Disney gives Pooh one honey of a deal

Tigger, Piglet, Eeyore franchise fetches record-setting coin

Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse will remain cuddly friends for another 25 years.

Moving aggressively to buttress its library of internationally recognized characters, the Walt Disney Co. has paid an estimated $350 million to lock up the Pooh franchise until the copyright expires in 2026.

Deal, reportedly the largest in publishing history, comes at a time when sales of Pooh products are especially robust.

Disney Publishing has introduced several new Pooh books recently — many not based on original A.A. Milne storylines. “The Tigger Movie,” originally conceived as a direct-to-video release, grossed $45.5 million when Disney chose instead to distribute it theatrically last year. The Disney Channel, meanwhile, just launched a new series, part animation and part puppetry, called “The Book of Pooh.”

“This is a big property to Disney and especially to the studio,” said studio chair Peter Schneider.

Deal also cements Disney’s ability to develop the franchise online. “Our original royalty agreement,” said a Disney spokesman, “was signed before the Internet. Now we have the right to use Pooh and his friends in new media.”

Long negotiations

Disney has been negotiating the deal with Milne’s estate for two years. Despite the magnitude of the deal, it still came as a surprise to many Mouse House execs when the story broke in the British press over the weekend.

Disney first bought the rights to Pooh, Tigger, Eeyore and the other inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood back in 1961, paying a twice-yearly royalty to the estate, worth roughly $3 million a year.

The estate’s beneficiaries, who are in line for a huge windfall, include Westminster School, the Garrick Club, the Royal Literary Fund and Milne’s disabled granddaughter.

Curtis Brown, the London literary agency that handles the Milne estate, is set to receive a 3% fee worth more than $10 million.

But chairman Jonathan Lloyd denied reports of dissension within the company about whether the cash should be taken by its shareholders, divided up by the directors or handed out to the staff. “We are considering a wide range of options,” he commented.