How Walt’s Magic Kingdom became a media kingdom

In his exhaustive, and somewhat pedantic, new biography of Walt Disney, Neal Gabler takes 633 pages to paint a picture of this seemingly unremarkable man who “created a new art form … and built one of the most powerful empires in the entertainment world.”

The Walt that emerges is not exactly “a fun guy,” but rather an austere and distanced control freak whose boundless vision propelled him into a series of brilliantly precarious financial misadventures.

But while Gabler painstakingly recounts Walt’s flights of imagination, he avoids speculating on what “the founder” would have thought of the global empire that he inadvertently spawned — a corporate kingdom rather than a magic kingdom. The Disney conglomerate that exists today reflects as much the sensibility (or lack of it) of Michael Eisner as it does Walt Disney.

I don’t pretend to have any unique insight into Walt’s thought processes, though I met him a few times and even wandered around Disneyland under his guidance. But here are some guesses about how he might have assessed the various components of the present-day Disney empire:

— Walt likely would be appalled that the studio’s animation output grew ever more pedestrian in the later Eisner years and, indeed, that it now has been outsourced to Pixar which is now, to be sure, owned by Disney.

As Gabler points out, the success of “Snow White,” the first feature-length animated movie, reinforced in Walt the importance of total control. Walt presided over his army of 600 faithful artisans in the depths of the Depression and thus triumphed over all his doubters — including his family.

Yet now it’s Pixar’s John Lasseter who sits on the animation throne and Disney’s surviving animators toil for him. Walt might not have liked that, though he probably would feel a strong kinship with Lasseter who, like him, is more interested in the product than the numbers.

— While delighted by the success of Disneyland, Walt today probably would find it too crowded, too commercial and too pricey. He had planned the mega-theme park to reflect order and nostalgia — a sort of walk through the American past (and future) — but typically hadn’t thought about how to finance it. He likely would be irritated that the park is now all about kids — he wanted adults to draw comfort and delight from it as well — and would be astonished over how much money parents are willing to lavish on their children’s playtime.

— In a desperate effort to fund his theme park, Walt decided to pitch a family-oriented TV show to the ABC network — one that would consist of cartoons, film clips and promotional material about Disneyland. In return, ABC would also own a piece of the theme park.

Walt was testy about TV dealmakers at the time — he had backed away from an earlier show based on “The Mark of Zorro” because NBC had the effrontery to demand a pilot. Nonetheless, in 1953 ABC bought his TV idea and the resulting show was a big hit for the then-struggling network.

Of course, Disney today owns ABC and Walt likely would disdain “Grey’s Anatomy” or “Desperate Housewives.” Indeed, he probably would light up one of his omnipresent Camels and flee to his office to create more homespun and folksy shows for the Disney Channel.

— Walt surely would be more comfortable, on the other hand, with Disney’s Broadway productions. “Mary Poppins” and “The Lion King” would appeal to him in terms of their durability, sweep and profitability. And he would be pleased that Disney theater productions were hatched by former animation mavens like Thomas Schumacher and Peter Schneider, one-time animation chief.

— Old Walt would also be pleased to hear Dick Cook’s pronouncements about focusing more on family films and building on the Disney brand and he would have been astonished by the “Pirates” franchise. On the other hand, he probably would summon him to a meeting to inquire why he made a deal to distribute Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” — Walt wouldn’t like the violence or the controversy, but he would like Cook, an old theme park guide.

— Having said that, it’s doubtful that Walt would feel entirely at home with his successors. Walt himself liked to play the role of the bashful tycoon, and when he entertained at home he would dress in blue jeans and lumberjack shirts. He would likely deem Eisner “too Hollywood” and also too obsessed with profits rather than vision.

Walt would warm to the more relaxed and informal Bob Iger, and might even welcome his perorations on the new media. After all, Disney himself was a self-styled futurist — a sort of New Age Davy Crocket.

Indeed, the Disney Empire Walt might have been running today would surely be pioneering new ideas on many fronts and thus be totally confusing to Wall Street. But if some investment banker would dare phone to inquire about margins, he would have heard a loud “click” on the other end of the line.

Walt was about ideas, not margins.

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