film reporter

Disney's risks made fairy tales come true

Entertainment and media companies are in embattled mode, and retrenchment is the order of the day. This summer, even as it fielded the season's top two hits — "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest" and "Cars" — the Walt Disney Co. ordered 650 layoffs worldwide. All across town, studios have been cutting back on production deals and big-budget movies.

But one of the many lessons from Neal Gabler's newly published and richly detailed biography "Walt Disney: The Triumph of the American Imagination" (Knopf) is that it takes money to make money. If there was a pattern to Disney's career, it is that in pursuit of creative risks, he repeatedly overextended his company. He was often in hock to creditors, especially Bank of America. But the risks generally paid off.

Disney, with the support of his brother Roy, was certainly a shrewd businessman. His Walt Disney Enterprises virtually invented modern-day licensing: In 1934, with Mickey Mouse products popping up everywhere, Disney was involved in the sale of $35 million of merchandise domestically. In the '50s, he redefined promotion and branding with his ABC-TV show.

Gabler's account of the creation of the ground-breaking animation feature "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" illustrates just how painstakingly far Disney was willing to go to pursue his vision. For all its period detail, it's also a chronicle that strikes a number of modern-day parallels.

In 1933, when Disney began contemplating "Snow White," it was by no means clear that a full-length animated film was financially feasible — or that moviegoers were ready to embrace a feature-length cartoon. In the wake of the enormous success of that year's eight-minute short "The Three Little Pigs," his contemporaries began urging him to take the leap: James Thurber suggested he tackle Homer's "Iliad" or "Odyssey." Publisher M. Lincoln Schuster suggested he take a look at a book called "Bambi." Mary Pickford offered to underwrite costs on an animated/live-action "Alice in Wonderland."

Disney, though, opted for the fairy tale "Snow White," initially budgeted at an entirely unrealistic $250,000. He spent more than a year just developing the story and another year training animators and overseeing preliminary sketches. Animation didn't begin until February 1936, and the rush to meet the movie's Dec. 21, 1937, premiere led to round-the-clock work sessions.

Along the way, Disney had to virtually invent this particular wheel. A muted, pastel color palette required developing new paint formulas. A multiplane camera was constructed to add dimensionality and perspective. In a sort of primitive attempt at motion capture, animators and actors filmed live-action scenes to study how the dwarves should move.

Ultimately, the movie cost more than $1 million, most of which came from bank loans. But by May 1939, it had become the highest-grossing film to date, pulling in $6.7 million. The studio retired its debt. Its distributor, RKO, offered to set up a revolving fund of $1 million for Disney's next two features. (Disney had shrewdly moved his distribution deal from UA to RKO in part to guarantee his control of TV rights.) And Disney himself saw to it that the animators were paid $750,000 in bonuses.

As Gabler observes, "Money was just instrumental for Walt, a way for him to make his films." It's a lesson that Hollywood ignores when it treats films as nothing more than quarterly accounting items.
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