Reeling through the years
1923Walt E. and Roy O. Disney set up shop on Kingswell Avenue in Los Angeles as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio, after relocating from Kansas City, Mo. The brothers sign a deal with distributor M.J. Winkler to produce a series of live-action/animated shorts adapted from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” stories. 1924 Walt Disney begins to assemble his first team of animators, and sets up a small studio in Hollywood. He persuades his friend, animator Ub Iwerks, to relocate to California. 1926 The studio moves to Hyperion Avenue. 1927 Producer Charles Mintz and Universal Pictures, seeking a new cartoon series, greenlight Disney’s proposed “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit” series. 1928 After a debate over money, Disney ceases production on Universal’s “Oswald” cartoons, relinquishing the ownership of the character to Mintz. Altering the Oswald character some, Disney creates Mickey (originally Mortimer) Mouse, inspired by a pet he had in Kansas City. First Mickey short, “Plane Crazy,” is produced. A second, “Gallopin’ Gaucho,” follows but neither is picked up for distribution. Disney decides to synchronize his third Mickey Mouse cartoon, “Steamboat Willie,“ to sound after the success of “The Jazz Singer.” Still without a distrib, “Steamboat Willie” premieres at New York’s Colony Theater (the manager pays Disney the tidy sum of $1,000 for a two-week run) in November. The short — and Mickey — are instant sensations. Disney signs a distrib deal with cinema audio system Cinephone creator Pat Powers. 1929 Sound is added to the first three produced Mickey cartoons: “Plane Crazy,” “The Gallopin’ Gaucho” and “The Barn Dance.” Walt Disney Enterprises subsidiary is established to handle licensing. The musically based “Silly Symphony” cartoon shorts debut. 1930 Ending its pact with Powers (who hires Iwerks away about the same time), the studio cuts a distrib deal with Columbia Pictures. 1931 “Mickey’s Orphans” and “Silly Symphony” short “Flowers & Trees,“ the studio’s first color cartoon, become the first Disney shorts to win Academy Awards. 1932 Disney cuts ties with Columbia, and inks a new distrib pact with United Artists. 1934 Flush with the success from his shorts, Disney decides to commence production on his first feature-length animation film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” Donald Duck debuts in “The Wise Little Hen” “Silly Symphony” short. 1935 The first Mickey Mouse color cartoon, “The Band Concert,” is released. 1937 “Snow White,” which would become for a time the biggest box-office hit ever (surpassing D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”), grosses $8.5 million — which would translate into several hundred million by today’s standards — and launches Disney’s feature production division. It is also among the first Disney films distributed by RKO in a pact inked the same year. 1940 “Fantasia” marries eight imaginative animated sequences with symphonic music conducted by Leopold Stokowski. The groundbreaking feature earns several critical hosannas (and a special certificate at the 1941 Academy Awards) but doesn’t connect with a wide audience; it would be rediscovered (and embraced) upon re-release in the 1970s by another generation, however. “Pinocchio,“ and its Oscar-winning signature tune “When You Wish Upon a Star,” are immediate audience favorites, though, like “Fantasia,” it falls short of “Snow White” at the box office, despite a bigger budget. Disney begins moving production from its Hyperion Avenue site in Hollywood to Burbank. 1941 “The Reluctant Dragon,“ the studio’s first animation-live-action feature, debuts. At the urging of Nelson Rockefeller, Disney and a crew of animators make a goodwill tour of Latin America. Several shorts and two compilation animated features would result: 1943’s “Saludos Amigos” and 1945’s “The Three Caballeros,” both of which first premiered outside the U.S. Later in the year, “Dumbo” is a modest hit for the studio, winning an Oscar for its score. 1942 “Bambi” debuts, earning raves for its naturalistic animation. Due to rising costs and wartime constraints, it would be Disney’s last single-story animated feature until 1950’s “Cinderella.” 1944 With feature animation production suspended, Disney decides to re-release “Snow White” to theaters to fill the void; its success leads Disney to approve the re-release of its classic animated features every seven years to entertain a new wave of young auds, a system that would later be extended to its homevideo releases. 1946 “Make Mine Music” is the first postwar package film, a compilation of smaller contained cartoons — set to more contemporary music than “Fantasia’s” vignettes. Work is released as a cost-cutting measure. “Song of the South” advances the integration of live actors and animated characters — it is also the closest Disney has come to a fully live-action film (only about a third is animation). Pic also necessitates the employment of Disney’s first contract players: child stars Bobby Driscoll and Luana Patten. 1948 The Oscar-winning nature doc short “Seal Island” launches the “True-Life Adventure” series. 