The Next Big Thing

Online dating. "The Lion King." Social media. Charlie Fink '81 has made a career of uncovering the next big thing.

by Sally Ann Flecker

This summer, before the one-woman musical production Mata Hari in 8 Bullets could open at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, Charlie Fink ’81 had to haul the show’s set from Washington, DC, to New York in his van. It’s a menial task—not one you’d expect the show’s producer to take on. But Charlie Fink is not one to stand on formalities. A job needs to be done, he’ll do it, whether it’s finding a venue for a reading, holding the hand of a struggling artist, or sweeping the floor after a performance. He’s a get-it-done kind of guy.

There was no map for the creative life that Charlie Fink was going to embark upon—all he had was the feeling that he had to do things differently. If everybody else was zigging, he had to zag.

The man has loved musicals since he was little, largely due to his mother, who was a bit of a distracted diva. A former state tennis champion, she threw herself wholeheartedly into golf and competitive tennis, and a singing telegram company she started called Witty Ditty. She was away from home a lot, leaving Fink and his brother to be raised by housekeepers. But when she was present, her attention was sunshine. She had creative and interesting ideas. One of her favorites: dressing the boys up and putting on shows.

She’s the one who understood Fink when he went off to school, wanting to make a life in the arts. His father, a dentist, bah-humbugged the idea, causing friction between the two that would take years to erase. He thought Fink should follow a practical career path, but young Charlie didn’t want what his father had—a lucrative career that sapped the very energy out of him, leaving room for little else.

There was no map for the creative life that Charlie Fink was going to embark upon—all he had was the feeling that he had to do things differently. If everybody else was zigging, he had to zag. For most people, that vague sense would not be enough of a formula for success. But Fink turned that determination into a shrewd sensitivity for where the future lay.

Charlie Fink likes to quote hockey great Wayne Gretsky: “I don’t skate to where the puck is. I skate to where the puck is going to be.”

He landed a job at Disney just before the animation studio entered its second golden era. He foresaw that the Internet would become a player in the entertainment business and got in on the ground floor of America Online, guiding its early efforts to create original content. His latest start-up is a social discovery network hoping to rival Facebook. Have you heard of erodr yet? Fink is betting that you will. And when it comes to predicting the future, Charlie Fink is usually right.

Of Mouse and Man

With a graduate degree in filmmaking from the Art Institute of Chicago in his pocket, Fink scored an interview to be an assistant junior executive for Peter Schneider, the head of Disney Animation. He did this by professing two things: He had studied animation, and he had written his thesis on Walt Disney.

That happened to be horse feathers. But Fink wears that bit of dishonesty like a badge of honor, because of its outrageousness, because it makes a good story. At the same time, he tries to argue that there was a “truthiness” to the tale that absolves him. Because having made the claim, Fink set out to make it as true as possible.

He credits Sarah Lawrence for teaching him how to learn, how to meet the unique demands of any subject—and he deployed that skill to learn all he could about Disney. He called his wife, Jane, who was teaching painting at Cal State, and had her bring home every book in the library on Walt Disney. He spent the entire weekend cramming. He watched 20 movies on VHS, read six books.

And it worked. He aced the interview. It was late 1985. He was 25 years old and ensconced at one of the most famous movie studios in the world.

Most of Fink’s friends thought he was off his rocker to go to Disney. The Art Institute was a serious avant-garde school. His buddies there were experimental filmmakers, scratching negatives, dipping them in paint. Plus, Disney’s golden age was long past. What kind of career move was that? But what Fink loved most about filmmaking was the storytelling. He saw Disney as a great opportunity to explore. And he knew two things: his art school background made him unique, and his ability to learn would make him stand out.

By the way, being hired at Disney went a long way in smoothing out Fink’s bristly relationship with his father. Fink says, “It’s funny, but he was partly proud of the fact that I did it without connections, that I had just figured it out on my own. Because he thought in show business, you get somewhere because you know someone.”

Once at Disney, Fink really had to become an expert. He initiated a big study of the animated movies. “I looked at everything in the archives. I broke it down scene by scene. I made a giant chart comparing them all.” He ascertained that Disney Animation was really a repertory company making musicals. “I don’t think Walt and the animators were really conscious of what they were doing,” he says. “Walt was an incredibly intuitive artist. He had no formal training as a storyteller.”

"I could have gone back to animation with my tail between my legs. Instead, I decided to leave."

Disney Animation was gearing up for its revival. This would become the era of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Little Mermaid, and Fink, who was able to articulate his insights into the classic films, had an important role in ushering in this new age. “When I first came to Disney, I was like a director that got a job as an executive,” he says. But he came to understand that his most important contributions lay in guiding the projects and fostering an environment where the writers and artists could work most creatively. “I can help them. I can collaborate with them. I can edit them,” he says. “I can’t do what they do.”

That realization came at around the same time that Fink had one of the best ideas for which he has received the least recognition. By this time vice president of creative affairs, Fink pitched ideas relentlessly. One day he came to the table with the idea of making Bambi in Africa. “It’s a movie about a son replacing the father. I said, ‘Let’s just do those scenes with lions. We’ll get Ladysmith Black Mambazo, who is big in alternative world music, to do the music.’ Jeffrey”—Studio Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who oversaw the animation division— “said, ‘If you can figure out why Bambi eats the other animals, you might have a picture.’”

That idea became The Lion King, one of Disney’s most beloved films. (The answer to why Bambi eats the other animals, of course, is the “Circle of Life.”) The film would never have existed if not for Charlie Fink. “And for my sins, they promoted me to the live-action side of the company, where I had a giant sign on my back: Animation Hot Shot, Kick Me.”

