Jason Segel was an unlikely candidate to make the deal to reboot The Muppet franchise. Segel, star of the TV show “How I Met Your Mother,” is associated with the Judd Apatow R-rated school of comedy. Not exactly the type of person Walt Disney Studios, who bought the franchise from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, would hand over the keys to the kingdom.

Not much had been heard from the Muppets since the 1990s. Segel and Nicholas Stoller pitched the concept in 2008 for a Muppets film to Disney Executive Vice President of Production Karen Falk. She offered a deal to develop their script and they came up with an old school Muppets movie, where the Muppets have to put on a show to save the studio.

Segel, 32, who says he obsessively watched those three original Muppet films while growing up in Southern California, lobbied hard to co-write and star in the new Muppet film.

Segel told The New Yorker: “There was some worry, I’m sure, that I was doing this with a sense of irony. It took longer than I thought for them to realize: ‘Oh, no, this guy is making a love letter.’”

The Henson crew gave Segel a list of rules, which he refers to as “The Muppet Ten Commandments.” For example, Muppets don’t self identify as puppets. Kermit is a frog and Miss Piggy is a pig, so lose the felt jokes. Another rule is Muppets never lie. That forced Segel to cut out a subplot where Kermit posed as an oil baron.

The film, which was given a modest budget of $50 million, was released in late 2011 and became a hit that grossed $88 million at the box office. Add to that DVD sales (not to mention Muppet merchandise) and you can bet Disney is confident it made the right deal.

Deal Only With the Dealmaker

The key to this franchise reboot was not Segel’s passion for the Muppets, but his ability to convince the executives at Disney that he could be trusted with franchise.

For your next big deal, you’ll need to sell to the executive-level person who has the perspective on the problem you can solve, such as the CEO or other high-level executive officer.  You need someone with a larger budget, more flexibility, and more impact on the entire company.

It breaks down like this:

  1. New Choices Need Muscle to Get Made– In a deal like this one, you need to get the senior person, not an intermediary. Segel went to the top and got the executive sponsor’s attention.
  2. Safe is the New Sexy – The deal got done once the buyer’s understood the outcome would be safe. All interested parties have rules. If you want to win the deal, you have to know the rules and show that your answer isn’t a big gamble, but a safe bet.
  3. Focus on the Influencers – Just because Segel got the sponsor did not mean he’d get the deal. He had to clear a few hurdles on the Henson team. Listening to the feedback, modifying the story to honor the concerns and keeping the influencers in the loop throughout the process kept the movie-making moving.

A good script might not have won the day. Following a map and keeping the right dealmakers involved got a thirty something with little family entertainment credibility the Muppet deal.

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