Disney getting back to hand-drawn animation

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The Walt Disney Co. used the occasion of its 2007 Investor Conference to rename a few of its assets, kick around the idea of building a bunch of mini theme parks and show some love to what some consider an outdated medium: hand-drawn animated feature films.

Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, said Thursday in Orlando that he and John Lasseter, chief creative officer of those same entities, intend to bring back traditionally animated movies. The news comes little more than two months after Disney eliminated 160 jobs from its staff of 800 at its Burbank animation studio that deals in movies and TV shows.

Catmull said Pixar is running much the same as it has since before Disney purchased it last year. But the Burbank facility housed remarkable artists who "were not kneaded together in the right way," hence the layoffs.

Catmull expressed an appreciation for animation of the CG and traditional variety, provided a worthy story is being told. "Quality is the best business plan," he said.

He and Lasseter showed clips of the next several animated films from Disney and Pixar, all of which are computer-generated: "Ratatouille," "Meet the Robinsons," "Wall-E," "American Dog" and "Toy Story 3."

As for those renamed business units, Touchstone Television is now ABC Television Studio, while Buena Vista Games, responsible for successful video games based on such movies as "Chicken Little" and "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," now will be known as Disney Interactive Studios.

Disney executives speaking at the conference also said that they're resurrecting the ESPN cell phone, though this time around, giant phone service Verizon Wireless will do most of the heavy lifting (related story on page 8). Disney launched its ESPN cell phone in 2005 and a year later seemingly abandoned it and took a $30 million accounting charge because of the product.

That rare failure, though, didn't sour Disney president and CEO Bob Iger on new media, and he said Thursday that while he's not necessarily in the market for acquisitions, had he were he'd be particularly interested in purchasing entertainment technology companies.

He called last year's Pixar purchase "pricey" but also "as perfect a fit as you can get."

Anne Sweeney, co-chair of Disney Media Networks and president of Disney-ABC Television Group, talked up new ABC.com initiatives, including allowing Internet users to upload their own videos to the Web site dedicated to "America's Funniest Home Videos." Such user-generated content is all the rage nowadays, though Sweeney promised a far more family-friendly experience than that offered by Google's YouTube and its copycats.

She also said ABC.com will boost its broadband video offerings by letting users choose from additional screen sizes and with a "pause ad" feature, so that whenever a user pauses a TV show they are watching online, a static commercial remains onscreen until the show is unpaused.

ABC launched its broadband player late last year, and Sweeney said more than 50 million viewings have been initiated by users looking for full, free episodes of such ABC shows as "Desperate Housewives," "Grey's Anatomy" and "Lost."

Other highlights during the two-day event in Orlando that ended Thursday included the announcement of "Haunted High School Musical," a feature film due in 2008 that will be based, of course, on the wildly popular, similarly named TV movie that also spawned a hit CD.

Executives said Thursday that "High School Musical" will contribute about $100 million in profits for Disney in 2006 and '07.

Meanwhile, Iger and Walt Disney Parks and Resorts chairman Jay Rasulo said they're considering building several small theme parks that will afford families high-quality experiences, albeit shorter ones and closer to home.

The trick is to do so without diluting the brand or cannibalizing customers who would otherwise be visiting Disney's major resorts in Florida and California.

Iger said the small theme parks might make sense because, while 100 million people visited Disney's massive resorts last year, "not all of them come back through," presumably because of cost, distance and time constraints.

The idea of mini theme parks was alluded to recently in Disney's annual report, complete with glossy, color photos of concept sketches, including one of a pirate-themed resort with mountains, bridges, castles, rivers and ships.

Iger said that "not hundreds or even dozens" of such parks will be built. "We'll be modest in our approach."
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