By 1995, Michael Eisner had some serious decisions to make. Disney’s animation studio was experiencing unprecedented success, but with Katzenberg gone, and no one ready to step into Frank Wells’ shoes.
1994 was a roller coaster year! Publicly, The Walt Disney Company reached its highest achievements, even while dealing with the deaths of key players behind the scenes. The Lion King turned out to be Disney’s most successful film since Snow White, the parks were on the verge of turning things around, and Disney’s risky foray into the sports world, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, was paying off.
CEO Michael Eisner had every department at Disney firing on all cylinders when his partner and COO Frank Wells died, and how he handled the situation would not only be a defining moment in his career, but for Disney as a whole.
Wells’ death, along with that of lyricist Howard Ashman, and the subsequent ouster of animation studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg left Disney in a shaky position, but those losses brought new staff, and new ideas to the company. Those new faces had a big challenge ahead of them; building on the resounding early triumphs of the…Disney Decade.
By 1995, Michael Eisner had some serious decisions to make. Disney’s animation studio was experiencing unprecedented success, but with Katzenberg gone, and no one ready to step into Frank Wells’ shoes, Eisner began delegating his responsibilities to other members of the management staff. Eisner eventually had to look outside the company for a second in command. He settled on veteran talent agent Michael Ovitz. Ovitz founded the Creative Arts Agency in the 1970s, and had been representing big Hollywood names for decades. Eisner felt that Ovitz’s name and status as a Hollywood insider would further benefit the already thriving animation, and live action film departments. Eisner officially hired Ovitz as President of the Walt Disney company in November of 1995, more than a year after Frank Wells’ death. But that gap in leadership left Ovitz’s duties in a state of uncertainty.
Joe Roth, former chair of 20th Ce ntury Fox and Caravan Pictures, was put in charge of Walt Disney Feature Animation. The second-tier animation department, which would eventually become “DisneyToons” had already produced a direct to video DuckTales movie, and was in the process of finishing a new film called A Goofy Movie. The film would become a cult classic among Disney fans. Thanks to the success of A Goofy Movie, “DisneyToons” would remain very busy throughout the 1990s.
When Joe Roth took over, the big budget picture in production was Pocahontas. Disney gambled on an original film with the Lion King, and the were doing the same thing with the real life story of the “Native American princess.” The character John Smith was fictionalized as a love interest, despite the fact that there was no documented romantic connection between Smith and Pocahontas. In true Disney fashion, the film would become another musical tall tale. Afte r all, revealing that Pocahontas later married another Englishman and would die at the age of 21 is less…pretty.
Disney Animation president Peter Schneider had been working on an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, and he quickly saw similarities with the Pocahontas film that was already in development. Prior to Roth coming on board, the project received a quicker greenlight than any other film in Disney history. Production actually began in 1992, but the film sat on the shelf for a few years as The Lion King soared to success and Katzenberg departed. Like with Aladdin and Lion King, big names were hired to bring their voices to the film. Mel Gibson was cast as John Smith, a young Christian Bale as Thomas, and the role of Pocahontas was split between Broadway singer Judy Kuhn and Native American actress Irene Bedard.
With Katzenberg gone, and many executives taking on new roles following Wells’ death, the animation department was getting more notes about Pocahontas. Specifically, they didn’t want anthropomorphized, or talking animals, in the movie, the hope was that this would distinguish it from the Lion King. They were also conscious of the country’s social and political landscape following the 1992 LA Riots, just a stone’s throw from the Disney studios in Burbank. Executives were excited about putting out another smash hit for the studio, but they were nervous about a racially tense film featuring Native Americans fighting Europeans.
But for all their doubts about the plot, studio executives were VERY excited about continuing to work with composer Alan Menken. Since coming on board for The Little Mermaid, Menken was on a musical hot streak unseen by Disney since the days of the Sherman brothers, winning 6 Academy Awards for h is scores and original songs. If nothing else, studio executives could rest assured that Pocahontas’ MUSIC would be a smash hit.
