Next year, Disney promises, will dwarf all others

WHEN DISNEY EXEX SCAN the box office results for the weekend, they’ll discover an all too familiar good-news-and-bad-news pattern. The studio has another hit on its hands — that’s the good news — but the film in question, “Snow White,” was created half a century ago. Several current Disney films also cling to the charts, but they’re bunched far below the leaders — releases like “What’s Love Got to Do With It,””Guilty as Sin,””Life With Mikey” and “Super Mario Bros.”

Skeptical Disney-watchers are quick to draw conclusions from these results. Once again, they argue, Disney’s season has been salvaged by an animated epic, just as “Aladdin” and “Beauty and the Beast” saved earlier years.

Try this theory on a loyal Disneyite and you get an ardent defense of the studio’s creative zeal. Disney makes money with its live-action films, they insist, albeit less than the bonanza business spawned by cartoon flicks.

Disney exex do acknowledge however that, after a decade in power, the Eisner-Katzenberg regime is in the midst of a period of change and ferment. Past priorities are being discarded; new policies are being mobilized.

Hence the summer of ’93 mirrors more the past than the future.

Where is Disney headed? Talk to key players at the studio and the following highlights emerge:

First, while rival entertainment companies pursue the Time Warner model to become diversified, albeit debt-ridden, hardware-software conglomerates, Disney is determined to become the largest producer of intellectual property in the world. As such, the studio is committed to an astonishing 60-films-a-year release schedule starting in 1994.

Dissatisfied by the sameness and tameness of its own studio-bred films, as well as Hollywood product generally, Disney’s chieftains are determined to foster an eclectic slate of projects. Recent deals with Miramax, Joe Roth, Interscope and Merchant Ivory reflect Disney’s resolve to banish its authoritarian reputation and to relax tightly held creative controls.

The two films that have stirred the biggest reaction from Jeffrey Katzenberg lately, associates note, are “Menace II Society” and “Howards End,” and he’s pursued the Hughes brothers with the same ardor as marked his dealings with Merchant and Ivory.

“No one believes me, but the Disney corporate culture is changing,” says one Disney middle-management exec. “The Sunday morning meetings are over. So are the 18-hour days. You can suddenly get a fair hearing for your opinions.”

While unclogging its creative arteries, Disney is nonetheless intent on fortifying its position as arguably the industry’s most profitable supplier of software. These profits stem not just from the hugely successful animation franchise but also from the studio’s insistence on funding live-action pictures with other people’s money.

One numbers seer estimates Disney’s return on investment last year from non-animated films alone at 11% — a substantial margin by anyone’s reckoning. At the same time, the studio also has steadfastly remained aloof from the megapic business.

“We all marvel at the returns from ‘Jurassic Park,’ but that’s not the business we’re in,” says a top exec. “We simply refuse to be in a position where a single project holds the entire studio hostage.”

Given these objectives, the key questions are if these goals are achievable — and how costly will the transition era prove to be?

Skeptics observe that any decade-old regime becomes entrenched in its ways. Michael Eisner, Katzenberg, Frank Wells and other Disney chieftains have become very wealthy men over the past decade, and with wealth comes rigidity.

YET NO ONE WHO SPENDS TIME with the members of Disney’s top echelon comes away with an impression of smugness or softening of resolve. “This is one of those rare cases where money and success seem to have made them even hungrier,” says one of the town’s important dealmakers. “The Disney boys are as lean and tough as ever.”

Indeed, there seems to be more openness than at any time in the last decade. Agents doing business with the studio find the dealmaking process less gut-wrenching, and there are more ways to beat the system. Joe Roth or Interscope or Andy Vajna’s Cinergi may make a rich deal that the studio’s in-house business affairs exex would scuttle.

Filmmakers, meanwhile, report that studio exex don’t just pay lip service to eclectic projects but also close deals to finance them — hence such films as Wayne Wang’s “The Joy Luck Club” or the Matty Rich project, “Ink Well,” or Merchant Ivory’s “Jefferson in Paris.”

“Everything doesn’t have to be ‘Sister Act II,’ ” says one producer on the lot (the studio plans to release “Sister Act II” during the holidays, to be sure).

The new studio mantra these days holds that “projects that work represent the singular vision of a passionate filmmaker”– a line that is repeated by many of the young exex at the studio. Not only is the Disney system being modified to accommodate these “singular visions,” but members of the Disney development crew have themselves been given sums up to $ 150,000 to implement their own visions.

Again, the objective is to break down the monolithic point of view that has consumed Disney through the past decade, and nurture a sort of creative democracy.

Can it happen? “I have a great respect for Jeff Katzenberg; he’s a great strategist,” says a major league filmmaker who has worked at Disney. “But what Jeff is up against is the simple fact that this is Hollywood in the ’90s and no one wants to take risks. It’s as simple as that.”

“The marketing people are excellent, but they’re all on overload,” complains a Disney filmmaker. “There’s simply too much product even now.”

DISNEY TOPPERS FIERCELY REBUT these theories. “Standing behind our pictures is the key to the whole process,” says one. Miramax alone will account for between 15 and 20 releases a year, and Disney is determined to support what is anticipated to be a truly divergent stream of films.

Even in the tried-and-true area of animation, the studio is determined to innovate. “The Lion King,” slated as next summer’s animation release, will be an entirely new film based on an original story, not a fairy tale. All of its characters are animals, and the music is by Elton John and Tim Rice. Yet another animated feature in the works, “Pocahontas,” will be based on historic characters, not cartoon creatures who live happily ever after. A new world of animation dawns on Disney.

Until these ambitious projects come out of the pipeline, however, the transition process is taking its toll. “What’s Love Got to Do With It” is a film with considerable merit that could still end up making money, but it has failed to find a broad white audience. “Super Mario Bros.” was a crushing disappointment, but Disney had only about $ 10 million in the project. Earlier projects like “Newsies” or “Born Yesterday” had interesting premises but turned out not to be especially entertaining.

Disney is convinced it can do better — indeed, that it will do better in 1994, which top exex predict, with customary bravado, will represent not only the studio’s best year but the best for any studio ever.

And meanwhile Disney will intently pursue its primary goal — to turn out more filmed entertainment than anyone else. “We don’t want to own the pipe,” says one senior exec. “We want to control the oil that flows through the pipe. That’s our long-term aim, and we are confident that we have the resources to achieve it.”

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