Episode one of our serial about the “Disney Decade,” in partnership with Network 1901.
After Walt’s death, the Disney company finished out the 1960s with the projects already in progress. But by 1970, it was clear that the company ship didn’t have a captain. It had animators, engineers, artists, executives, but no captain.
The pace at which projects were created would have never lived up to Walt’s standards. It was clear that the company just wasn’t the same. In fact, it would take the Walt Disney company 18 years to make the positive sh ift in management it needed to move forward.
In 1984, Walt’s nephew Roy, along with other board members, ousted Walt’s son-in-law Ron Miller from the position of CEO and brought in two outsiders. Frank Wells was appointed President of the company and Michael Eisner as CEO.
Eisner and Wells became the first two characters in a larger story that would rejuvenate the Disney brand. Suddenly, decisions never thought up were being made and projects were put into production all over the place.
Over the course of 5 years, the Walt Disney company went from being on the chopping block, potentially being sold off and divided up, to reclaiming it’s throne as a giant in entertainment.
Those 5 years gave Eisner, Wells, Roy, and the rest of the company the confidence and desire to take on it’s biggest projects yet and to claim the upcoming 1990s as “The Disney Decade”.
The Disney Decade would be a time of massive growth and popularity for the Disney company, But making it to to the Disney Decade wasn’t just a matter of switching around suits.
There were many pieces to that puzzle, and one of those pieces was fixing up Disney’s identity as just a children’s brand. Touchstone was created as a brand for more …risqué films.
Ron Miller became the CEO of Touchstone and saw immediate results with the studio’s first film, “Splash”, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.
They had continued success throughout the 1980s with films like Cocktail, Three Men and a Baby, Adventures in Babysitting, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Dead Poet’s Society, and Good Morning Vietnam starring Robin Williams.
But Disney had yet to tap into the home media market. The company had been hesitant to release home videos, and pushed for more theatrical re-releases instead.
With Eisner and Wells in charge, Disney started making films available at rental stores. Deals were then signed with large corporations like Walmart and Target to carry the movies and position them in prominent displays. Now, Disney fans could watch movies from the vault over and over again!
Another new venture for Disney was cable television! The Disney Channel initially started as a premium channel like HBO, Disney would run it’s older movies and tv shows as well as specials on the network. Under Eisner and Wells, new television programming began production, including the live action “Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh” and “Dumbo’s Circus”.
In syndicated television, Disney hit a homerun with “DuckTales”.
The company returned to it’s Sunday night television roots in 1986 by featuring a classic Disney film each week. Many names were put up for possible hosts, including Dick Van Dyke, Tom Hanks, Julie Andrews, and Roy E. Disney, but the company decided the host needed to be Michael Eisner, though many critics wondered if the CEO made that decision for himself.
Eisner would go on to host the Sunday Night Movie and the Wonderful World of Disney shows on ABC and NBC, and the hosting gig solidified Eisner as the new face of the Walt Disney company. Like Uncle Walt, he became a trusted name, synonymous with family programming.
With the success Eisner and Wells were bringing to the team, others were brought in to help. Like Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was tapped with fixing the dying Animation department. Things at Walt Disney Feature Animation were so bad that they had been relegated to an off-property annex and given very little resources.
The animation annex was filled with cubicles and looked more like a scene from the movie Office Space than a real animation studio. It got so bad that many artists, including John Lasseter and Tim Burton, left to pursue careers elsewhere. But if anything could turn things around for Walt Disney Animation, it was the new creative life blood pulsing through the company…from the top down. All they needed was a hit film.
Before the end of the 1980s, Disney would have not one but two hits on their hands, and would be catapulted into a Renaissance by a Rabbit and a Mermaid.
The idea for Who Framed Roger Rabbit had bounced around the studio since 1981 when Disney bought the rights to the book, “Who Censored Roger Rabbit” by Gary K. Wolf. But when Eisner saw the idea, it quickly became his pet project.
The film was greenlit with a thirty million dollar budget, the largest for any animated production in history. Eisner hired Steven Spielberg to produce the film, who was able to get many of the major animation and movie studios to sign contracts allowing Disney to produce a film featuring their characters.
The i dea of seeing all of our favorite cartoon characters in one place seemed unlikely but if there was anyone who could make it happen it was Spielberg. Of course, there were contractual obligations. Warner Bros. made sure that Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny got just as much screen time as Donald and Mickey and that none of the toons were seen as lesser or greater than any of the others.