1949 “The Adventures of Ichabod and Mr. Toad” is the last package film released; it pairs a truncated version of a scuttled “Wind in the Willows” full-length pic with a featurette based on Washington Irving’s Headless Horseman tale. 1950 Disney’s first classic animated feature in almost a decade, “Cinderella,“ earns $4 million, the studio’s biggest hit since “Snow White.” Disney produces its first fully live-action feature, “Treasure Island” — the first of four live-action pics shot in the U.K. using “blocked” funds that under British law it wasn’t able to export to the U.S. Disney uses a TV special at Christmastime to promote its upcoming animated feature “Alice in Wonderland,” a first for the studio. 1953 Disney splits with RKO when the distrib balks at releasing the nature doc and first full-length “True-Life Adventure,” “The Living Desert”; Disney creates Buena Vista distrib arm, named after its Burbank street address, and releases “Desert,” which earns a tidy profit. “Peter Pan” performs solidly at the B.O. 1954 The weekly one-hour series “Disneyland” debuts in October on ABC. “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is the most expensive live-action production to date, and the first produced outside the U.K. “Leagues” is also Disney’s first CinemaScope feature. The following year, “Lady and the Tramp” is the studio’s first Scope animated feature. Disney broadcasts an edited version of “Alice in Wonderland,” the first of its features aired on TV; “Treasure Island” would bow on Disney’s television series in 1955. Buena Vista releases its first non-Disney feature production, “Third Man on the Mountain.” 1955 Disneyland, the first of several theme parks, opens in Anaheim, Calif. The popularity of its small-screen “Davy Crockett” series leads to several live-action package films — features knitting together series episodes, the first of which is “Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier.” Some of these package films would only be released theatrically in Europe and Asia. 1957 Disney releases its sole “True-Life Fantasy” feature, “Perri,” about a mischievous squirrel. Pic uses nature documentary-style footage in a fictional storyline. The Robert Stevenson-helmed weepie “Old Yeller” grosses more than $8 million in its initial release and becomes a perennial family favorite. 1959 The studio’s first live-action comedy, “The Shaggy Dog,“ initially developed for TV, is released theatrically, earning more than $12 million and generates two sequels. Studio purchases the 700-acre Golden Oak Ranch north of its Burbank studios to film features and TV series. “Sleeping Beauty,“ Disney’s most expensive ($6 million) animated feature to date, is only a mild hit, and its underperformance tempers a financially robust decade at the studio. The live-action “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” introduces auds to a newcomer named Sean Connery. 1960 Hayley Mills makes her Disney debut in “Pollyanna,” which would earn the actress a special Oscar. She would act as a good-luck charm for the studio, appearing in B.O. hits “The Parent Trap” (1961) and “That Darn Cat” (1965). Among the seven family pics released this year, “Swiss Family Robinson” is another highlight. 1961 The B.O. hit “101 Dalmatians” is the first animated feature to use the “Xerox process” of creating cels; the film’s financial success also ends a long spate of disappointing new toon releases. 1963 Disney releases its first-ever sequels: “Son of Flubber” (after “The Absent-Minded Professor”) and “Savage Sam” (“Old Yeller”). 1964 “Mary Poppins” breaks all records for Disney live-action releases — and earns Disney his first feature picture Academy Award nom (star Julie Andrews wins the actress trophy); it earns 13 nominations, still a record for a Disney film. 1966 Disney dies in December at 65. 1967 “The Jungle Book,“ the last animated film personally supervised by the late Disney, is a smash hit; “The Happiest Millionaire,” the final live-action film produced under Disney’s watch, tanks. 1969 Disney’s live-action comedy “The Love Bug” tops the box office charts for the year, spawning three sequels. 1970 “The Aristocats,“ the first toon feature completed without Disney, hits the theaters at a cost of $4 million. Walt Disney World opens in Orlando, Fla. “Bednobs and Broomsticks” reunites the creative talent behind “Mary Poppins” and wins an Oscar for special effects. 1971 Roy O. Disney dies. 1977 Four years in the making, “The Rescuers” is a solid B.O. performer during a rather fallow period for Disney animation. Disney releases a Winnie the Pooh feature pic comprising three existing Pooh shorts. 1979 BV’s first pickup of the post-Disney era, wrestling comedy “Take Down,” is first film distributed by the studio to carry a PG rating. In December, the expensive sci-fi pic “The Black Hole” is the first inhouse production to carry the rating. “Black Hole’s” weak B.O. performance is offset by a slew of re-released animated and live-action pics, which are often outgrossing the studio’s new releases. 1980 Disney and Paramount co-produce Robert Altman’s “Popeye”; after a second B.O. underperformer, 1981’s “Dragonslayer,” the studios end their joint venture. Walt Disney Home Video launches with the release of 10 live-action features on videocassette including “Mary Poppins.” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Dumbo,” the first toon features on tape and the only ones shown on broadcast TV, hit the shelves in 1981. 1982 “Tron” pushes the computer-generated effects envelope and signals the beginning of the digital revolution, but fails to generate interest among moviegoers. 1983 Ron Miller, Walt Disney’s son-in-law, becomes chief exec and launches the more adult Touchstone Pictures label. The Disney Channel debuts on cable in April. The first direct-to-cable Disney Channel film, “Tiger Town,” starring Roy Scheider, airs — it also gets a cursory theatrical release in Detroit (pic’s setting). 