In truth, Fink had begged for the opportunity, feeling that the move would be a gateway toward running his own studio. “I had a lot of success as an animation executive, and I built up quite a good reputation in Hollywood,” he says. “I felt I could be somebody. So I forced them to move me to live-action. This was a miscalculation on my part.”

Fink oversaw the production of another much-loved film, the talking dogs and cat adventure Homeward Bound. He learned that cats will do anything as long as it involves food, but quit working as soon as they’re full. He learned that dogs work for affection, so they’ll go until they drop, if you let them. And he learned that the politics in the live-action division were complex and nasty, as was the competition for attention between executives. “I was no longer someone who was irreplaceable,” he says. “After two years in live-action, I was done. I could have gone back to animation with my tail between my legs. Instead, I decided to leave the studio. I was hurt, and my champions didn’t protect me. It took away my desire to stay there.”

Net Prophet

Charlie Fink loves quotes. For years he’s collected pithy sayings, witticisms, and words of wisdom. Seventeen years ago, he formalized his diversion with a Web site, Charlie Fink’s Quote-o-rama, where you can sign up for his “quote of the week” e-mails. If you search the site by author, you can find the words of Charles Lindberg, Charles Dickens, Charles M. Schultz, and—bless his shaven bald head—Charlie Fink himself. “Money doesn’t care who has it,” he has said at one time or another, and, “Unless you are willing to walk away from a deal, you’re not negotiating, you’re begging.” Charlie Fink is no enigma. He’s right there in front of you, delightfully unapologetic.

Fink left Disney in 1992 to run a small digital media company, Virtual World Entertainment. “It was my instinct that the video game business was going to be bigger than the movie business,” he says. “My sense was that if pop culture from the ’40s to the ’90s was dominated by the motion picture and television business, in the coming decades it was going to be defined by personal computing and the Internet. Which, of course, turned out to be totally true.”

Once again, everyone thought he was crazy. Charlie, it’s a bad idea, they told him. Remember Pong? “Five years later they were all saying, ‘How did you do it?’”

Fink’s unique resumé caught the attention of America Online, which wanted someone with experience in the entertainment industry. In 1995 he became chief creative officer of AOL’s Greenhouse Networks, an incubator for creating original content. Fink hatched ideas like Santa’s Home Page, where kids could e-mail a letter to Santa Claus, and Love@AOL, which was eventually sold, merging with Match.com.

While the association with AOL didn’t exactly make him an Internet tycoon, he doesn’t have to worry much about money now. “We met in art school,” says Jane Fink. “You just never thought that you would have financial security when you take that path.” Financial success has helped Charlie express his natural generosity, she thinks. She mentions that a while back, he took off more than six months to hang out with a friend, their son’s piano teacher, who was dying of cancer. Whether it was taking him to doctor’s visits or just watching television with him, he made it his priority.

“He tends often to do the right thing at his own expense,” Jane says. “His success comes from being brash, being willing to try something new and work really, really hard to get up to speed. But it’s not like he’s super-competitive or steps on other people’s toes … It’s more his own creative energy and hard work. He can turn on the opinionated big Charlie, but the real him is a lot more introspective and kindhearted than that.”

“He’s a champion of artists, he’s a champion of ideas. ... It's a very unique skill."

Last fall, he was looking around for a new venture when he happened to talk to an old friend, Andy Halliday. He asked Halliday about his unusual e-mail address—erodr.com. Erodr is a closed-circuit social-discovery network, available only to students of the same college. They can post public comments, but the responses are private. And all posts eventually disappear—forever. For college students, who might post an impetuous message that could make them look bad to a future employer, it offers a safer alternative to Facebook. By the end of the conversation, Fink, who remembered a recent post by his son that he thought unwise, wanted in.

He invested money as well as taking on the executive vice president role—which in a start-up means he’s raising venture capital, creating the marketing manual, developing relationships on college campuses, and storing promotional T shirts in his basement. Erodr launched successfully on the University of Missouri campus late 2012. In August, the company went nationwide.

Curtain Call

For all his time and success in digital media, Fink had never forgotten how much he had loved rolling up his sleeves to work with the creative team in animation. He decided to replicate it—in his own Charlie Fink kind of way—with theatre.

In Washington, DC, he created the not-for-profit New Musical Foundation, where he is the producing artistic director. The foundation underwrites and produces readings, workshops, and festival productions, the costs of which are more typically borne by the artists themselves. While erodr remains his day job, theatre is the work of his heart. Last year’s production of Baby Case won every major award at the 2012 New York Musical Festival. “And it couldn’t have happened without me. I love to be needed,” Fink says.

“Charlie’s biggest strength is he’s a champion,” says Peter Schneider, Fink’s former boss at Disney Animation, who reunited with him to direct Mata Hari. “He’s a champion of artists, he’s a champion of ideas. We all feel we are surrounded by someone who cares and believes in what we’re doing. It’s a very unique skill.”

Fink would agree. “People have said to me why theatre? You can’t make any money doing theatre. And it’s true, theatre does not give you a living,” he says. “Theatre gives you a life.” Once again, he’s carved out a place that’s all his own.

Sally Ann Flecker, who was enchanted by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella but never recovered from the death of Old Yeller, has relished many cozy hours snuggled with her boys watching The Lion King and Homeward Bound. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where she is now a card-carrying member of Charlie Fink’s Quote-of-the-Week club.