Disney fills Schumacher's slot in animation

Disney is expected to announce today the elevation of TV toon unit head David Stainton to prexy of Walt Disney Animation.

He replaces Thomas Schumacher, who is relocating to Gotham to head up stage theatricals for the Mouse House. Those duties had been just part of his previous responsibilities, but Schumacher was eager to narrow his mandate (Daily Variety, Nov. 4)

Stainton, 41, has been president of Walt Disney Television Animation since January 2001 and previously was senior veep creative affairs in feature animation. He joined Disney in 1989 as manager of special projects for Disney television and video.

In his new post, he will report to studio chief Dick Cook, though it’s known conglom topper Michael Eisner played a hands-on role in Stainton’s selection to take over Mouse’s beleaguered animation operations. In fact, Eisner is expected to continue to take a close interest in toon operations and indeed all other creative ops at the studio.

The animation unit has been under particularly close scrutiny ever since Disney had to take a $74 million pretax writedown on its failed Thanksgiving toon “Treasure Planet.” Questions have been raised in some quarters over whether the Mouse still has the creative chops to execute in the new, more competitive era of animation.

But Disney insiders say Stainton appears up to the task, with a good grasp of the Mouse House animation legacy and a management style sufficiently flexible to move the toon unit in more cutting-edge directions.

Insiders say they expect future animation projects to reflect more of the creative aesthetic of studio’s summer hit “Lilo & Stitch,” which cost a relatively modest $80 million to produce, grossed $145.8 million domestically in theaters and more recently has done robust biz in DVD and homevid.

Project animators were allowed unusual independence from corporate oversight on “Lilo” — a big help in holding down costs and ensuring a smart and contempo pic, sources suggest.

TV toon unit vet Barry Blumberg will be promoted to succeed Stainton atop television animation. But it’s also expected the unit will be realigned with operations of the Disney Channel, with Blumberg reporting to ABC Cable Networks Group prexy Anne Sweeney.

Schumacher, who’s in the process of relocating from the West Coast, is said to be eager to focus on opportunities in conglom’s live-entertainment unit, including the possibility of taking more stage productions overseas. Mouse has already had great success on Broadway and elsewhere with shows such as “The Lion King,” “Aida” and “Beauty and the Beast.”

His time as animation chief was marked by both challenge and retrenchment, with hundreds of jobs slashed as Disney strove to reduce a onetime work force of 2,200 to 1,200 or so. During his 14 years at the studio, Schumacher has been involved both with theatrical hits like “Lion King” and “Tarzan” and misfires like “Treasure Planet” and “Atlantis: The Lost Continent.”

Interestingly, with his focus on live entertainment he’s following in the path of ex-Mouseketeer Peter Schneider, Schumacher’s longtime creative collaborator at Disney. Former studio chief Schneider currently works in Gotham as a consultant to Broadway producers after ankling his post at Disney.

New partner for Pixar?

Meanwhile, he also passes the baton to Stainton on Mouse’s important relationship with Pixar for 3D-animation projects.

Next up is “Finding Nemo,” set for release next summer. But execs at Disney and Pixar have yet to hammer out an extension of their current multipic pact, and there’s been speculation Pixar will use a contractual window to open talks with a new co-production partner after the current agreement expires.

To provide a safety net, Disney recently inked a multipic pact with the creative team behind DreamWorks’ computer-generated smash “Shrek.” CG-animation has become increasingly important, with 20th Century Fox recently joining the competitive fray via the successful theatrical release of “Ice Age.”

“It might be a good time for Disney to take a new approach, given the recent success of DreamWorks and Fox and Disney’s difficulties,” observed David Davis, senior veep and analyst at Houlihan, Lokey, Howard & Zukin. “They may need to rethink what Disney needs to be for the next five to 10 years.”

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