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JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath Interviewed by Kara Nortman | Upfront Summit 2020

JJ Abrams
Co-CEO at Bad Robot
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Upfront Summit 2020
January 30 2020, Pasadena, CA, United States
Upfront Summit 2020
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JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath Interviewed by Kara Nortman | Upfront Summit 2020
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Topic: Business

Bad Robot Co-CEOs JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath talk to Upfront Ventures partner Kara Nortman about scaling and productizing creativity; building an equitable partnership and a company that looks like its audience; what it was like to helm a franchise like Star Wars; the importance of creative guardrails and feedback; and the simple way to fix diversity in an organization.

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Have a great privilege to be up here today with JJ Abrams and Katie McGrath. They are obviously this with the greatest storytellers of our time. When 00:00 is I think about it is the people in this room are the makers and finders of the problems and opportunities. We choose to solve in the tech World. 00:08 They put the stuff on the the screen big little and even littler that kind of tell us who we are and who we want to be there's a tremendous amount of 00:16 power in that what you guys may not know is that their work extends into many other areas from gaming to nonprofits to starting movement. So excited 00:25

to hit a bunch of topics today. I want to start off by creating some contacts for you guys or partnership Bad Robot is a company maybe 00:35 walk us through you guys moved into creating Bad Robot. What are some of the things you thought about to kind of I don't know productize creativity in 00:44 a world where it often looks like magic to this audience. We know that a lot goes on behind the scenes you'll give us some background. Restart restart 00:54 the first of all, thanks for having us here. And thank you all. the truth is when I started Bad Robot and and I 01:03

started it before we started it which is to say it wasn't really a thing and I have very little information about how to run a company and what is 01:13 necessary to do that to make the be productive at scale and so began Bad Robot because I had to we were doing a show 01:22 called Alias long time ago and I needed to come up with a logo and it so it started off as a legal necessity and 01:32 then I was working until 2 in the morning and someone suggested, you know, you do a production deal and I had never thought about it and then we 01:42

started to put together a very very small group of people and it just was a way of knowing I wanted to maximize the 01:48 potential that I thought existed in the relationship that I had people who I knew were, you know, writers and directors and actors want to do things 01:58 and there's only so much time in the day and I thought We had a team we could actually do a couple more things if you more thing once we started the 02:06 company proper and head are but our building and began to put it together it soon became clear to Katie who then made it clear to me. It wasn't being 02:15

run anyway near as it should and that's when we started working together actively to actually create a company and 02:24 the answer. Your question ultimately is finding the right people with him to work who you were even rely on who deserve to be there to do the great 02:33 work who can then hire and work with people who also should be there in our worthiness it sort of it's a bit obvious maybe in boring talk about but if 02:42 it didn't begin with a vision it began with a kind of you know doing cuz I was told we needed to do it and it soon became something that was this, you 02:52

know this exciting passion of how do we have do we scale it and and and it's not just creative. It's the culture. Company and that was where you know 03:02 and working together. I think we've been able to create something that I'm really proud to be part of. About you guys are your 03:10 collaboration and your partnership and we live in this world where the elans in the sex of the world the creators in our industry. They're not just 03:20 celebrated their compensated very differently than maybe the builders and The Operators who he'll take it from small to big love to hear me. 03:28

I don't know how you do it words of inspiration to have people how do you think about building a high-performance team where you find this kind of 03:38 partnership and killing with illusion of Katie, you know, we know that the e in Katie's title is very powerful in the industry, but you're also behind 03:45 the scenes. And is that a no choice. Do you feel a responsibility for your role to be more romanticized in the world now that you know, we hope more 03:54 people find collaborators like a Katie McGrath. I'm so take it and go with you wherever you're at it. So I would say that you know 04:02

