Perseverance in Turbulent Times: How the Great Depression Made Walt Disney
The year is 1929.
The stock market has collapsed. The vigorous (almost defiant) post-war celebration, an invincible period of both economic and artistic boom, known for it’s glitz, glamour and invention has come to a devastating halt.
And just like like that, the decade-long party is over.
The era that gifted us with flappers and jazz, won women the right to the vote, put the first automobile on the street, and dazzled us with THE GREAT GATSBY, is brought to its knees on October 24th, when the world markets crash. If the New York Stock Exchange is an economic elevator, then the cable has been cruelly and somewhat unexpectedly severed - taking the entire world (and her money) crashing down with it.
Instead of partying on rooftops, people are now - tragically - jumping off of them.
As the world is thrust into a deep, economic depression - one that’s so great, the “G” gets forever capitalized in history books, and all of our one-day grandparents decide that mattresses are safer financial institutions than banks —
Two brothers are going all in.
Walt Disney Studio has just been renamed and incorporated as Walt Disney Productions.
This shift in name, focus, and enterprise was the beginning of the modern Disney dynasty that we recognize today. Walt Disney Productions founded by Walt Disney, and Roy O., his devoted brother and lifelong business partner have decided to dedicate their company to creating animated short films, right when the world has decided to star in an economic horror show of its own.
In 2020 it’s easy to think of the Walt Disney Company as a flush-with-cash, corporate behemoth that can ride out any economic loopdy-loop instead of the humble, two brother enterprise it started out and operated as for many years, even after the success of Mickey Mouse. Not just in the early years, but always, Walt prioritized a greater achievement than money, an obsession fueled by his insatiable desire to push the limitations of today into the reality of tomorrow.
The contrast of Walt’s sheer insistence for progress against the bleak, economic standstill was staggering. While the world was standing outside in line for bread, and finding some relief in FDR’s New Deal, Walt Disney was going both overtime and over-budget on his experimental new project, Snow White.
A project that Hollywood openly mocked as “Walt’s Folly.” But if he heard the rumors, he wasn’t listening. He was out to create history, a project he’d dreamed about since he was 15. And if Walt had his way, Snow White would become the first animated feature-length film.
Walt Disney always had his way and the production of Snow White was greenlit with a budget of $250K.
In the end, Walt spent 3 years and nearly $1.5 Million dollars to bring his vision for Snow White to life. And in order to do so, Walt and his team had to create entirely new technology - a multiplane camera that would allow them to shoot multiple images at once, which would result in a level of detail and depth never before accomplished in animation.
Snow White was the woman who kept Roy up at night. This was the Great Depression, and the entire company was riding on a project and a princess whose ROI couldn’t be predicted. Walt was completely and utterly irreverent and uncontrollable when it came to budgets and time-frames, and while the success of “The Mouse” helped keep the lights on and meet payroll, it wouldn’t be enough to weather the fatal damage that Snow White would inflict on Walt Disney Productions if she was just a failed attempt at something new.
However, that exact behavior of Walt’s that in the early years was seen as obsessive perfectionism and a downright liability, would turn out to be the ROI that the company needed and that Roy could count on. Walt’s relentless attention to detail, would later evolve into being called “The Disney Standard.” A standard that was the benchmark for excellence for an entire field, and heralded as a level of quality we still enjoy today, when we visit Disneyland, Disney World, or turn on Disney+.
In the end, Snow White was released in 1937 to mass critical acclaim, grossed $8 million dollars, won Disney an honorary Oscar, and financially took Disney from a paycheck to paycheck company, to rolling in some real funds for the first time. In Hollywood, there were no more whispers about Walt’s folly.
Instead of focusing on status quo, and “surviving” the Great Depression, Disney took a risk and invented a completely new area for them to pioneer and dominate (animated feature length films) which catapulted Walt Disney Productions into the kind of wealth and acclaim that only legacy can afford.
It’s been nearly 54 years since Walt Disney’s death, but especially right now, as the world fights a pandemic, and people are scared and paralyzed with uncertainty, it’s both comforting and inspiring to identify the three areas in which Walt Disney never compromised. By paying attention to these ideals, we can create success and achievement in any climate, and learn to leverage any economic situation to our benefit.
For no reason whatsoever is progress ever to be stalled. This is important because Walt’s relationship with money was moody. He saw money as both a resource and an annoyance. It was a resource that allowed him to create pictures, invent new technology and experiment with futuristic projects that made Disney as much of a tech leader as it was an animation studio. It was an annoyance when Disney was in debt, worried over payroll, and felt the stress of his brother Roy, who’s main role was to fund Walt Disney Productions.
But that’s also all it was.
Money wasn’t the great decider of anything. Walt was never stalled, deterred, or interfered with because of money. That perspective is what allowed him to not just survive, but carve out his legacy when most companies were contracting down to the quick.
Money rules most people’s decisions. “Oh I was going to do this, but then the economy crashed.” People live or die based on how much money they have in the account. Walt didn’t give a damn what was in the account or not, he refused to make it relevant to his progress - therefore progress was always made.
What made the crash of 1929 so terrible, is that everyone contracted at the same time - the population panicked collectively and pulled their money from the bank together. Money, and the overwhelming fear-based reign it has over people is what caused the economic crisis to be as severe as it was.
Your goals should be the same, if not bigger during the current COVID-19 conditions. At the very least, they should be untouched. Still do what you want to do, still sell what you want to sell, still create where you’re called to create. This is where leaders dominate and make history alongside a crisis.
Innovation is the lifeblood of forward motion, and if you’re not innovating at some level everyday, you’re at risk for stagnancy at best, and financial downturn at worst.
Consider stagnancy the “compromised immune system” of a company. A company may be able to coast on stagnancy, as long as there are no ripples in the water, or challenges to overcome, but the minute an economic wave hits, your company is at risk for capsizing under the pressure to adapt.
It’s important to recognize that innovation doesn’t mean we’re all destined to create the next Disney, Apple, or Facebook. Innovation also doesn’t mean that we’re innovating for the sheer sake of innovation. This makes your job harder, your teams flustered, and leaves your customers (and therefore your revenue) confused.
Instead, innovation is a process of constantly asking yourself questions.
“How can we do this better?”
“How can this be done differently?”
“What is the desired result and is our process for getting there effective?”
“What, as a company, would our team enjoy creating and is it scaleable?”
These questions spark new ways of achieving desired results, and pave the way for new industry, leadership, and legacy.
Protect your creativity at all costs. Otherwise, the questions related to innovation, the commitment to progress becomes a moot point. If the biggest question of all remains unanswered because you’ve allowed stress and panic to drain your creative resources, you’ll find yourself floundering, frustrated and stuck.
The question is simply:
Your ability to ask “what if” from a place of unclouded enthusiasm and vision, is the road map that pulls the innovation forward, that then fuels the unswayable progress in the face of uncertainty. When times are different, or tough, creativity is our first resource chucked out the window - when it’s the only divine resource on this list, capable of solving any problem we find ourselves faced with at any given time.
Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” may be known for the song “When You Wish Upon a Star,” but he didn’t spend much time wishing on them himself. His dogged determination, relentless commitment to the vision and his unquenchable curiosity for what could be, didn’t merely save Disney during the depression years - it made Disney during the depression years.
And right now, we’re all been given the opportunity to do the same.