Disney Wannabes Play Copycat-And-Mouse

If animators were asked to pen a melodrama about the state of their industry, they might call it “Lessons of the Fall.” While several major studios and a host of independents are trying to beat Disney at the animation game-not to mention raiding its creative staff-the attacks so far have been Lilliputian. Now the competition is changing battle plans.

Meanwhile, Disney’s Burbank rival, Warner Bros., waits in the wings-as does former Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose new company plans to create its own animated features.

Disney’s Nov. 18 re-release of “The Lion King” eviscerated the theatrical runs of animated upstarts like Turner/Fox’s “The Pagemaster” and New Line/Nest’s “The Swan Princess.” Those pix had grossed less than $11 million each after the Christmas holiday weekend.

Rival studios and animation houses were left with two caveats among the carrion: Keep release dates flexible and treat animated development as a primary, not ancillary, business.

Another hard lesson: MGM, Turner, Fox, Warner Bros, and independent animation companies all agree that trying to create knockoffs of Disney fare is no longer the way to go. But no one has quite figured out a new way to skin the Mouse.

“Fairy tale is a dirty word in animation now,” says Terry Thoren, who founded the Intl. Tournee of Animation and joined Emmy Award-winning Klasky Csupo this November. Their aim: to move Klasky Csupo, which created the animated TV series “Rugrats,” into feature production.

Thoren says those who try to ape Disney are doomed to failure, and he suggests trying to create a cutting-edge niche. Among the major efforts to create a cutting-edge competitor to Disney’s Big Mac:

* Fox, which in the final weeks of 1994 inked a multimillion-dollar development deal with “Beavis and Butt-Head” creator Mike Judge, has established an animation facility in Phoenix headed by Don Bluth, Disney’s most famous renegade alumnus.

* Later this year, MGM/TJA will unveil several Pink Panther shorts along with a feature film, “The Pebble and the Penguin,” inspired by the mating ritual of the Adeli penguin.

* Turner is in production on “Cats Don’t Dance,” a film whose look owes more to the dark passages of a graphic novel than to the funny papers. That pic has songs by Randy Newman, who also penned tunes for Disney’s upcoming “Toy Story.”

* Warner Bros, will develop a series of “Hare Jordan” shorts co-starring former basketball star Michael Jordan and Bugs Bunny.

Sources there suggest WB is looking at, among other projects, a long-rumored animated version of 1971’s “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Dating etiquette

The first lesson of last fall-be flexible on release dates-is tough to pull off because animated features have tie-ins with fast food chains, which purchase advertising time separately from studio spots.

These tie-ins create awareness for product, but they also turn animated features into sitting ducks for Disney to pick off with a re-release from its animation library.

“When you announce the release date for your animated film a year in advance and you build your promotions around the date,” points out Nest Prods, exec VP Matt Mazer, “make sure you can read the inscrutable mind of Disney regarding when they plan to re-release The Lion King.'”

Mysterious move

“The Lion King’s” re-release was tentatively scheduled for Thanksgiving, but the release date mysteriously moved up a week to open head-to-head against “The Swan Princess.” “The Pagemaster” was slated to open Thanksgiving, and also was hurt by Disney’s triumphant return to screens the previous week.

Disney execs say they weren’t trying to strangle two infant animation competitors in their cribs. “Our decision had nothing to do with New Line’s or Fox’s decision of when they released their films,” says Peter Schneider, Disney’s president of feature animation. “We were simply trying to maximize the value of our picture regardless of’ ‘The Swan Princess.'”

Nevertheless, other studios entering the animation marketplace have a newfound reverence for the way Disney operates, both as a marketer/distributor and as a developer. Many believe that the studio will continue to reach into its arsenal of classic animated titles when they feel a competitor is close to hitting the market with a viable threat.

MGM is next out of the gate with a major animated release this April. “The Pebble and the Penguin” features the voices of Martin Short, James Belushi, and Tim Curry.

But Donald Mirisch, MGM’s executive VP of animation, acknowledges Disney’s formidable competition: Disney is releasing “The Goofy Movie” the week before, on April 7.

“There is definitely room for other films that deliver the goods creatively,” Mirisch says. “But I have to say that Disney’s marketing machine is incredible. They have so many weapons to choose from, so many titles to draw upon. They’re like the 49ers.”

While MGM is trying to avoid a head-to-head confrontation with Disney, that studio is following Disney’s model by developing its titles internally.

Unlike live-action features, in which scripts, books or pitches are the points of germination, animated features at Disney start with a moral or a message. That moral is then married to a classic myth or fairytale. The resulting storyline is enhanced in-house by executives and animators until some of the main characters are hashed out. Only at that point does the studio hire an outside writing team to attempt a 40-page treatment outlining plot, secondary players and pivotal scenes.

If that myth-in-the-making meets with Disney executives’ approval, the writers then begin the labor-intensive process of working out the script in concert with the film’s directors and animators.

The studio’s collaborative efforts on animation go far beyond development, because the films also drive the studio’s theme parks, merchandising and stores, game and video divisions. Unlike most studios, which treat animation as a secondary component of their business plans, Disney under Katzenberg marshaled every corner of the lot in the service of its animated releases.

Sans Katzenberg

It’s unlikely that Joe Roth, who replaced Katzenberg last September, will change that winning strategy. But Katzenberg’s absence is bound to have some effect on Disney’s cartoon division.

Day-to-day operations continue to be supervised by Schneider and Roy Disney, both of whom may take more of the spotlight-as could the largely anonymous creators of some of those smash hits. Schneider is known as extremely low-key; Roy Disney is featured prominently in the “Making of ‘ Snow White'” video.

Katzenberg now poses a potential threat to Disney’s animation hegemony. The unnamed company he recently formed with David Geffen and Steven Spielberg has announced plans to make animated features. Katzenberg will likely try to recruit from Disney’s creative staff, although any raids could be some time off: Animation is expensive and labor-intensive, and right now Katzenberg* s company is busy seeking credit and opening shop.

Other competitors are girding for fresh battle.

“The audience sent a strong signal to Disney’s competitors this fall,” says Chris Meledandri, president of Fox’s family film division. “The message is to be bold and find filmmakers with a strong vision-then take a chance on something that is not a proven success.”

Disney’s “Pocahontas,” a politically correct retelling of the first Thanksgiving, hits screens next summer; “Toy Story,” with the voices of Tom Hanks and Tim Allen as toys that battle for a child’s affection, will open either next fall or at Christmas.

Turner and Fox execs say they hope Disney’s development-by-committee system will help their studios lure stars of the animation world. Dennis Miller, president of Turner Pictures Worldwide, points out that the creative team behind “The Lion King”-producer Don Hahn, designer Chris Sanders and directors Roger Allers and Rob Minkoff-” created one of the most profitable films in the history of movie making, and no one knows their names. It’s only slowly unfolding that these animators will be in demand in the marketplace.”

Rex Weiner contributed to this report.

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