in any partnership and we obviously have partnered across a couple of different platforms were married or parents marriage platform 04:12 PC cross-platform. And obviously we're Partners in in our company and in the business and 04:20 regardless of how many of those boxes you check. I think that the most important thing is that you share the same Northstar that you share the same 04:29 definition of what value is and so for us, you know, we are a constant feedback loop with each other of the places where we 04:38

are being true to that and when one of us is off course, you know, we can quickly, you know readjust I think when we think about building our teams to 04:48 it's the same way every leader in our team and every every employee all the way down to our dishwasher who is one of the most incredible parts of our 04:57 entire team have to all kind of be rolling in the same. Directions to I think the most important thing in a in a partnership. The other thing for for 05:06 me, I would say when you speak to the point about like the public facing or you know, the internal facing profile. I had Jaden answer the first 05:16

question because he started the company that you know, obviously this is not a bad robot is based on the things that he has made and seen in the 05:26 people with whom he's got to bring stories to life. My rule is you know is very happily the one that it is which is 05:35 heavily internal facing because I don't think what we do is a company externally will be meaningful if we actually aren't grounding ourselves 05:45 constantly and what are Northstar is what we care about how we leverage, you know, our values and our ethics against the opportunity that we have the 05:54

scale reaching Global audience is ultimately so, you know, I don't want to be in the background because I'm afraid of being in the foreground. It's 06:03 just it's terribly uninteresting to me and you know identify the way we don't need it like it's okay in a partnership to fit as puzzle 06:12 pieces do together. And I don't think same same as ever really. Eyebright benefits so the title co-ceo inspires fear in the hearts of venture 06:21 capitalist. How do you guys make hiring decisions and who wins wins? 06:31

As you can tell Katie wins. As you were talking about trust. I almost can't 06:40 imagine. what it would be like to try and run any company in any other way and this is the only time I've experienced this 06:50 I think of the things that we've gone through over the years just as parents, you know, like as anyone who's married probably knows you walk into the 07:00 room your spouse is in an argument with one of the kids you are instantly a line with that partner with your with your spouse like you to know you 07:10

don't know what the hell they're talking about. You know, you just walk in the kitchen like yeah, you should make sure that you're suddenly like on 07:19 their side and that that kind of stuff has happened so many times and there have been situations at the office where I don't see a lot of the stuff 07:25 And you are always picking up on and you smell smoke a million miles away. And when I hear you say, this is a problem. I know it's a problem and it's 07:35 usually a problem before it's a problem. It's it's going to be a problem cuz you're so good at that. And so I think that the trust issue is just is is 07:45

enormous and I I just I think that it's another fact that we live at home the way we do with the office. It's like there isn't any kind of changed its 07:53 all kind of one thing but I think that the trust thing and really believing and having a partner who will tell you the bad news, you know having 08:03 someone who will say to you this isn't good enough. This isn't working you're doing this and you shouldn't be doing that. I mean that is like, I don't 08:10 know if you know, it would be like to be doing it wouldn't it wouldn't be working until I say it's a question if 08:18

there are texting years in the audience. What would you tell them to inspire them to give away half of their company to their Katie? But I would say 08:28 that the the the company was became what it what it would have his fit. It's it's it's still evolving. We're always figuring it out. We're always 08:37 making mistakes were Queer as it's evolving but it wouldn't be what it is if it's worth I think for the two of us and I don't I don't look at it 08:45 that way but at the way I look at it is if if you can find the person ideally you marry them. Then you start the company, but but but if you if you 08:55

have that partner that you that you do trust and I guess on some level really do love and appreciate because they're willing to tell you the tough 09:04 stuff and they're smart enough to know and then really examine the truth and have that kind of compass 09:11 what it becomes is so much more valuable than ever would have been if you were just the Creator alone or just the you know, the one person I 09:20 think it's it's it is a bit of a divide-and-conquer job. And I think that's by the way one the reason is because we'd appreciate what the other one 09:30

does well and gives each other that kind of space and is always willing to make a comment and be respect each other's opinions 09:39 partner Mark recently. I think our partnership has a lot of love and Partnerships are the most unnatural structures are structures that 09:45 exist in the world. And so you guys look for your look for love in your Venture Capital firm 2 Shifting gears Katie 09:55 influential to you like a piece of work that you guys have put out in the world and your time doing this. I got this question. 10:04

