Fear and loathing in the Magic Kingdom

Fear and loathing in the Magic Kingdom

ALL ACROSS CORPORATE AMERICA, CEOs are preaching the gospel of “branding.” The key to success is to create a product or a corporate name that resonates strongly in the public’s psyche. For proof that branding is the gateway to marketing miracles, just look at Disney, the mother of all brand names.

Take, for example, last week’s developments at the Mouse House. It was basically just another tranquil interlude at this mecca of family values.

The company released 100,000 copies of a rock album called “The Great Milenko,” created by a fun group called Insane Clown Posse. When Disney discovered that the hip-hop album contains enough obscenities to embarrass Dr. Dre, it decided to pull the album, thus eating as much as $1.5 million of its investment.

Executives at Disney-owned ABC were trying to sort out the sudden downsizing of Jamie Tarses, the 33-year-old programming chief, who had to learn from press reports that she had become the subordinate to Stuart Bloomberg, another programming “suit” from New York.

Depositions were flying between attorneys for Michael Eisner and deposed Disney president Jeffrey Katzenberg over their $250 million lawsuit — litigation which has taken on a higher level of angst in Disney’s post-Ovitzian climate.

Oh, and even as the Southern Baptists mobilize their boycott against Disney in response to alleged homophilia, and the National Hispanic Media Coalition boycotts in response to “discriminatory” hiring practices, there are rumbles from those on the left who take issue with the perceived right-wing subtext of “Hercules.” What sort of message will “Hercules” give children, they ask, when Charlton Heston, that Moses-turned-NRA icon, delivers homilies enshrining a white heterosexual who saves the lives of wimpy damsels in distress?

ALL OF WHICH RAISES some interesting questions: Is Disney going to remain the mother of all brand names, or, as some suggest, should it be renamed The Island of Doctor Morose? Why is it that the supposedly tranquil Mouse House always seems to be under siege?

To help answer that, let me shift back to my very first meeting with The Man himself, Walt Disney. When I initially came out to Hollywood as a West Coast correspondent for the New York Times, I was fortunate enough to spend some time with Old Walt. Despite the revisionist teachings about his autocratic manner and crypto-fascist ideology, I found him gracious, witty and quite eager to guide me through his then only semi-Magic Kingdom. Indeed, Walt was a far more ingratiating spokesman than any subsequent corporate officer.

But he was still Old Walt. Over lunch at the commissary one day, I made the mistake of asking him a question about his upcoming slate of animated pictures. Walt started to answer, then hesitated and told me, “To give you a real answer, I need to check some figures. Do you mind if I call over my Jew?”

He was indicating an elderly gentleman seated a few tables away who I assumed was his financial vice president. There didn’t seem to be anything malevolent in Walt’s designation of his “numbers guy” — he clearly couldn’t recall his name. Though this was well before the P.C. era, I winced at the prospect of Walt Disney summoning his “Jew” across the commissary, so I said, “Let’s move on to another topic,” and the conversation shifted quickly.

I do not relate this story to impugn the memory of Walt Disney.

But my early experiences with Walt preconditioned me to accept the corporate neurosis confronting present-day Disney. Here it is — the greatest brand name when it comes to selling animated movies and videos and luring children the world over to its theme parks. At the same time, Disney is an aggressive, quarrelsome and often ill-mannered multinational corporation that seems to have a gift for sparking controversy. Take the Ovitz affair. Or the handling of the Tarses situation. Or the recurring sparks flying from the Miramax relationship. Or last week’s flap over Insane Clown Posse.

If this represents life in the Magic Kingdom, I’d prefer to live in downtown Beirut.

Exacerbating the problem, the entity known as “corporate headquarters” does little to calm the waters. Michael Eisner places a low priority on his press relations, for example. He’s the only corporate chieftain whose PR man has a permanent “no comment” tape playing on his answering machine. The diplomatic, silver-tongued Joe Roth deals eloquently with strategy about motion pictures, but warily avoids corporate politics. A conversation with Sandy Litvack, the top corporate figure under Eisner in the post-Frank Wells era, is akin to poking one’s head in an oven.

ALL OF WHICH IS PERFECTLY FINE, except that it underscores some important questions: Can the sanctity of a brand name like Disney survive over time in this noisy, roilsome landscape? Is it realistic for a multinational corporation with interests in every facet of production and distribution to create and sustain the purity of a brand name, or will all the brands end up banging up against each other — the rap albums against the G-rated pics, the edgy arthouse releases against the kiddie merchandise?

If old Walt Disney were still around, I think he’d be worried. He might even call over his “Jew” … and figure out how to sell off a few subsidiaries.

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