by Dick Rolfe & Tabitha
Picture an ordinary American family during a
typical evening. Twelve-year-old Emily holds her tennis racket like a
microphone as she rocks out to Miley Cyrus’ newest hit song. Emily’s older
brother Matt tries to drown out the noise by turning up the volume on his
National Treasure DVD. Dad moves to the rec-room to watch the NFL Playoffs on
ESPN, while mom, finished with dishes, escapes to the bedroom for an inspiring
episode of Extreme Makeover, Home Edition. Six-year-old Bobby can be found in
his room surrounded by his collection of Penguin Club characters.
It would seem impossible for one group to cater
to the entertainment needs of every member of this family with such diverse
interests. But tonight, they can all thank the same iconic organization for
their wide array of entertainment choices; The Walt Disney Company. The average
householder may not realize the ubiquitous nature of this media conglomerate and
how it impacts them daily on so many levels. In addition to the movie studio,
there’s The Disney Channel, ESPN, ABC, Capital Records, and now the newly
acquired Marvel Comics. These are just a handful of the pieces that make up the
whole of The Walt Disney Entertainment Company.
For most people, the Disney name conjures
images of princesses, friendly talking mice, and idyllic family vacations – and
for good reason. Disney management teams have spent seven decades of TLC and
billions of dollars to create and maintain their world famous family friendly
image. Disney is a powerhouse in the entertainment field, producing hits ranging
from Snow White to Scary Movie. With news of many looming changes as the mergers
and acquisitions with Pixar, DreamWorks, and now Marvel, this is a good time to
retrace the trail Disney has blazed to reach their current pinnacle; and to
speculate a bit on where Disney may be headed next.
How did this media magnate spring up from a
mouse and small collection of hand-drawn fairy tales?
Snow White, the first feature-length animated
motion picture launched the Disney studio in 1937 with subsequent films
retaining the G rating until 1979’s The Black Hole, rated PG for sci-fi
violence, peril and thematic elements. About the time of the release of the
studio’s 1983 Trenchcoat, critics complained that PG films contained too much
adult content and were simply not appropriate for Disney’s established audience.
Disney needed to separate their more mature, but profitable, PG films from their
long line of films primarily for children. Thus, in 1984, Touchstone Pictures
was born. Splash, the story of a mermaid and city boy sans singing crab, was
the first picture released under that label. The film was a huge success at the
box office making back almost 10 times the amount it cost to produce and
garnering Academy attention with nominations in the Best Original Screenplay
category. Disney had found a way to affectively reach a new audience without
tarnishing Cinderella’s name.
After the financial success of Touchstone
Pictures, Disney must have thought that adding yet another studio label was a
good move. Hollywood Pictures first appeared in 1990 with the release of PG-13
rated horror-comedy Arachnophobia, starring Jeff Daniels and John Goodman. The
new line had few box office successes, the most notably being The Sixth Sense,
with Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis. But the Hollywood Pictures label
Disney’s original strategy behind the label is
hard to pinpoint, but the type of pictures the studio released suggests it was
intended to serve as a sort of art-house/independent/genre studio. Hollywood
Pictures fell by the wayside when in 1993 the Weinstein brothers partnered their
13-year-old independent studio, Miramax, with The Walt Disney Company in an $80
million dollar deal. And R-rated avant-garde films like Pulp Fiction and Tie Me
Up! Tie Me Down!
The Weinstein’s brought an established
production line to the table and Disney provided funds and worldwide
distribution. Pegged as the art-house/independent film division of Disney,
Miramax’s most successful project was Chicago, a filmed adaptation of the
Broadway musical hit.
The relationship with the Weinsteins was
profitable, but publicity began to impact the wholesome Disney brand and in
2005, Disney decided not to renew the contract and the Weinstein’s left to form
their own company. Disney maintained the Miramax label with its prolific
art-house studio. What the Weinsteins did take with them was the Dimension Films
label, which used to make Miramax genre films. To fill this gap, Disney
resurrected Hollywood Pictures as their B-picture studio. The first genre piece,
Stay Alive, was produced in 2006.
Disney’s partnership with Pixar involved a bit
more luck. Unlike the long-term commitment with Miramax, Pixar entered into a
short-term three film agreement with Disney in 1991, beginning with Toy Story.
