Is Disney Finished?

11 Jan, 2005 | FilmNon-fictionTdp

I finally got round to seeing The Incredibles over the Christmas period (and it was by far the busiest of the three films I went to see at the Cinema) and it got me thinking. I remember reading news that Pixar will be discontinuing their relationship with Disney after their current contract runs out. The reason was money, Disney wanted too much for doing too little. I don’t know who it was at Disney that decided they wouldn’t give in to Pixar’s wishes, but if they aren’t fired already, they should be. Why? Well, Pixar hasn’t yet made a bad movie, in fact, I don’t think they’ve made one that hasn’t hit blockbuster status. IMDB, the film nerd bible, estimates Finding Nemo cost $94 million to make and put the worldwide box office takings at $702 million on 29th December 2003. Monsters, Inc., it says, had an estimated budget of $115 million, with the US box office alone finishing at about $255 million. These movies aren’t cheap, but they’re no more expensive than the average blockbuster and they’re out hitting most of them. Most unusual of all is that only one of their movies has been a sequel or spin-off – Toy Story 2 – which means they still have plenty of material to exploit should the going get tough.

Disney, on the other hand, only make headlines about how badly they’re doing at the moment (in their film business anyhow). Once the undisputed king of animation, they haven’t had a large scale hit for years. They’ve taken to exploiting their back catalogue in endless re-releases, sequels and spin-offs, which are done on a low budget, usually to low standards and are simply selling off the back of the original, cashing in on it’s name. Even with the extremely successful Pirates of the Caribbean, which was based on one of their rides, they were only the distributers, not the production company. Maybe Disney’s plan, by letting Pixar go, is to start their own CGI animation studio, like Dreamworks have done, and then they can keep 100% of the profit. Nice idea, but Pixar don’t make money because they’re technology is better, or because they’re using the latest techniques. Making great movies isn’t a science, it’s an art. Disney just doesn’t appear to have the mindset to make good movies anymore.

Pixar, I believe, has the culture to encourage, nurture and develop great ideas from initial concept to world-conquering behemoth. An interview with Craig Good of Pixar (hat tip: Kottke) by NRO reaffirmed much of what I’ve heard about Pixar’s working practices over the years. Which is to say that Pixar believe in the story first and foremost. They don’t go out to make kids movies, they make movies that they themselves would enjoy (obviously you could argue they’re a bunch of big kids), which gives them mass-market appeal. They’re interested in making interesting, funny and enjoyable films, not just what would appeal to five-year-olds (because, lets face it, five-year-olds don’t know what they want, and if they did, it would have changed by the time you got your movie out there).

Disney had a tried and tested formula. Think back to all the movies you enjoyed as a kid. The Disney movies were basically animated musicals. Most of the songs are so ingrained that we can sing along whenever we happen across them. Disney stuck rigidly to this formula for decades. Pixar hasn’t embraced this tradition as fully, though many of their movies still feature impromptu bursts of song, they have been moving away from it. Disney, however, failed. Lion King was lauded as their biggest success, but it’s been downhill ever since (Treasure Planet had an estimated budget of $140 million and only managed to make $38 million at the US box office). The movies simply haven’t delivered. I suspect this is due to Disney’s move away from classic stories and fairy tales, simply because it’s done most of the commercially viable ones. Relying on such well-known and well-written material has, I suspect, left a void in their scriptwriting department. They are starting to use a wider range of fairytales and myths (and reusing older ones), but none are as well known as their earlier works. The answer seems simple: raid the kid’s section of the library. Hire some children’s authors, hire some fantasy authors, steal some scriptwriters from Pixar and Dreamworks. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that will be enough.

Disney seems to approach every new film with the sole purpose of squeezing every dime out of it (as do all the other studios to be fair). What they should be doing is concentrating on getting a great film made first. Get out the way, let your people think with the pressure off, not with some ad exec breathing down their neck demanding the next blockbuster. From what I’ve read, I get the impression that Pixar allow their employees to follow their dreams to a certain extent. If they’ve got an idea for a film, they listen, suggest a few things and let the person run with it, then they sit down at a later date and discuss some more, and this keeps going. I’m assuming some ideas get rejected, but probably not outright. Most of the Pixar directors I’ve heard talking about their films have had the idea for years and they have slowly let it grow and develop and mature. These are people who totally believe in their project because it’s like a small child they’ve nursed and loved and helped make it’s first steps into the wide world. They don’t look at it as a walking number, a number that represents it’s box office potential.

Disney need to try and break down their mammoth organisation and produce small project teams, starting with a flock of people who simply love movies, films of all kinds. Let them stick together and ask them to come up with some ideas, let them develop them in their own time, don’t set deadlines. Get rid of the hierarchy, assuming there is one. Many of Pixar’s directors start out as just another employee, but they have an idea and then someone takes an interest. Craig Good started out working in security before getting into coding and animation. Build a project team that believes in the idea, that loves it, that lives it. That stuff really does show on screen. And while they’re at it, what about all the fine characters they already have? When was the last time you saw Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy or any of the others in a big screen adventure?

I don’t think that Disney will ever disappear, but they may end up never making an animated movie of their own again, relying on other companies to write and produce them while they take a cut for bringing them under the Disney brand umbrella. If that day comes, it will be a sad day indeed.