Mark Mayerson

Writer, Cartoonist, Sculptor

The Talent Differential
(July 18, 2006)

In early 1978, I had the occasion to visit Filmation. My opinion of the studio, based on their TV shows, was not high. However, I was astounded at the quality of the artwork on the studio walls. I couldn't figure out why a studio capable of producing such artwork couldn't get it on the screen.

I've worked at and visited a lot of studios since then and I've discovered that every studio contains a lot of talent and that the talent in a studio is always greater than what reaches the screen. I call this the talent differential.

Good studios are the ones with the narrowest gap between their staff's talents and what's on screen. Bad studios have the largest gaps.

The size of the gap is usually determined by the company management. To my thinking, there are four types of management.

Hands-on management with taste
Hands-on management without taste
Hands-off management with taste
Hands-off management without taste

Using historical examples, Disney was an example of hands-on management with taste. Walt Disney drove his studio in a particular direction that set standards that we're still striving to match.

Famous Studios was an example of hand-on management without taste. By the late 1940's, there was a real cookie-cutter look to their cartoons, regardless of who wrote them or directed them. There's no question that the staff's talents didn't reach the screen, as many of the same staff had worked on the Fleischer features.

Leon Schlesinger was the hands-off management with taste. Chuck Jones seemed to have a real gripe against Schlesinger, but Schlesinger had a sterling track record. The directors he hired and kept included Friz Freleng, Tex Avery, Bob Clampett, Chuck Jones, and Frank Tashlin. The directors he got rid of included Tom Palmer, Bernard Brown, Jack King, Ben Hardaway, and Cal Dalton. Once Schlesinger had a director he was happy with, he left the director alone, which is why the Warner directors showed so much individuality.

Some people are going to disagree with me on this one, but I think Walter Lantz was a hands-off manager with no taste. Yes, he hired Shamus Culhane, Dick Lundy, Tex Avery, Jack Hannah and Sid Marcus, but he let Culhane go and he seemed satisfied with Alex Lovy and Paul Smith. The last 16 years of the studio's existence was pretty bleak as a result.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this is that successful management is not limited to people with art backgrounds. Schlesinger outshines other studios run by artists. Ultimately, it's about taste: recognizing the talent you've got and knowing how to manage it for the best result on the screen.