A little over a year ago, the Mouse’s ears were a little droopy.
After a string of disappointments and increased competition from outsiders, Disney’s top brass felt the studio was losing its G- and PG-rated foothold. It needed its mojo back and would make fewer pics, but ones that focused more on what the Disney brand had been known for — family pics with a wide appeal.
Think less dark M. Night Shyamalan and “Apocalypto,” more sunny “The Princess Diaries” and “High School Musical.”
As a result, the studio’s top ranks were shaken up.
A year after taking the reins of Disney’s Motion Picture Group, it’s fitting that Oren Aviv’s first hit is called “The Game Plan.”
The comedy, which stars Dwayne (the Rock) Johnson, raked in $23 million in its Sept. 28 opening weekend, surprising box office prognosticators who had expected Universal’s “The Kingdom” to win the frame.
It’s a score for Aviv, considering the comedy was the first pic he greenlit.
It’s also the first of a string of films that show what the renewed Disneyfication of the Mouse House looks like — a slate heavy with family-friendly fare that pulls liberally from the company’s fairy tale fiefdom, the Disney Channel, Jerry Bruckheimer and Scott Rudin.
Rounding out the rest of the year are “Enchanted,” a live-action/animated sendup of Disney properties, the Steve Carell comedy “Dan in Real Life” and “National Treasure 2” (Aviv had produced the first with Bruckheimer while head of marketing).
“They represent the kinds of movies we want to make,” says Aviv, who had spent six years as the Mouse House’s marketing chief before replacing Nina Jacobson as prexy of production in 2006.
Aviv’s office exhibits the personality of many male execs in Hollywood, with black leather couches, blond wood and a 60-inch flat-screen TV. Yet there are injections of quirkiness: action figures for the John Travolta firefighter pic “Ladder 49,” a framed article from the Onion and a letter from a disgruntled moviegoer who wasn’t thrilled with “The Village.”
Aviv took the job at a time when Disney was starting to see its stronghold over family entertainment being weakened by the likes of DreamWorks Animation and Walden Media.
But his mandate was clear. Avoid the tough-to-market films such as “The Prestige,” “Déjà Vu” and “Annapolis” that had scarred the studio’s recent years.
He doesn’t want to forget his marketing roots — “It’s not something you turn off,” he says — but he had experience in production and development. He’d spent nine years developing the first “National Treasure.”
He didn’t have to start developing pics from scratch.
“Transitions are always challenging,” he says, “But I was happy with the creative staff,” which includes production execs Brigham Taylor, Jason Reed, Kristin Burr and LouAnne Brickhouse. “They made it easy. They’d been developing great stuff.
“I’m not the guy who says we’re going to throw out everything that the previous regime touched. That didn’t make sense to me.”
“Game Plan” marks an auspicious start and Aviv is bullish on upcoming fare. He’s looking for a new franchise: After three “Pirates of the Caribbean” each earned around $1 billion, there’s no guarantee of a fourth. But Aviv believes “Enchanted” is ripe for sequels and “National Treasure 2” bows in December.
“Prince of Persia,” a Bruckheimer-produced actioner based on the best-selling vidgame, is also a contender, as is “G-Force,” an f/x-heavy live actioner about guinea pigs as spies that Bruckheimer is also producing.
But it won’t all be easy. As a new buyer in town, Aviv has his share of skeptics among agents and producers, who are trying to figure out him and his tastes. “Does he think the Disney brand means the bland brand?” asks one producer.
Some edgy projects developed by Disney have been put in deep freeze, one agent observes, and the company operates under seemingly rigid constraints when it comes to budget and star deals.
And while Aviv remains hands-off on animation — Pixar toppers Ed Catmull and John Lasseter are in charge of all Disney feature animation — it’s another source of concern.
The Pixar team is terrific, but some fear it’s spread too thin. Pixar has an unblemished track record, but its mode was to let a film develop over many years. Now the execs’ burden is heavier since they have taken on all of Disney animation, many with shorter development time, as well as the theme parks.
If there’s one thing that’s proven evident from Aviv’s slate it’s that he prefers working with familiar faces.
