. In other words, we would never slap someone in the face with some moral or message that’s yucky.
18:10:26 Adam: But if the system informs the the narrative, then you have the force.
18:10:34 Jeff: Then you have the magic of Harry Potter. Then you have the, the way that all the creatures and beings are interconnected on Pandora. You know you have it the system informs the, the narrative and then the narrative can be beautiful and brilliant and exciting and adventurous and full of special effects, and the just enjoyable. It’s just it’s built off of the same core element exactly fans look deeper fans want to know –
Adam: If fans think you’re making it up as you go along. It really pisses them off, as we saw with the last Star Wars movies.
18:11:20 Jeff: Yeah. You know, that’s, it’s a very important point and and by the way, a lesson learned by Disney Lucasfilm, I think so. I think we saw that in the, the announcement they just made the announcements they made last last month.
18:11:37 Adam: So Jeff This is fantastic. I really appreciate you making time to chat with me and enlighten me on story and in transmedia storytelling, interesting to hear how you get from something that seems pretty fleshed out and establish back to a core set of principles and philosophy and then expand it back out.
18:12:00 Jeff: Adam, The Strategy Inside Everything is vital listening for me so honored to be on the show.
Adam: Oh my pleasure having you I’m glad we were able to make it work.
Jeff: Thank you so much,
Adam Where can people find you online?
18:12:14 Jeff: Look up Jeff Gomez I’m a pretty easy Google. But you can find my LinkedIn profile on Twitter I’m @Jeff_Gomez. And those are the the core elements and you can find me. From there on YouTube there’s plenty of videos on my, my talks and thoughts about the geopolitical situation.
Adam: I’m going to listen right now. Thanks again.