Pocahontas was released on June 16, 1995 to coincide with the 400th birthday of its namesake character, and in a stunt to top The Lion King, it premiered to an audience of over 100,000 people in New York’s City’s Central park, and was followed up by a concert from Vanessa Williams, who sang the film’s hit song “Colors of the Wind”. As anticipated, Alan Menken’s work on the soundtrack earned him even more acclaim; he would go on to win Academy Awards for best song and best score, upping his Oscar tally to 8 statues in 7 years.
Overall, though, Critical reaction to Pocahontas was mixed; many reviewers were critical of the lack of humor and historical inaccuracies. Pocahontas was one of the most profitable films of 1995, but compared to The Lion King’s blockbuster gross of nearly $1 billion, Pocahontas’ $346 million came as something of a disappointment.
One positive outcome of the film, however, was it’s message. The early and mid 1990s saw a serious rise in racial tension in the United States, particularly fueled by the Los Angeles riots, and the racially divisive murder trial of football star and actor OJ Simpson. Pocahontas’ message was one of understanding between races and cultures. The writing and animation team wanted to make a statement with their film. While it may have struck a chord with audiences, studio executives began to feel that they had made a mistake by promoting social issues instead of telling a good story, resulting in a disappointing follow-up to the cultural phenomenon of the Lion King.
Although the animation studio had taken a hit, they were hoping to recover with their next film. They would return to their roots with an adaptation of the 19th century French novel The Hunchback of Notre . But while animators at the studio were working on keeping their film division running smoothly, div ision president Peter Schneider had set his sights on working with a new animation company called Pixar. Schneider had been teaming with Pixar and it’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter, since 1990’s “Rescuers Down Under”, which featured several scenes created by Pixar’s animation computers. The Pixar computer had been an integral piece in creating the lush landscapes of Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Pocahontas, but Pixar was unhappy with the relationship.
Apple founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who had funded Pixar with a $5 million investment, became the studio’s chair. He wanted Pixar to partner with Disney to distribute their own feature length film. Schneider was interested in the idea; Pixar had already generated some serious buzz in the animation community with the short films “Tin Toy” and “Knick Knack.” Disney set up a meeting with Jobs and a few of Pixar’s other key players. In the meeting, which took place prior to Katzenberg’s ousting, Lasseter and Pixar animators expressed concern about Katzenberg’s penchant for micromanaging, something he was notorious for. History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself.
Pixar’s first film would be called Toy Story, and just as Lasseter and and crew feared, Katzenberg ran it through the wringer. He wanted an edgier film with more adult references; the resulting story had mean-spirited characters and was almost unrecognizable from Pixar’s original vision. Disney had seen enough, and nixed the project. Pixar was left with a mess of a story, and the prospect of returning, solo, to the drawing board. Anxious to keep the project from collapsing entirely, Steve Jobs invested his own money into the project, and set to work trying to mend relations with Disney.
Three months after the two studios had parted ways, Pixar returned to Katzenberg with a rewrite. The adult themes were still there, but the characters were witty & charming, and Woody was now a kinder, gentler leader. Schneider and Katzenberg brought the Pixar crew in under the Disney animation umbrella, which gave the small, upstart studio the benefit of input from writers and artists from the top animation company in the world.
Steve Jobs continued to be Toy Story’s patron saint, and kept the project on solid financial footing even as the budget soared from $17 million to $30 million. He grew more and more excited as the film progressed, even inviting friends and family to view scenes as they were finished. He was no longer providing the wallet for a small animated project; he felt sure his crew was chang ing the shape of the entertainment landscape forever.
With Katzenberg out, and Toy Story nearing completion, Disney became concerned that the film wasn’t a musical. Lasseter and his team had crafted a wonderful story around one of storytelling’s favorite tropes; the “buddy film”. But Disney’s success with the musical genre simply couldn’t be ignored. Pixar fought the id ea, but ultimately found a compromise; there would be songs in Toy Story, but not sung by the characters. Lasseter left the soundtrack in the able hands of award-winning songwriter Randy Newman, who turned in three catchy tunes, including Toy Story’s eventual theme song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me”.