1984 Miller is ousted in a power struggle with Roy E. Disney, son of Ron O., and Michael Eisner is named chairman-CEO, while Frank Wells is tapped president-chief operating officer. Jeffrey Katzenberg is brought aboard as chair of the company’s moviemaking division. “Splash,“ the first pic released by Touchstone, sets an opening-weekend record for BV. 1985 Homevideo arm releases first direct-to-vid release, the dancing drama “Breakin’ Through.” “Pinocchio,” after a successful theatrical re-release, is the first Disney animated “masterpiece” to be released on videocassette. 1986 Touchstone’s “Down and out in Beverly Hills,“ the first pic greenlighted under the Eisner-Wells regime, is BV’s first R-rated release; Touchstone would also release BV’s first PG-13 rated pic, “Adventures in Babysitting,” in 1987. Walt Disney Prods. changes name to the Walt Disney Co. 1987 First Disney Store opens in Glendale, Calif. 1988 Robert Zemeckis’ “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” sets the standard for animated/live-action pics. “Oliver & Co.” is the first Disney pic to use substantial computer-animation technology. 1989 “Dead Poets Society,“ from Touchstone, becomes the second BV film to nab a picture Oscar nomination. “The Little Mermaid’s” $89 million U.S. gross launches a renaissance at the wickets for new Disney animated films. 1990 Hollywood Pictures launches with summer hit “Arachnophobia.” Disney releases its first theatrical animated sequel, “The Rescuers Down Under.” 1991 “Beauty and the Beast” becomes the first toon feature to surpass $100 million in its initial release, and to be nominated for best picture; it wins two Oscars, for score and song. Producers Don Simpson (who would die in 1996) and Jerry Bruckheimer ink multipic pact with Disney; among the B.O. hits from the partnership are “Crimson Tide” (1995), “The Rock” (1996) and “Armageddon” (1998). 1993 Disney purchases Miramax Films, already on its way to being an Oscar juggernaut and about to break out with Quentin Tarantino‘s Cannes fest winner “Pulp Fiction.” 1994 “The Lion King” grosses $313 million domestically, smashing all previous BV records. Frank Wells dies in Nevada helicopter crash, precipitating the resignation of Katzenberg after Eisner refuses to give him Wells’ job. Disney mounts the Broadway production of “Beauty and the Beast”; it and highly acclaimed followup “The Lion King,” which debuts in 1997, are still running. “Snow White,” the last of Disney’s classic toon features to make its homevideo debut, hits the vidstore shelves after a full digital restoration, the first afforded to a Disney film. The Oscar-winning “Pulp Fiction” is the first Miramax film to break $100 million domestically. For the first time since 1985, Disney homevideo releases a direct-to-vid film, “Aladdin” sequel “The Return of Jafar” — a success that launches the first of a long string of sequels to animated classics. 1995 The smash “Toy Story,” the first fully computer-animated feature, is the first pic produced in partnership with Pixar Animation. Disney buys ABC television network for $19 billion. 1996 Dick Cook is appointed chair of the motion picture group and producer Joe Roth is promoted to chairman of Walt Disney Studios. The live-action version of “101 Dalmatians” breaks the record for the biggest Thanksgiving theatrical bow. Miramax’s “The English Patient” is the arthouse arm’s first best picture winner; “Shakespeare in Love” and “Chicago” would follow. Miramax’s Dimension releases horror-comedy smash “Scream”; it would score even more coin four years later with the “Scream” spoof “Scary Movie.” 1997 Eisner extends his contract with Disney for 10 years. Disney releases its first DVDs; two years later, “Pinocchio” is the first animated feature to make its DVD debut. 1999 “Toy Story 2,” again a Pixar co-production, outgrosses its predecessor. M. Night Shyamalan’s suspenser “The Sixth Sense” is a sleeper summer smash for Hollywood Pictures and becomes the highest-grossing live-action pic ($293.5 million domestic) in BV’s history. “Fantasia/2000” debuts on New Year’s Eve at Imax theaters before a traditional format release. 2000 Roth leaves the company to eventually form his own Revolution Pictures imprint. 2001 “Beauty and the Beast” is reformatted for Imax release. “Just Visiting,” a mild remake of a French comedy, is the last Hollywood Pictures release as the imprint is shuttered. Disney purchases cable web Fox Family Channel, rebrands it ABC Family. 2002 “Spirited Away,“ a Japanese anime pic dubbed with an English soundtrack, wins Disney its first best animated feature Oscar. Best picture winner “Chicago” surpasses “Good Will Hunting” to be Miramax’s highest grosser. 2003 “Finding Nemo,“ a Pixar co-production, surpasses “The Lion King” to become BV’s highest-grossing film ever, with a domestic take of more than $330 million. “The Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl,“ a Bruckheimer production, surpasses “The Sixth Sense” as BV’s highest-grossing live-action pic; “Pirates” is also the first PG-13 film to be released under the Walt Disney Pictures banner. James Cameron‘s 3-D Imax docu “Ghosts of the Abyss” released; Christmas will bring the dramatic feature “Young Black Stallion,” specifically shot for Imax exhibition.
Sources: the studio; Dave Smith’s “Disney A to Z”; “The Disney Studio Story,” by Richard Holliss and Brian Sibley.