So it depends what you again when you and how you Define influence your definitions. So for me and this is just my perspective. 10:16 It's there's no measurement behind it. I think when JJ was invited to direct the force awakens that was 10:26 something that the entire company and obviously the production in the crew took very seriously as an opportunity in a privileged to know that there 10:36 was maybe a global audience in a way that no other title that are projects. He worked on, you know had the same scale. And so the 10:44

way then I will you know, I obviously have an influence and I have a voice and in the earliest stages, I think we did talk about 10:54 If we have this moment this privilege, what do we want to do with it and not from a place of being preachy or feeding people spinach, but it just from 11:04 a place of this anytime. You have a probably do have an obligation. That's kind of how we try to live our lives. And so in this case, I think the way 11:14 and let JJ speak to this more specifically that he thought about building the story with a female protagonist with you know, a set of 11:23

four, you know main characters one of whom was you know, that next one of whom was you know, 11:32 a Nigerian Londoner one of whom was a woman a white woman and then there was a white guy still have room for 11:42 an unreal of the white men still but you know, it was really to think about how can we find a way to I have every 11:52 kid is going to go see that movie theater version of themselves in a way that you know just isn't often considered a scale you want to think about 12:02

that but I agree with you and my answers were coming at it 12:10 and I know it's not bad robot proper but watching what's happened with X up has been so incredible to me 12:19 this this movement that began, you know with a bunch of people including Katie in and around the work that 12:29 we've been doing and just seeing seeing in really had tubal quantifiable important ways how it's affected people's 12:38 lives the way they see themselves when they speak up and having a confidence to do so knowing them out alone to me is 12:48

Wildly impressive and also within Bad Robot itself, which is 4 small to seeing the impact of the culture of the company. And and I 12:58 think that ultimately does resonate in the fritzl. Thank you guys see it be it and you guys give us an opportunity to spare to be better and all those 13:08 ways but Star Wars force, you take out an epic franchise like that in our incredibly polarize world 13:17 where they just the middle seems gone, right? There's love and there's even approach telling that story in this world. Just so you know, that's one 13:26

and then we can talk about how you handle the critical Acclaim or not after word for the first question being involved in 13:36 Star Wars. It's it's been such a blessing and a time. I feel incredibly honored have been part of it. I think every project That you 13:46 work on and I'm sure that everyone in this room or pants. Let's be specific at the 10th. I think everyone here knows that you know you get 13:56 if you have a project you have an opportunity and my guess is that everyone is in this room because we all have big eyes there's a sense of 14:06

audacity that we can pull something off and there are the realities of the situation whatever it is the the the context in which 14:15 you say. I'm going to try and Tackle this like everything it's a team effort and you go into every project and and Star 14:25 Wars is no different really doing the best you can with everything that you have a lot of it is in your control a lot of it's not in your control. 14:35 Yeah, but how do you know if you're lucky your people that you're working with in the case of Star Wars literally if you watch the end credits of 14:43

those movies, they're still running. I mean the number of people in the end credits and Annie. Those is a person who spent many hours away from their 14:50 family to participate in this thing and then and help it but you got people who you can rely on who give you comfort to make you feel like I'm not in 14:58 this alone. It's obviously when projects work and they touch people and people react in a way that you were helping 15:05 cuz all we're doing while trying to be aware of the context in which the films and shows come out. We're just trying to entertain people 15:14

