Jeff Gomez doesn't seem like a salesman in the
traditional sense. As CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment, his job is to turn
a movie plot (or a toy or any product with narrative potential) into a bigger,
more lucrative franchise that will pay off long after the blockbuster has left
theaters. He'll turn the story into mobile phone games, comic books,
toys – sometimes all of the above – and in the process,
turn audience members into brand super fans. In short, Gomez knows how to sell
a story — something that every good salesman must do. And he has
become the go-to person for big brands like Disney, Hasbro, Microsoft, and
Coca-Cola. Most recently, he helped James Cameron and 20th Century Fox extend "Avatar"
into games, Websites, books, and more. Here's how he gets people
Jeff Gomez, CEO of Starlight Runner Entertainment
How I found my market niche
I've always been a gamer and a science fiction geek. It started in my childhood with Japanese pop culture, anime, and Godzilla movies and then I was introduced to J.R.R. Tolkien in the mid-70s. What astonished me was how language could convey an absolutely convincing fantasy world. Starlight was formed to extend those story worlds across multiple media platforms.
I used to teach elementary school, and I still devote at least one day a month to teaching. I started noticing that young people move from one platform to the next with astonishing speed and simplicity; they have become used to absorbing information in many different ways. They jump from TV screen to laptop to mobile phone. But I also noticed that the entertainment and advertising industries were not designing information to be absorbed this way. There's a huge opportunity there — and that's where we come in.
Know the story
We do two kinds of research: First, we go to the marketing division of a client or studio and get our hands on as much information as they have gathered in terms of audience research, and for some companies that is a lot of information. We pore through this, but at the same time we go to where the fan base is most active, which is usually on the Internet, and we send a small team of researchers into the fan community to start participating and learning.
Before I even start to think about how to translate "Pirates of the Caribbean" or "Avatar" into sellable franchises, my first step is to get to know every possible detail about the fictional universe — not just what the audience is going to see. We create what I call mythologies — illustrated books containing hundreds of pages of narrative details and descriptions. For "Pirates," the mythology has every conceivable piece of information: profiles of characters, anatomies of creatures, descriptions of how the magic works, a chronology of events. It's a central resource for us and for Disney to understand what the pirates are about, the essence of the brand, and how to tell stories that are true to that brand.
Find the right message
In the process, we're looking for something like, 'What is the connection between this fictional world and the audience?' It's the hook that will make people engage. Without understanding that message, we won't be able to extend the story into other media. Take the pirate, Jack Sparrow. Someone who had not dug so deeply into the story's narrative world would treat Jack Sparrow as if he was truly and genuinely a pirate, and if you do that, you are in danger of making that character do awful things and limiting him and what the brand can sell. Jack Sparrow is really just a man who embraces freedom above all things and understands you can have freedom by doing things like dressing like a pirate. He is not really a pirate in the traditional sense. He's not a murdering thug. He makes the impossible possible. That makes "Pirates" a Disney product, and allows them to sell related products.
To make stories work across different media, you have to understand where the audience member becomes a participant and how to leverage interactivity within the story. With a video game, you try to get the audience member to fully engage physically. Whereas when you're working with the small screen of a mobile phone, it's all about intimacy and reaching the consumer on a far more personal level. We guide the client to making these decisions.
You can sell a story to lots of people as long as what is in the story is resonant and "aspirational." With really good stories, you'll find intense fans around the world — the people who want to be a part of and live within the story. And when you can help create this connection, you can sell them anything.
-As told to Jeremy Quittner
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