Walt Disney Goes Back to the Future
By Dick Rolfe, chairman – The Dove Foundation
The financial world has been buzzing with amazement as the Walt Disney Company announced on January 19th it planned to acquire Pixar Animation Studios. A Merrill Lynch stock analyst summarized the views of many on Wall Street. “We view the Disney-Pixar combination as a near perfect strategic fit,” she wrote. “Pixar’s family-oriented content meshes well with Disney’s brand and is an important cog in its theatrical/home video distribution, theme parks and consumer products divisions.”
Walt would be thrilled if he could witness this new direction that his namesake company is taking. This so-called new direction is actually a returning to the original vision he embraced when launching his family entertainment empire way back in the 1920’s. From humble beginnings in 1923, the Walt Disney Company became synonymous with high quality, wholesome, family-friendly, entertainment.
Always on the cutting edge of technology, Mr. Disney and his fledgling animation company produced the first ever synchronous sound cartoon in 1932, “Steamboat Willy” starring Mickey Mouse. The idea that make-believe cartoon characters could talk, play instruments, and move to a musical beat was considered nothing short of magical.
Next, Walt took his craft to a new level, going beyond black and white cartoon shorts. The first-ever color cartoon was “Flowers and Trees” (1932) which won him his first of many Academy Awards. The first-ever feature length fully animated film was “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” released in 1937 at an unprecedented cost of $1.5 million…in the midst of the Depression.
During the next five years, Walt Disney Studios completed four more full-length animated classics; “Pinocchio,” “Fantasia,” “Dumbo,” and “Bambi”.
From 1937 until 1989, The Walt Disney Studios made 28 feature length animated films using the traditional method of hand inking and painting on clear cellulose acetate, called a cel. The average Disney film made during that period contains over 50,000 individual drawings or cels.
Beginning with “The Rescuers Down Under” in 1990, the company switched from cel animation to a new computerized system, called “CAPS,” which stands for Computerized Animation Production System.
About that time, something inside the Mouse Factory began to change. New management under Michael Eisner and Frank Wells, made some drastic decisions that arguably improved the stock value of the company, but moved the company into a new arena of filmmaking that tarnished its squeaky clean reputation.
Here is Disney’s official account of those transitional years.
“Moviemaking also was changing in America in the early 1980s. Audiences were diminishing for the family films that had been the mainstay of the company for many years, and Disney was not meeting the competition for films that attracted the huge teenage and adult market.”
The Eisner/Wells duo orchestrated several moves away from the traditional Disney fare in an attempt to reach that “huge teenage and adult market.” They launched Touchstone Pictures in 1984 followed by Hollywood Pictures. Under the guise of a new brand, Disney began producing more adult-oriented, “edgy” movies like, “Pretty Woman” and “Good Morning Vietnam,” (both R-rated) and their first animated movie for adults, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
The decision to add a wider selection of films for a wider audience seemed on the surface to be a wise one. Eisner and Wells further diversified the Disney product line in an attempt to appeal to an even more sophisticated audience. They acquired Miramax Films, a studio known for releasing risky, often risqué movies. To the stock holder, Eisner was quick to take credit for expanding the reach and market value of the company. At the same time he tried unsuccessfully to distance the Disney Family brand from its “more mature” siblings in the minds of the theater-going public. Nearly everyone made the connection, however, and the Disney organization was becoming embroiled in controversy.
In the following years, Disney’s stock value began to decline radically. Due to rising financial pressures from without and political pressures from within, the nearly abandoned Animation Division was re-born in 1989 under the combined direction of Roy Disney and Jeffrey Katzenberg who never lost faith in the value of an audience for animated films.
With the new, more efficient technique of CAPS animation, the original Disney franchise of wholesome family movies began to regain its foothold as the studio released a torrent of box office successes at the rate of nearly one film a year. The string of hits began with “Beauty and the Beast,” in 1991, followed by “Aladdin” in 1992, and “The Lion King” in 1994, which soon became one of the highest-grossing films of all-time. They were followed by “Pocahontas” in 1995, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” in 1996, “Hercules” in 1997, “Mulan” in 1998, “Tarzan” in 1999, and “Fantasia/2000.”
Then, in another technological paradigm shift, a small company called Pixar, launched by Apple co-founder Steve Jobs brought a new, innovative style called 3D animation to the big screen. Pixar and Disney quickly became joined at the hip and together they released a string of 28 box office extravaganzas, beginning with “Toy Story” in 1995 and ending with “Cars” due to be released on June 9th of this year.
Mr. Eisner left the company with some damage in the wake of his departure. Most significant was a fractured relationship with Pixar that looked like the two companies were destined to go their separate ways for good.
Now, the reigns have been turned over a new man with a new (old) plan for the company. Soon after he took over the helm at Disney, Robert A. Iger, 54, President and CEO was quoted as saying that one of his highest priorities was to get the two animation giants “back on track.”
Mr. Iger recently made an extraordinary announcement that Walt Disney Company would acquire Pixar Animation Studios for an unprecedented 7.4 billion (with a “B”) dollars. Not a bad return for Steve Jobs, who purchased the fledgling computer animation division of Lucas Films, Ltd. in 1986 for ten million (with an “M”) dollars.
The combination of these two animation giants, coupled with the selling off of Miramax Studios, brings the Walt Disney Company back as the undisputed world leader of wholesome, family-friendly animated films! This is good news for the kids of the present and future and their worried parents who are anxiously trying to protect their innocent charges from an onslaught of unsavory entertainment content. Hopefully, the new, retooled Walt Disney Company will help to reinforce a message most parents communicate to their children; in the words of a popular Sunday school song, “Be careful little eyes what you see.”
Today, The Walt Disney Company, together with its subsidiaries, operates as a megalithic entertainment company whose influence reaches around the world. It operates in four segments: Media Networks, Parks and Resorts, Studio Entertainment, and Consumer Products. It is one of the six most powerful entertainment conglomerates in the world!
Power in the right hands can be a good thing. Let’s hope this is the case with the new and powerful hands that guide the Walt Disney Company.
The Dove Foundation is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization. Our mission is to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment. We are supported primarily by donations from families such as yours who want to move Hollywood in a more family-friendly direction. All donations are tax deductible.