we will bring our values as much as we can not preaching but we bring them to the project. But the truth is that these are things that are meant to 15:24 entertain people to make them feel something and and hopefully feel good. Obviously, it doesn't always work. It's it's hard when it doesn't and when 15:32 it doesn't you have to understand it you have to acknowledge it and you have to have to examine it and I think that the, you know, if you don't take 15:41 the time to really stop and not to be privately but even with the p We're working with and and trying and interrogated and get 15:50

to some clarity. It doesn't need to be an epiphany doesn't need to be like from now on I'm going to end and because I'm naturally a fairly impatient 15:59 person and I want things to kind of be moving forward. Like intellectually. I know I'm going to go on for more thing about this. I know I'm talking to 16:08 you while I know we all agree on certain things like sometimes limitations are actually helpful because they did they force you to be more creative 16:16 being told. No, we all want to be told no, you know because we wanted to we want to make sure that we're like being checked in that we're getting the 16:24

best of people but the truth is hearing no Hertz hearing you're not doing a good enough job is painful 16:32 when you're you know, when you're told know you don't have the money or the resources you were expecting it sucks cuz you want 16:40 but those things those difficult things are what makes us grow and what allows us to actually consider and reconsider 16:50 process. Anatomy is invaluable. So I just feel like no one wants any project not to work, but when 16:59 it doesn't you have to you know, try and figure out Maybe there's maybe I shouldn't say yes to something if I know the contact doesn't you know, 17:09

you have to argue with your hubris, you know, and when things work and it's extraordinary and people have a reaction that you were hoping for or a 17:19 series that literally when we were doing lost. I got a phone call from the head of ABC who said while we're shooting the pilot and he said, please 17:28 fill an ending so we could air it as a movie. On Hitman on network, but still miss seeing that ends 17:37 the pilot and make it wouldn't tell me what you want me to shoot. No, shoot it and I never heard back if you didn't have to do that and then they 17:47

aired it as a series in at work. And when at work it was an extraordinary thing that this ridiculous thing that Damon Lindelof and I had come up with 17:54 a crazy short amount of time actually meant something some people it was thrilling. So it's it's the fun of it working 18:02 and the kind of fear that it might not hit it it's all part of the same process a lot of Founders in the room. Who what are is 15 million-dollar 18:11 series a round in only raises 7 million-dollar series a round. So Capital constraints and fear are powerful if you're not afraid 18:20

not to work so, you know 18:29 Many fewer screens and lost kind of its potential You could argue its most influential television because this whole 18:41 culture you probably would like to argue about that but we're not going to do the whole culture of water cooler and in between in multiple screens 18:50 kind of came out of it. What do you guys think about? What you produce for today? What is product? What is marketing what is 18:59 content? What is gaming? Like, how do you think about that from a business standpoint? I'll start I I think the first thing you can't think about it 19:08

like in our business is the product though. I know that's the common kind of unit maybe for this crowd but You know it 19:17 again I think Jaden should speak to this but you have to fall in love with something first and you have to you have to decide that. You know, the 19:27 thing that you're going to risk for suing is going to keep you interested and excited. And if you do fall in love, then I do, you know, you can't 19:36 control for all the variables that builds momentum and that informs I think a lot of the way you think about talking about it the way you Market it 19:45

the way that you planned for it, but at the very beginning the Corvette has to be something that's undeniable. At least that's you know, how we think 19:53 about it. Are you get into things like gaming? When do you decide to do something in gaming versus just to put it, you know on you no more traditional 20:01 screen will our gaming companies separate from our company and we aren't looking at it like that because I think and again, you know, 20:09 and they've here but the the idea Needs to come first and then it's an idea then the next 20:18

question is where does it live fast? And there are crossovers all the time. There's a TV show that then all we can explain it to a game or we can 20:28 exploit it through a short form or maybe that becomes a film. That's not the question is a question eventually, but that has that comes down after you 20:35 found success with the thing that you are pursuing it in love with and then we have a games team that is constantly developing the way our television 20:44 or films teams are so I think across these different, you know parts of our company everyone's operating from that same principle. What would be fun 20:52