The Rock, John Travolta, Tim Allen, Martin Lawrence, Amy Adams, Adam Sandler and Robin Williams are becoming regulars, as are directors like Andy Fickman and Walt Becker. Hoyt Yeatman (“G-Force”) had spent years serving as a visual f/x supervisor on Disney pics.
Robert Zemeckis will direct “A Christmas Carol” with Jim Carrey, using the helmer’s performance-capture animation technology.
In addition to “Persia” and “G-Force,” Bruckheimer is producing an adaptation of the chicklit favorite “Confessions of a Shopaholic.”
“Jerry’s the most reliable filmmaker I’ve ever worked with,” Aviv says.
He also praises Rudin, who has a five-year deal with the studio. He’s developing “The Dangerous Book for Boys,” as well as Robert Graves’ “I, Claudius,” with Leonardo DiCaprio and William Monahan attached.
Through a previous deal with Walden, Disney is set to distrib the next six “Narnia” pics, with the second installment, “Prince Caspian,” bowing in 2008 and “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” set for 2010.
Additionally, Aviv has turned to the Disney Channel for bigscreen versions of its hits.
The third installment of the “High School Musical” phenomenon, dubbed “Senior Year,” will bow in theaters next year. A “Hannah Montana” movie also is in the works, says Aviv, who was introduced to the Disney Channel fare by his three daughters.
“The question is: How do you not mess it up and still give (audiences) more?” The plan: hire the same director, producer, writer, songwriters and cast.
Other pics are relying on famed Disney properties. A live-action version of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” tentatively called “Snow and the Seven,” is in the works, with Shaolin monks portraying the little men. There’s also a redo of “Escape From Witch Mountain,” a live-action “Alice in Wonderland,” a reimagining of “Tron,” and “The Jungle Cruise,” based on the Disneyland ride.
There are also some new faces. Francis Lawrence is directing “Snow and the Seven.” Also new to the studio is PJ Hogan, who is helming “Shopaholic.” Jon Chu is making his helming debut on “Step Up 2.”
Overall, the choices fit with the mandate from Walt Disney Co. prexy and CEO Bob Iger and Disney Studios chairman Richard Cook to make more movies that fit the Disney brand.
Yet that doesn’t mean Aviv is forced to devote a certain number of its dozen or so releases per year to be released through the Disney label, he stresses.
The focus may be on Disney, but “we’re still in the Touchstone business,” Aviv says.
Division will continue to release pics with more adult themes, with recent examples being the comedy “Wild Hogs,” as well as its planned sequel. Upcoming releases include “Dan in Real Life” and “Step Up 2.” Rudin’s “I, Claudius” would also bow through the label.
“National Treasure” was originally developed as a Touchstone movie but was turned into a PG-rated Disney pic after its potential as a four-quadrant family draw was realized.
The Hollywood Pictures label is also still here. Company released genre fare like the giant alligator pic “Primeval” and “The Invisible” earlier this year.
Of course animation is a key part of the new Disney, as evidenced by the $7.4 billion acquisition of Pixar in late 2005, to ensure that the studio’s films would stay in-house and revitalize the Mouse House’s own toon division.
While “Cars” and “Ratatouille” didn’t make as much as previous Pixar blockbusters like “Finding Nemo,” both were solid moneymakers, with “Cars” in particular proving a licensing bonanza. “Ratatouille” has now surpassed “Cars” overseas, earning $224 million.
Disney Animation Studios has yet to find its footing. March’s “Meet the Robinsons,” which bears some of the Lasseter and Catmull imprint as it was partially revamped under their watch, didn’t clear the $100 million mark domestically and did worse overseas.
First pic made to start production since the new toon studio instituted a 20% layoff last year comes out in late 2008. Originally developed as “American Dog,” it now has a new name, “Bolt,” and a new director, Chris Williams. Original helmer director Chris Sanders defected to DreamWorks over creative differences with Lasseter.
So far Disney’s strategy seems to be working and perking up the Mouse’s ears. Just look at “Game Plan’s” strong opening.
“It gives me great confidence in the movies we’re making,” Aviv says of the result. “To open a PG family movie against a war-related issue movie confirms that what we’re doing is working. The more of these we can do well, the more successful we’ll be.”
Ben Fritz contributed to this report.