After that smashing success Pixar began to realize they had been given the short
end of the stick. Although the profits were split fifty-fifty, Disney was paid a
fee for their distribution work and received exclusive rights to all stories and
Pixar pushed for a new deal in 2004, in which
Pixar would only pay Disney for distribution while retaining all rights and
total control over the projects in production. Disney turned it down and
negotiations didn’t resume until September of after Disney CEO Michael Isner
resigned in 2005.
Robert Iger, the new head of Disney, moved
ahead as soon as he took office and renegotiated a Pixar-Disney deal in January
of 2006, giving Pixar $7.4 billion dollars in stock and conditions to keep Pixar
a separate entity.
A new branch of Disney began to grow in April
of 2008. Disneynature, operating out of France, was announced as an independent
Disney film label, intent on releasing big screen nature documentaries. The
first film, Earth, appropriately premiered in the U.S. on Earth Day in April of
2009, though it had been released in cinemas internationally in 2007.
Disneynature is the first new label created by Disney to openly bear the
powerful Disney name. The logo for the new studio emphasizes the connection,
featuring an iceberg that resembles Disney’s iconic castle logo.
In February of 2009, DreamWorks entered into a
long-term, 30-picture distribution deal with Disney. The films, which will be
released under the Touchstone banner, will span the next 5 years. While Disney
had no need to replace Touchstone, Disney’s Iger has announced plans to pull
back on funding Touchstone pictures and produce fewer adult action pictures.
(Why Disney Wants DreamWorks). Some speculate this is an attempt by Disney to
form a closer partnership with the famous director Steven Spielberg.
As in the original merger with Pixar, Disney is
expected to take in a 10% distribution fee but will also lend DreamWorks $100
million to close the deal. The new relationship with DreamWorks appears to be a
safe way for Disney to invest in another “Touchstone” studio without suffering
the same financial losses that Touchstone has caused over the last few years. It
is a low-risk option where Disney makes money through distribution while
DreamWorks navigates the storms of box office success and failure as production
The most recent Disney acquisition came at the
end of August 2009 with the news that the Walt Disney Company purchased Marvel
comics for $4 billion. Both 20th Century Fox and Paramount had appeared to be
developing a good relationship with the comic book line, producing such hits as
Iron Man and the X-Men series, but the new merger has severed those
relationships. Under this deal, Disney is now the proud owner of more than 5,000
comic book characters and a wealth of story creation experience. The merge is
said to be comparable to the latest agreement reached with Pixar, where Marvel
will continue to control much of its own content internally. What no one seems
to be talking about is the fact that Marvel already has a full distribution
line, something Disney seems to be very keen on holding on to in all previous
mergers and acquisitions.
With the overwhelming success of the Pirates of
the Caribbean franchise, the first PG-13 films bearing the Disney label, a new
era of content appears to have found acceptance under the Disney banner. Iger
and then-studio chairman Dick Cook, decided to seriously shift focus back to the
Disney brand and produce fewer Touchstone and Miramax pictures.
Rumor has it that Marvel comic characters will
begin popping up in Disney theme parks around the world soon. (After all, it
worked for Capt. Jack Sparrow.) With potentially complicated adult action
stories found in the superhero genre’ the Mouse House should remain mindful of
their younger audiences and the cautious parents who protect them. The wholesome
Disney label has proven rock solid throughout past generations. It will be worth
watching to see how studio executives handle these new action characters in
light of Disney’s kid-friendly reputation.
As more diverse films join the Disney film
family, one can only hope that Disney’s path to success will continue to evoke
images of princesses, family, and true heroes. As fewer parents complain about
content, one can only hope that the next generation of children can clearly see
the differences between good and evil in their entertainment diet. As big ideas
grow in a company founded on big ideals, may Disneyland always remain a place
where Walt Disney’s words ring true:
“To all who come to this happy place; welcome.
Disneyland is your land. Here age relives fond memories of the past...and here
youth may savor the challenge and promise of the future. Disneyland is dedicated
to the ideals, the dreams and the hard facts that have created America...with
the hope that it will be a source of joy and inspiration to all the world.”