The challenging task of leading a film, filled with cartoon characters that weren’t actually present, went to veteran actor Bob Hoskins. Several others were considered, including Bill Murray, Chevy Chase, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson, just to name a few.
Due to the amount of t echnical breakthroughs in the film, and the glacial pace of production, the budget soared to over fifty million dollars by the time the project wrapped, but Disney and Spielberg had the movie they wanted. Due to the risqué character Jessica Rabbit, Disney opted to release the film under Touchstone Pictures instead of Disney’s name, but incredibly the film made six times its budget in it’s initial release. A huge win for Eisner and company.
Roger Rabbit would go on to win 3 Academy Awards and be added to the National Film Registry for its significant importance in animation and film history. Roger Rabbit had single handedly created interest once again in the golden age of animation.
All of a sudden, classic cartoon characters were back on television, and Saturday morning cartoons were familiarizing a new generation with characters like Droopy, Yogi Bear, Bugs Bunny, and of course, Mickey Mouse. And just as Roger Rabbit had revived interest in animation, The Disney Company received yet another bo ost with its next film. The 198 9 Disney Classic, The Little Mermaid.
The Little Mermaid was initially pitched by Ron Clements in 1985, but the story was shelved until Oliver and Company had wrapped production, due to the large workload on the animators. In 1987, the project got the go-ahead, and Katzenberg hired the broadway song-writing and storytelling duo of Alan Menken and Howard Ashman to handle project.
Ashman, Menken, Clements, and co-director John Musker turned the story into a musical, with Ashman suggesting the crab character be named Sebastian and to make him Jamaican. Ashman, who was a stickler for driving the story with music, felt that the songs needed to have a caribbean feel. In fact, the film’s most popular song, “Part Of Your World” almost ended up on the cutting room floor thanks to animation head Jeffrey Katzenberg. Thankfully, Howard Ashman won that battle.
The film went on to both commercial and critical success, and made over two hundred million dollars at the box office in its initial run. The Little Mermaid would win two Academy Awards and a Grammy Award for the song “Under the Sea”.
The New York Times called the Little Mermaid the best Disney film in 30 years, and Roger Ebert wrote that it put the magic back into animation. If “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” had re-captured the audience’s interest in Disney animation, The Little Mermaid solidified the idea that Disney Animation was back, and better than ever.
To finish off the 1980s, Disney CEO Michael Eisner wanted to make a big impact on Disney’s theme park division. Eisner opted to hire outside companies to build two theme park attractions for Disneyland. The first, Captain EO starring Michael Jackson and directed by Francis Ford Coppola became the most expensive theme park attraction, and music video, ever created.
Disney then partnered with George Lucas to create Star Tours, a ride set in the Star Wars universe. Both opened in Tomorrowland to rave reviews.
On the other side of the country, it was now well known that Universal Studios wanted to build an Orlando theme park, and Eisner wanted to get ahead of the game. Originally planned as a new pavilion for the Epcot Center theme park, the Great Movie Ride became the centerpiece of the Disney/MGM Studios, the third park to open on the Walt Disney World property outside Orlando, Florida. The park opened on May 1, 1989…a full year before Universal Studios Florida.
The Disney MGM Studios opened with only two major attractions; the Great Movie Ride and the Backlot Studio Tour, but Michael Eisner saw the Studio theme park as HIS Disneyland, and he had big plans for its future. These plans wouldn’t just impact the Disney/MGM Studios, but would become the plans for the entire Walt Disney company.
In January of 1990, Michael Eisner made several announcements that would impact many facets of the Walt Disney Company. These announcements would outline what was to come in the 1990s and he declared the upcoming years to be “The Disney Decade”.
Ambitious ideas were laid out. Soon, there were movies going into production left and right, construction was underway worldwide, and new deals were being made nearly every day.
The upcoming Disney Decade would give the company some of its highest highs as well as some pretty serious lows. But, those growing pains push the company in bold new directions. People stopped asking “What would Walt do?” and started looking toward the future. And the future looked to be pretty bright.
Next week on “#DisneyDecade”, Eisner takes a gamble on a new international theme park and two untimely deaths shift the momentum of the Disney Company in the 1990s.