Terror in Toon Town

Once considered a frivolous distraction, the animation business today seems at the center of every Hollywood lawsuit and controversy.

Some 20 years ago, when a young reporter was assigned to cover Hollywood, part of the rites of passage consisted of an interview with Ron Miller. A brawny one-time college football star, Miller’s claim to fame was that he was Walt Disney’s son-in-law. As such, he’d been anointed production chief of the Disney studios and a member of its board of directors.

As a movie mogul, however, Miller was not exactly up there with Irving Thalberg. Indeed, when interviewing Miller, the biggest challenge to a young reporter was to keep a straight face.

Though the Disney empire at the time was obviously sliding down the drain (its market share by 1979 had dwindled to 4%), Miller was the sort of person who would calmly boast that he’d turned away both Spielberg and Lucas. He didn’t want to be in business with Spielberg, he explained, because he didn’t believe film directors deserved profit participations. Besides, he never would have allowed that “penis breath” line in “E.T. The Extra Terrestrial.” Miller’s idea of a hot picture was “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.” To be sure, it bombed.

And how about old Walt’s stock in trade, animation? Even this franchise was allowed to fade under Walt’s successors. “The Black Cauldron,” an ill-conceived sword-and-sorcery epic, was the final bomb of that regime.

The fact that even Disney turned its back on the animation business seems all the more astonishing in the context of recent events. If Ron Miller were around today, he would go into a state of shock at the degree to which animation seems to be at the center of every storm.

When a rent-a-judge sits down to calculate how much the Disney company owes Jeffrey Katzenberg in back wages, animation revenues will be the focal point. Last week’s partial settlement of the litigation between Katzenberg and Disney chieftain Michael Eisner set the stage for these elaborate computations.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox’s high-stakes foray into animation has triggered a cosmic battle with Disney. Exhibitors are grumbling that in reissuing its animated hit “The Little Mermaid” on Nov. 14, Disney is using “unorthodox” sales tactics to discourage smaller plexes from playing Fox’s “Anastasia,” which opens the following weekend.

“They’ve devised every legal means possible to embarrass Fox,” one buyer for a major chain complained to Andrew Hindes, Variety’s man on the beat.

The animation wars have spurred an escalation in the salaries of everyone associated with the field. Craftsman who once were taken for granted as mere wage slaves suddenly are hiring attorneys and launching Ovitzian negotiations. And studio chiefs, who once couldn’t be bothered with toon talk, now are embroiled in daylong war games over animation strategies.

And things will doubtless heat up with the entry of DreamWorks into the animation business. When Katzenberg unfurls “The Prince of Egypt” next year, the response from competitors will be more animated than even the movie. The roadblocks Disney has thrown in the way of “Anastasia” constitute a mere warm-up exercise. Disney’s soldiers already steeled themselves for combat trying to thwart Warner Bros.’ “Space Jam” last year.

Is the animation business really worth all this angst? That question has a lot of people scratching their heads. A glimpse at even Disney’s results show a trail of diminishing returns. The domestic grosses of “Hercules” ($ 98.1 million) and “Hunchback of Notre Dame” ($ 100.1 million) certainly did not measure up to the incredible $ 312.9 million B.O. benchmark achieved by “The Lion King.”

” ‘The Lion King’ might prove to be the undoing of the animation business,” says one production chieftain. ” ‘Anastasia’ seems modeled after ‘The Lion King.’ So is ‘Prince of Egypt.’ The trouble is that ‘The Lion King’ may be a freak of history that will never again be duplicated. It’s the wrong business model to follow.”

Animation, he argues, should focus on lighter subjects and more accessible characters, and he may have a point. Perhaps he’d advise Ron Miller to come out of retirement with an animated version of “The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again.”

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