Animation Consultants International

Whither Disney?
The Case of Treasure Planet

Treasure Planet

The Walt Disney Co. has not been having a good time of it lately. The once glamorous media giant has been suffering the slings of outrageous shareholders, including Roy Disney, who are frustrated with the inability of Michael Eisner to restore the company to high profit days of the 80's and 90's. On top of all this, the crown jewel that was its almost indestructible feature animation division seems to be disarray, a condition exacerbated by the box office failure of Ron Clements and John Musker's Treasure Planet, whose release even people at Disney seem to admit was badly handled.

The strange thing is that 2002, in many ways, was a terrific year artistically and financially for the studio. Lilo & Stitch and Treasure Planet were two of the best Disney animated films in a long time. All told, its in-house films took in $251 million, or almost 39% of the year's total box office for animated movies; this included Return to Neverland and the Imax version of Beauty and the Beast, but not Spirited Away and Monsters, Inc. But the failure of Treasure Planet and the dominance of Ice Age seemed to erase all the positives.

Disney's bumbling was seen anew recently when the news of Treasure Planet being nominated for a Best Animated Feature Oscar nomination took Disney by surprise. On February 12, the Los Angeles Times quoted a company insider as saying, “It was a shock.” The story went on: “In a sign of just how much studio executives were caught off guard by their good fortune, the source added, it hadn't even occurred to them to discuss a strategy for capitalizing on a potential nomination.”

True, the film did not get nominated for an Annie Award for best movie, but this was clearly the result of a one-time expansion of the window of eligibility to 18 months, which allowed Monsters, Inc. to push out Treasure Planet. Also, pray tell, what did they think would have gotten nominated instead — Adam Sandler's 8 Crazy Nights, Jonah: A Veggie Tales Movie or Stuart Little 2?

Disney seems to have decided the film was a lost cause even before it opened. Thus, despite a $140 million budget, it waited until the last minute to hold press screenings, which critics usually take as a sign a film ain't very good. The promotional campaign was rather tepid, missing some rather elemental tactics; for instance, Disney did not even try to do an tie-in with a special edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island upon which the film is (rather faithfully) based, or supplying promotional material to public libraries; by contrast, libraries at the time were full posters and other goodies for the latest Harry Potter movie. In addition, its publicity campaign was overwhelmed by the opening of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and the DVD release of Ice Age, whose publicity campaigns overwhelmed that of Treasure Island. (This was all rather ironic, given these were the sort of tactics Disney used to be so good at in crushing rival animated films.)

As a result of these and other factors, the film had a weak $12 million opening weekend and rapidly went down from there. This was not helped by the company announcing, soon after it opened, that it was taking a $74 million write off on the film and deducting $47 million off its previously reported fourth-quarter earnings. Chief Financial Officer Thomas Staggs, when asked about this said, “It's just one movie, and that's the nature of the business.” Well, maybe, but is this any way for Disney to treat one of its own animated movies?

What makes it worse is comes at a time when Disney's contract with Pixar is up for renewal. Pixar is now publicly entertaining offers from Fox and Warner Bros. True, as I have previously suggested, the best deal Disney might be able to get in any case is a straight distribution deal like George Lucas has with Fox on the Star War films. But if Disney is unable to even handle its own product properly, what incentive do Pixar honchos Steve Jobs and John Lasseter have to stay with them?

However, Disney Can Do Some Things Right

Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Roy Disney
Frank Thomas, Ollie Johnston and Roy Disney after last year's Ward Kimball Tribute.

The proof that Disney can do things with the proper amount of class was evidenced on November 2, when it hosted a wonderful tribute at the Director's Guild in Hollywood to animation legend Ward Kimball, one of Disney's fabled nine old men, who died in July at 88.

The event, hosted by film historian and critic Leonard Maltin and including tributes by the likes of Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, as well as Monsters, Inc. directors Peter Docter and David Silverman, is a testament to the very real Disney legacy which the current troubles should not obscure.

— Harvey Deneroff
February 16, 2003

2003 by Harvey Deneroff


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