and then, you know down the line with success Keys figure out ways to exploit it. But I think it's that that is all true. I think that the 21:00 question really is. What's the the mothership? What's the what is the thing that you're doing? And if the project is a film or a series 21:10 that the work that needs to get done in that is typically so focused and so intense that the idea of what is the ancillary product? What is the 21:19 marketing, you know peace that we need? What is the as we've all seen any of us who are Gamers know that most games that 21:29

come from films report for series don't work feel like they're kind of corporate choices in an Altima lease would have attempted of a cash grab and 21:39 exploiting up. Then I pee is opposed to something that had its own heartbeat and at the end of the day that the people are making it. So as long as 21:49 you have a person or people who are behind something at end and they're worthy of the job. You know, then the thing has a shot. It's 21:58 when someone is is taking it as a job or a mandate to make a game based on that thing or short form of whatever it is. It's almost never ever ever 22:08

going to work. And I think that the one of the issues that we've had the company until now and just signed a deal with with Warner media and their 22:18 minority investor in in the gaming companies. Well that we now have an opportunity to not works siloed. We just have a TV deal at Warner is 22:27 in a featured deal at another Studio, but now we're all Under One Roof. So the opportunity whether it's in music and games TV film to 22:37 be able to have people hearing at the very early stages what's happening off. The music is reactive thing. You know, what movie is written scenes are 22:47

cut and then music of placed but they have music early on there are some people just record time take for his German director. He like that he Rights 22:56 in the record of the Floor cast of his his scores before he shoots doesn't always need to happen doesn't Waze work, but that's the idea of having 23:06 music actually influence in a positive way the creative process for or sometimes visual effects were weird design production design. So we're trying 23:14 to within the different divisions find the heartbeats of different projects so that if something does feel like that could co-exist as a game for 23:22

those worthy projects to allow the thing that kind of split and become twins or triplets and not just have a deep. You know, that was my question. 23:32 What is a picture soundtrack while they're making their shampoo, where are their creative process? Okay, so I want to hit one last big important topic 23:41 before we go which is located on the co-founders and Times of the many many co-founder of the many many many men are in the room here today and we 23:51 have a lot of the co-founders here in the room. So, you know, it's it's been 23:59

And an inspiration to me as a friend I give her more credit than she likes to take for really getting me to ask for 24:09 Less permission and more for more forgiveness. So I'm I'm just know we have and I need to reach her a lot about gender equity and I worry that people 24:19 are becoming numb to it. And then we need or burst of energy to just do a little bit more whenever we have those that energy into be kind to 24:27 ourselves. So can you can blow up whatever you want to on this topic, but maybe give us a burst of energy. How do you be a male Ally which one little 24:35

thing people can do give me some inspiration around this. Do you asking to mail a liar liar blow it up where we want to start. 24:43 Here's the thing. This is not complicated. This is about intention and prioritization. 24:56 So if you're a founder or CEO and you your board is one that is all mail or 25:05 an especially all white male, then don't talk publicly about how much you believe in gender Equity or racial Equity or anything else. Cuz if you 25:15 want me if you believed in it If This Were a value for you your board wouldn't look like it does and if you're bored does look like it does and you're 25:25

starting to think about shit. I want to start to address this then take a deep breath hang a lantern on the fact that you're beginning the journey and 25:33 be okay with that because we all start from completely just like a very disappointing play as if you're a 25:42 white person who has any kind of You know leadership privilege any kind of resource, you have to 25:51 start to think about the ways in which you inherited that and the ways in which you use that so begin where you are and then start so that's the 26:01

nicest way I can stay and I know we want to create a warm pool and the warm pool is begin it. Is there many of us out there who are ready to help you 26:11 and create a structure and a set of tactics to get there. Can you give everyone permission to make mistakes? Like it's not something you can do it. 26:21 Yes, you can make the steak before we all make mistakes. It's not about that. But I also think you can't just like worry about making a mistake. You 26:29 have a you have tactics for every other business outcome you want to reach so have one for this part because in 20 years were going to be a majority 26:36

