Episode three of our serial about the “Disney Decade,” in partnership with Network 1901.
Fresh off the success of Beauty and the Beast, Michael Eisner and company were leading a full-blown resurgence of the Walt Disney company’s popularity, and Eisner was going full steam ahead with expansion around the globe. Euro Disney wasn’t in great shape, but Walt Disney World’s plans were growing.
Exciting things were happening at Disneyland, too, and both Touchstone Pictures and Walt Disney Feature Animation were pumping out films at a frenetic pace. But there was one person at the Disney company who, in spite of the madness going on, continued to work diligently behind the scenes to make sure everyone was taken care of. That person was Frank Wells.
In the 1990s, Frank Wells was the Roy to Michael Eisner’s Walt. Eisner channeled Walt; he was all about being front and center, creating new ideas and evolving the company. Meanwhile, Wells was the company’s new “Roy”, the guy managing business, mediating conflicts, and keeping employees, board members, and everyone else happy. If Eisner was the guy driving the boat, Wells was plugging holes to keep it from sinking. Wells was the man behind the scenes making sure The Disney Company had the momentum it needed to conquer the Disney Decade.
After lyricist Howard Ashman’s tragic and untimely death before the release of Beauty and the Beast, the company asked Linda Woolverton to re-work his Aladdin script. Woolverton helped Ashman write Beauty and the Beast, so she understood his style, his vision, and his genius.
But Woolverton’s script was eventually nixed by Animation studio head Jeffrey Katzenburg, who stated that the film could not rely solely on Ashman’s vision, and that they needed yet another rewrite. Ted Elliot and Terry Rosio took over, and wrote the third and final version of the film. That script received the greenlight, and the film formally moved away from Howard Ashman’s vision.
Ashman’s songwriting partner, Alan Menken, teamed up with lyricist Tim Rice to write 14 songs, only 6 of which were actually used in the completed picture. 3 featured lyrics from Rice and 3 from Ashman.
With script and songs written, next came the vocal cast. The producers wanted Robin Williams to portray the Genie. Williams was initially reluctant to play the part, but directors Ron Clements and John Musker asked animator Eric Goldberg to animate a short sequence of the Genie, using some of Williams’ stand up comedy as the vocal track. They sent Williams a copy of the short film; and he found the character so funny that he agreed to join the cast. The next trick was how to pay him.
Robin Williams’ cost, at the time, was $8 million per picture, but Robin, who recently gave an Oscar nominated performance in Touchstone’s “Good Morning, Vietnam”, made a deal to work for the Screen Actors Guild scale pay of $75,000. The price difference saved the studio from going over budget, but Williams asked Katzenberg not to use pictures of him in advertising, and not to make the Genie a centerpiece in any promotional artwork. Williams believed that the work stood on its own, and didn’t want to draw attention away from the piece as a whole.
Seeing the star power that Williams brought with him, Katzenberg opted to go back on his word; during the film’s production, Disney used his voice in commercials, and made the Genie the largest icon on the movie poster. Williams was also given top billing for the film. Williams was enraged; he had another film, “Toys,” which was rated “R”, slated for release just one month after Aladdin. Due to the flood of attention that Aladdin brought, and his unfamiliar new status as a family-friendly star, he found himself completely unable to properly promote “Toys”, virtually guaranteeing that that film would be a failure. It was.
Despite the backlash from Williams, the advertising campaign worked, and Aladdin opened to the public in November of 1992. Robin Williams would go on to win recognition at the Golden Globes, the Saturn Awards, and the MTV Movie Awards. The songwriting team of Menken and Rice won Academy Awards for best score, as well as best song for “A Whole New World”. Disney’s streak of Oscar-winning music was alive and well.
Aladdin would make a total of $504 million at the box office, besting the $425 million record that Beauty and the Beast set. It was another smash hit for Disney animation. Despite dropping Howard Ashman’s script and double-crossing Williams, Jeffrey Katzenberg had a firm hold on the reins of the world’s most successful animation studio.
Beauty and the Beast was a huge hit in 1991, and the movie made a fortune in VHS and toy sales. Naturally, Disney wanted to keep the story popular, and profitable. Thomas Schumaker, who helped bring Cirque Du Soleil to America, was hired to turn Beauty and the Beast into a live theatrical production. Schumaker premiered Beauty and the Beast on Broadway in 1994. It was nominated for a Tony award, and the cast would perform at the 1994 award ceremony. Needless to say, Beauty and the Beast became a big draw on Broadway, and plans turned to more productions, including an eventual adaptation of Aladdin. Disney was so committed to it’s theatrical division that they opted to renovate, and sign a 49 year lease on, the New Amsterdam theater in New York City, making it the permanent home for Disney productions.
Michael Eisner had always been a hockey fan, and thanks to players like Wayne Gretzky, the NHL was becoming more and more popular in the early 90s. 1992 saw the release of the hit sports film, “The Mighty Ducks”, and in 1993 Disney set out to take their fictional team of misfit kids out into the real world. For the price tag of $50 million, the Walt Disney company purchased a hockey franchise from the National Hockey League. They set up shop in Anaheim Arena, just a few miles down the road from Disneyland. They re-dubbed their home arena “The Pond”, and with that, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim became Disney’s first venture into the world of sports.
