Lasseter, Catmull gain control of animation unit

Game, set, match Pixar.

With last week’s reorg of Disney animation, John Lasseter and Ed Catmull gained control over all Mouse House feature toons and won their pitched battle against DVD sequels.

DisneyToon is now a separate unit of Walt Disney Animation Studios under their aegis. Sharon Morrill, former prexy of the lucrative but creatively challenged direct-to-DVD division, has been reassigned to special projects after being relieved of her post last week (Daily Variety, June 22). She had repeatedly clashed with the Pixar toppers over creative issues.

The restructuring reps a major shift in the Mouse House’s pioneering homevideo strategy. The studio has made a mint releasing relatively cheap sequels like “Cinderella III” and “Lion King 1½” straight to video, but purists have long complained about the quality of these enterprises.

The mood started to change when Pixar leaders arrived in Burbank. Under the influence of Lasseter and Catmull, DisneyToon had already moved away from animated sequels to focus on spinoffs like “Tinker Bell” and an animated fairies pic for the homevideo market (Variety, Feb. 26-March 4).

However, it’s not clear how lucrative these toons will be. One reason Disney was able to make so much money on its toon sequels was that they weren’t held to the same standards as their bigscreen predecessors.

“Tinker Bell” has already gone back to the drawing board at least once, pushing up costs considerably. In giving Lasseter and Catmull control, studio topper Bob Iger is betting on quality and Pixar’s strong track record.

The battle over toon sequels dates back to the production of “Toy Story 2.” Disney wanted to release it straight to video under terms of its distribution contract with the Northern California toon factory, but Pixar refused to cut corners and insisted on a theatrical release. The 1999 toon made more coin at the box office than the original, but that did not settle matters. Disney topper Michael Eisner and Pixar topper Steve Jobs squabbled over the issue until Iger ultimately swooped in to broker Disney $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar last year.

Disney’s fine-tooning of its made-for-DVD strategy comes amid increased competish for straight-to-disc coin. With overall DVD revenue flat, studios are looking for ways to boost their bottom line. Pics created for the homevideo market are especially appealing because they generally do not involve as much expense and therefore promise greater profit.

Warner homevid, one of the last to jump in the direct-to-vid fray, is preparing a “Get Smarter” spinoff disc to hit shelves less than two weeks after the original debuts in theaters next June; its Warner Premiere division released a “Dukes of Hazzard” prequel in March. MGM plans to release a dozen DVD made-fors annually, including sequels such as “Dressed to Kill 2.” And Universal, which has had success with its “Land Before Time” straight-to-disc franchise, continues to rack up millions from sales of “Bring It On” and “American Pie” sequels released straight to video.

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