The film was released on Thanksgiving weekend 1995 to critical acclaim. Critic Roger Ebert compared it to “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” for its ability to push the boundaries of technology. Time Magazine called it the best comedy of 1995 and one of the 25 best animated films of all time. The American Film Institute would add the film to it’s “100 best films of all time” in 2007. Only one other animated film made the cut; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Disney’s investment in this small animation company paid off big time; the partnership would produce five more hits in the next ten years, and Disney got to license the characters for merchandise and the parks.
Speaking of the theme parks, 1995 was a turning point for the parks division. Euro Disney had been a leech, sucking fund s away from every other branch, but a simple name change, and the May opening of Europe’s very own Space Mountain, renewed interest in the fledgling park. After three years of operating in the red, Disneyland Paris would finally have a profitable quarter, paving the way for other projects worldwide. Another name change came in 1995 with Epcot Center simply becoming Epcot, as well as the addition of Ellen’s Energy Adventure to the Universe of Energy pavilion.* Also premiering at Walt Disney World was a brand new themed water park called Blizzard Beach. The park would host Summit Plummet, the third tallest water slide in the world at 120 ft tall; plummeting guests could reach speeds up to 60 mph.
Riding that wave of thrills, Disney debuted, arguably, their scariest attraction ever at Walt Disney World that year…The ExtraTERRORestrial Alien Encounter would create major buzz at Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland. The controversial attraction was unlike anything the theme park world had ever seen. Alien Encounter would only exist for 8 years, but would gain a cult following and inspire Disney to think outside the box when creating more adult-oriented attractions.
1995 marked Disneyland’s 40th anniversary, and they celebrated with the opening of possibly the most popular attraction in the park’s history, the groundbreaking Indiana Jones Adventure. If Walt had perfected the dark ride with Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion in the 1960s, Imagineers REinvented it with Indy. Creating and patenting the Enhanced Motion Vehicle, or EMV, the attraction didn’t just take you through scenes as an onlooker, but you played the role of an adventurer narrowly escaping the doomed, crumbling, cursed Temple of the Forbidden Eye.
Disneyland’s 40th anniversary year also saw the continued success of the Mighty Ducks hockey team at the Pond, just down the road. Canadian Paul Kariya started a nine year run with the Ducks and would be the face of the team for years, carrying them to eventual playoff victories and playing in three All-Star games.
With the Ducks making money, Disney would keep moving into the world of sports with an unexpected purchase in 1995. Almost since the advent of television in the 1950s, Disney had been creating TV programming, but the studio typically partnered with networks and cut deals for their programming. Disney would change their game in July 1995, paying $19 million to merge with ABC, which was running under the leadership of network president Bob Iger. Disney and ABC would get an investing share in other stations such as A&E, Lifetime, and The History Channel. More importantly, they would gain 80% interest in the sports network ESPN, which would soon begin providing some of the biggest profits for the company.
With the merger, Disney would take charge of their own programming for several channels, and would develop some serious clout in deciding on the direction of expansions like AB C Family and Disney XD. Even though the ABC merger wasn’t Disney’s first attempt at a buyout, it would clearly indicate “which way the wind was blowing”, and would serve as the catalyst for how they did business in the 21st century.
With so much happening in the thick of the Disney Decade, you would imagine that Michael Ovitz, the new second in command, would fall into place and take control of day-to-day operations, but that wasn’t the case. Just over a year after Ovitz was hired, Eisner controversially let him go. In January of 1997, Ovitz agreed to a severance package of more than $38 million, as well as over $100 million in Disney stock. Executives weren’t happy with Eisner for allowing Ovitz to spin his wheels for a year, then send him on his way with a huge payday. Eisner, who had jumpstarted the Disney Decade and saved a company from bankruptcy, was suddenly in hot water and would need to start moving carefully to avoid causing his own downfall.
While Disney was growing and gaining momentum, they were still without a Frank Wells. and the top executives in charge, now taking a more hands-on role, were uncertain about the studio’s leading man.
On the next episode of the Disney Decade, Broadway gains one of its biggest productions, the animation department tells one of it’s darkest stories, and Walt Disney World opens a new conceptual theme park with live animals.