Disney rivals seem to have been slipped a Mickey

SLUMPED IN THEIR SEATS in the Disney screening room, Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were in a deep funk. They had just screened an ill-conceived sword-and-sorcery epic called “The Black Cauldron,” an animated picture that managed not to work on any level. The big question: Should the studio abandon its once-revered animation department, thus throwing out the expensive baby along with the mythic bath water? Or should it start a slow, painful, expensive rebuilding process?

This was the decision looming over Eisner and Katzenberg a decade ago, just after they’d taken over the top positions at Disney. They had just departed Paramount, a hot studio that was rolling in money. Disney, by contrast, had not only run out of money; it had also run out of ideas.

The final decision, of course, was to rebuild — ultimately one of the momentous moves of modern showbiz history. If you don’t believe that, take a look at the mind-bending numbers generated by “The Lion King,” which roared past the $ 100 million mark in its first 20 days. Or take a look at the estimated $ 350 million profit before taxes registered by “Beauty and the Beast”– and that doesn’t include the amazing results of the Broadway version of that film.

DISNEY’S RUNAWAY SUCCESS in animation has been the key element in the company’s continuing profitability, but it also points up one of Hollywood’s abiding mysteries. To wit: Whatever happened to the competition? How did it happen that, in all this time, not a single rival studio has mounted a vigorous animation program? The question is examined in a page one article in today’s Variety.

To realize the magnitude of the gaffe, consider the following:

  • Rival studios have dabbled in animation for years, but on a hit-or-miss basis. In 1986 Universal had success with its Steven Spielberg project, “An American Tail,” and even did a sequel, but that studio never set out to build on that success. As late as 1993 Spielberg tried again with his animated dinosaur epic “We’re Back,” which flopped. So much for the Spielberg brand name.

  • Powerhouse Warners, always a fierce rival of Disney, owned some marvelous cartoon franchises like Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, and even challenged Disney with its alternative animated TV block, but again, never managed to generate an ongoing feature animation effort.

What rival studios have been concentrating on instead are their live-action projects — an effort that has proved as chancy for Disney as for the rest of the industry. The trouble with live action is that production budgets keep soaring and stars keep demanding more money and a bigger piece of the action.

NOT SO WITH ANIMATION. Even in terms of domestic gross alone, forgetting the rich ancillary markets, the numbers are astounding: “Aladdin” generated $217 million, “Snow White” $175 million, “Beauty and the Beast” $146 million, and so on. And none of the dwarfs, beasts or flying carpets claimed a penny of the net profits or first-dollar gross.

If animation is such a fabulous industry, where is everyone else? If you want to get some answers, I can tell you who not to ask. The folks sitting atop the Disney pyramid, for example, won’t breathe a word. “There are too many people who already know too much about our business,” says one studio topper, an edge of paranoia creeping into his voice.

You can save your time by not trying to talk to anyone at Warners, either. “No one wants to say nothing,” snapped the official spokesman for the studio, which, of course, has given Disney a better run for its money in the area of retail stores than it has in animation.

The reason everyone is so shy is easy to understand. Disney has enjoyed a billion-dollar bonanza over the last five years alone from the animation business. The numbers are downright embarrassing to the competition, who have stood by and watched.

Which brings us back to the central question: Why?

One reason is that animation requires careful long-term planning. “Studios are accustomed to operating on a whim,” says the chief of one huge showbiz company. “The animation business is like finding a giant gorilla, then showing up each day with enough bananas, then finding some other gorillas. It takes patience and dedication.”

A second reason relates to executive tenure. A studio chief who knows he’ll only get a few times at bat isn’t going to invest his time plus millions of dollars on an animation program that may pay off five years down the road.

THEN THERE’S THE QUESTION of management. Warners reportedly has searched high and low for an executive to spearhead its animation effort. “That’s the wrong tack,” says a Disneyite, gloating perhaps. “They need producers and creative people, not suits.” Significantly, Warners has quietly begun stocking up on producers and creative people lately.

Finally, there’s the question of brand name and tradition. “At the risk of sounding spooky,” says one veteran of the animation field, “the animation gods keep smiling on Disney. It may be the ghosts of Mickey and Donald, or old Walt himself. But whatever they try seems to work.”

Old Walt would surely be smiling in his grave if he knew that the Eisner-Katzenberg regime, with all its high concepts, lofty financial maneuverings and hard-sell merchandising, still owes its good karma to an errant band of cartoon characters skittering across the screen.

There’s more than a little symbolism in the fact that Mickey himself will appear in some new cartoon shorts next year — the studio assures us he’ll be a livelier, more pro-active Mickey, not the milquetoast he became in the late 1940 s. Walt would like that, too. Because, in then end, it’s Mickey, Donald and their heirs who really hold the keys to the magic kingdom.

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