The Duck’s synergy with their parent company helped drive the team to financial success. Ducks merchandise could be found at Disney stores, and at Disneyland, and people vacationing at Disneyland could catch a game at the new arena. The Ducks first season was a success as well; they won 33 games, a record first year for an expansion team. With that success, the Mighty Ducks films continued, sparking two sequels, and Disney television animation launched a tv show for its syndicated Disney Afternoon lineup, simply called The Mighty Ducks. The Disney company had stepped up to a new challenge and achieved high marks in the sporting world. Hockey would be their first, but certainly not their last effort.
Over in the theme park division, Disneyland had a big hit with the ToonTown expansion, and the opening of the Indiana Jones Adventure. In 1994, They opened one of the most thrilling attractions ever at the Disney/MGM Studios, the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. It quickly became one of the longest queues in all of Walt Disney World. BRIDGES OF PARIS But it wasn’t a ll good news for Disney’s struggling theme park division. Euro Disney was still not clicking with European audiences, and would continue through its first few years at a loss, causing the theme park division to hemorrhage money, and lose financial support on several other projects worldwide.
Another planned project for the Disney Decade, which ultimately flopped, was Disney’s America. Originally proposed as a historical theme park, just outside of Washington DC, the park was slated to open in the mid 90s. But plans slowed, partly because of the money lost at Euro Disney, and also because of backlash from locals, who disdained the idea of the crowds and traffic that the park would bring. Disney went so far as to purchase land, but that’s as far as the Disney’s America project ever got.
Back at the animation department, Eisner and company were looking for a follow-up to the success of Aladdin. Originally called King of the Kalahari, and then King of the Beasts, and then King of the Jungle, The Lion King, which had been in development since 1988, went into production as Disney’s first ever attempt at telling an original story.
Influenced by William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, The Lion King went through several directors and producers, and the credits would ultimately list more than a dozen people as writers. Tim Rice was once again brought in to help write the songs, Hans Zimmer was hired to score the film, and superstar Elton John would headline the soundtrack.
After the success of Robin Williams as the Genie, Disney decided to cast the Lion King almost exclusively with “household names”. Matthew Broderick, teen heartthrob Jonathan Taylor Thomas, James Earl Jones, Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, Cheech Marin, Ernie Sabella, and Nathan Lane headlined the all-star cast. The Lion King’s budget was massive when compared to Beauty and the Beast’s $25 million, and Aladdin’s $28 million budget. The Lion King had a final budget of $45 million. Disney obviously needed a huge return on this investment. They needed the Lion King to be their biggest blockbuster yet.
The Lion King would shatter all of Disney’s previous records with an initial box office gross of $968 million, nearly doubling what they made with Aladdin. The film won Best Musical or Comedy Film and Best Score at the Golden Globes, and took home the Oscar for Best Score at the Academy Awards. Elton John’s “Can You Feel the Love Tonight” won the Academy for Best Song.
But for all of The Lion King’s achievements, something was very wrong on the Disney studio lot. The Lion King’s release in June of 1994 came just two months after one of the biggest tragedies in Disney history, which would leave the company with a gaping wound.
Frank Wells had been the President of the Walt Disney company for ten years. He was the one figure that everyone could turn to when they needed to talk. He was kind, calm, and understanding. He allowed Michael Eisner to be the on-screen personality, and face of the company. He was the man who kept the bank happy when projects were going south, and gave praise when the company was hitting home runs. He had helped take Disney from near-bankruptcy, to a company that earned $8.5 billion a year. But in April of 1994, Frank Wells…died, in a helicopter crash.
Wells was an avid adventurer in his free time. He had climbed all but one of the seven summits, the tallest mountains on each continent. He was a skier, and had a passion for the outdoors. But tragically, his passion would lead to his untimely demise. Leaving a ski trip in Nevada’s Ruby Mountains, his helicopter got caught in a snow storm, and crashed. Along with Muppets creator Jim Henson and lyricist Howard Ashman, th e death of Frank Wells hit the Disney Company hard.
Prior to Well’s death, Jeffrey Katzenberg had lobbied to move up the corporate ladder and oversee more than just the animation division, he wanted to be Eisner’s second in command. The move was never made because Eisner believed it would put Wells in an uncertain position within the company. Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew, had been chairman of the animation department, and felt as though Katzenberg was taking all of the credit for the department’s success. When Wells died, Katzenberg once again approached Eisner and Roy.
With Well’s death still fresh on everyone’s mind, Katzenberg asked to take Wells’ job as President. Between the lack of sympathy for the passing of Howard Ashman, the double crossing of Robin Williams, and the opportunistic, and poorly timed attempt at climbing the corporate ladder, Katzenberg was forced to resign from his position as the head of Walt Disney Animation. He would soon file a lawsuit against the Walt Disney company for money he felt he was owed. After settling out of court with Eisner and Disney, Katzenberg used his estimated $250 million settlement to start his own animation studio with Hollywood powerhouses Steven Spielberg and David Geffen. Dreamworks Studios SKG would go on to become one of Disney’s biggest rivals in the field of animation, producing hits like The Prince of Egypt, The Road To El Dorado, and Shrek.
Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King would both have dedications to Frank Wells, as would the new Disney Archives building, and the gold standard of Disney tributes: A window on Main Street USA. Like Frank himself, the window is subtle, but ever-present. It reads “Seven Summit Expeditions, Frank G. Wells, President. For Those Who Want To Do It All”.
On the next episode, Disney buddies up with a new animation company called Pixar, and tensions rise as some new faces join the team. Would Disney continue to have the same impact, in the latter half of the 1990s? Next time on…The Disney Decade.