non-white country forget about the global audience that you have this diverse. If you don't have boards and Leadership teams and programmers and 26:46 everyone else that look like the word. You're just going to miss a ton of shit. It's just a it's unavoidable. So. 26:52 One quick thing I'll share with you. And then our mail Ally on stage will give his 27:02 completely bullshit. I'm just going to stay at Rooney 27:08 Rule. Okay, that makes a lot of people pass himself in the back and that is so I'm sure many of you know, if the NFL when there's an open position you 27:17

need to hire you need to recruit or interview one woman or person of color for the position that's open. So obviously we know that's ridiculous 27:25 and that's not a standard at all. And the fact that it's been celebrated as long as it has speaks to the status quo in its power. That my broad show, 27:34 excuse me hear Bad Robot rule that we created is super easy steal it and call it your own recruit and in proportion 27:43 to the population. So every time there's a job opening or position on your board 50% of the people you see should be women and at least 40% if not 27:53

more. People of color you it changes everything always hire the best person blah blah blah, but if you are not having candidate 28:02 that are representative of the country in the place in the world that you're living in then you are absolutely not getting the best of the Town pool 28:11 that's out there and I will say that when we started doing this we made it up five or seven years ago. I don't even know we're terrible is metrics 28:19 overfed for this conversation. We did not have a company that looks like the world so we changed our recruiting and our goal was only ever to just 28:26

make sure that we saw everybody and then gets the best of it and I will say that today over 50% of the leadership of our country company are women 28:36 that 55% of our company or women that 48% of our company or people will call her right now and that happened not because your ringer 28:45 hands are worried about getting it wrong, but because we just put something into place. It's just a tactic and it's a process and it will change your 28:55 business. Make your culture everything it isn't right now and that it could be and you will be grateful and you don't and then you don't have to be 29:02

scared. You just have to say thank you a lot.. KJ bring us home with some 29:09 sort of the Allies ship. Try to be funny. I left it. Just marry Katie McGrath. It'll all work out 29:19 and say if you do the thing if you just start doing it and to be in meetings 29:26 it it makes me emotional actually to be in meetings and look around and see people who were never on a usual suspects list. They were never people 29:36 that you would think would normally have this job there and they're not be able to put they were a the best people they were great and they were there 29:44

because we made sure they had a shot and 2 to see this company and my way to see how much it means I can't tell you how many people comment 29:50 on the fact that our company looks like the world and and it's something that you know, we're always trying to figure out what did we screw up lately. 29:59 How do we fix that thing that we didn't do quite right in? Okay, but the truth is to be in conversation to specially when they're about that were all 30:08 talking at a certain point about about user interface whether it's a product of a piece of software a film The Show. It's always how does a human 30:16

interface with the thing when you have people that don't look like you whatever you look like and you're sitting around this table you are 30:26 going to hear points of you, especially if you encourage and really anyone in this room. I think we all forget sometimes the power of our boys and 30:36 it's really important to remember that you have to remind people again and again do not hesitate to call me out. Do not try don't worry about 30:45 embarrassing me like be tough being the person that you you don't want representing you and your point of view, but to be in a room with people who 30:52

are suddenly bringing up ideas or issues or things that you never would have thought about it is invaluable and it and it stays you so much money and 31:02 so much time because you're getting that kind of point of view there at the beginning of the Inception of the thing as opposed to down the line. The 31:12 thing is been developed and suddenly people are even more reluctant to share. The point of you or your your public tells you and them in a horrible 31:19 way. Just how wrong the thing you did was. So I just I can't tell you how much it's benefited our business by having the people that we have at our 31:28

company and I could not be more grateful to them and the Katy cuz I would not have even known how important it was if I hadn't heard from you. Thank 31:36 you guys you guys there. 31:44

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