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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Studio Report Card, Part 4: Disney

January 21, 2009 |  3:29 pm

You have to admit that Disney is a studio that knows exactly what it wants to be -- a family entertainment powerhouse. In fact, Disney is the envy of the industry because it has three potent and instantly recognizable brands: Disney (for safe-as-milk family films), Pixar (for classy, critically beloved animation) and Jerry Bruckheimer (for blockbuster family action and adventure pictures). Even in a year when one leg of the tripod was missing -- Bruckheimer was too busy managing his lucrative TV crime-solving franchises to contribute another "Pirates" or "National Treasure" series installment (though he has more films coming later this year) -- Disney kept its family factory chugging along, although you could hear the gears grinding more than in years past.

Wall_eThe studio had a variety of hits. Some were totally expected, like "Wall-E," which kept Pixar's winning streak alive, grossing more than $500 million worldwide, an impressive number for a film that played more like a wide-eyed art film than a bread 'n' butter animation picture. But some of the hits were unexpected, most notably "High School Musical 3," which took a popular Disney TV franchise and turned it into a worldwide theatrical phenomena. Always canny about maximizing the long-term value of its successes, Disney isn't rushing out another installment; it's taking the franchise back to the Disney Channel, where it will relaunch the series with a new young cast, which, if successful, could generate a new film.

What's impressive about Disney's hits is that they regularly involve some kind of long-range R&D. It's "Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus: Best of Both Worlds Concert Tour" 3-D film, which cost $8 million and made more than $65 million in the U.S., was a true in-house production, directed by the studio's head of physical production and produced by one of Disney's key special effects executives. It was a way for the studio to experiment with new 3-D technology, with the studio promising to show off what it learned this spring with the release of a 3-D Jonas Brothers movie.      

The studio also did an impressive salvage job with "Bolt," an animated film that was originally known as "American Dog" until the studio, led by John Lasseter, gave the film an extreme makeover, firing the original director and bringing in Chris Williams, a talented story artist, who re-imagined the characters and provided enough commercial polish for the film to attract a decent-sized audience. Still, Disney's 2008 showed some chinks in its armor, including the sudden collapse of its "Narnia" franchise.

What went wrong? Keep reading:   

As I reported in a post earlier this week, Disney badly fumbled the ball with its "Prince Caspian" installment of the "Narnia" series, the biggest mistake being the studio's decision to move it out of the friendly confines of the holiday season and release it in early summer, where it lost much of its family audience and was roundly ignored by teens who preferred seeing "Iron Man" and other summer action extravaganzas.

Disney's only bombs were films that someone else financed, notably "Swing Vote" and Spike Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna's." But some of the films that should've been right in the studio's sweet spot, notably "Beverly Hills Chihuahua" (which didn't make it to $100 million) and Adam Sandler's "Bedtime Stories," slightly underperformed. It's not a disaster for a Sandler film to top out at a little above $100 million -- all his films routinely do that much business. But the marriage of the Sandler and the Disney brand should have catapulted him higher by marrying Sandler's teen appeal with Disney's family-friendly brand. Instead, it was Fox who swept the holiday film sweepstakes with "Marley and Me," which -- irony of ironies -- was sold exactly like a Disney movie, with a cuddly dog front and center.

Disney's critics say the studio hasn't quite found its equilibrium since Oren Aviv left marketing to head production. Though Dick Cook provides steady leadership at the top, marketing feeling less creative with Jim Gallagher at the helm and production feels less creative in the hands of Aviv, who is still viewed in the talent community as more of an gifted image-maker than someone who aspires to make ambitious films. Being a studio with Disney's steely discipline is a double-edged sword -- it gives Disney a well-defined creative focus, but it also gives the studio a very limited creative palate. You always know what you're getting when you see a Disney film. But sometimes moviegoers are eager for an enchanting surprise, the kind of discovery that rarely rolls off the cautiously managed Disney assembly line.

Cook says he's happy with where the studio is, both creatively and commercially. "We had a very good year," he told me. "When we made mistakes, they weren't costly financial mistakes. And we had an interesting mix of films. With 'Wall-E,' there probably wasn't a better reviewed major studio film all year. And it's still going strong -- it was No. 1 in Japan over the holidays. 'High School Musical' was a worldwide phenomena. 'Bedtime Stories' will be Adam Sandler's biggest international success so far, in large part due to his hard work. And even if 'Bolt' wasn't a giant success financially, it was a tremendous success creatively. It proved to us that we can do Disney animation at a very high level --a nd with a quick turnaround. They reworked the whole movie in two years, which is very, very fast by animation standards. But it's real long-lasting impact is as a confidence builder for our animation unit, because it shows the kind of creativity we can put into a project."

Performance: B-plus. Quality: B-minus.   Overall: B.





Photo of "Wall-E" by Keith Hamshere, Lucas Film Ltd./Disney/Pixar.