The Magic Maker: Jennifer Lee’s Plan for Walt Disney Animation — and Finding the Next ‘Frozen’
When her first film made more than $1 billion, Lee proved she had the golden touch. Now that she's taken the helm of the studio, she's under pressure to keep the hits coming — and she’s betting heavily on new blood.
In early 2019, Walt Disney Animation Studios chief creative officer Jennifer Lee was scrolling on her phone in bed when a BBC News video about an African comic book company caught her eye. “I keep telling people this and they laugh at me, but we’re going to kick Disney’s ass in Africa,” Hamid Ibrahim, a Nigerian comic book artist who co-founded the company Kugali Media, declared in the video. Lee, who had been pushing to recruit a broader range of storytellers to Disney Animation, was intrigued by both the bravado and the vision. “I was just like, ‘I want to meet those guys,’ ” she says.
Lee ended up going a step further than a meeting — after hearing some of the Kugali founders’ ideas, she greenlighted one for Disney+, a sci-fi series called Iwájú, set in Nigeria and due in 2023, to be written and directed by Kugali co-founder Ziki Nelson. It will be created jointly by the two companies, one the most powerful in media, the other an upstart founded by three friends from Nigeria and Uganda.
Iwájú is part of Lee’s effort to evolve the storied 99-year-old company she has been running since June 2018, when she was named the first woman to head Walt Disney Animation Studios. As a writer — she penned the Oscar winner Frozen, which she also directed — Lee, 50, has brought a sharpened focus on story to the executive suite. And as a woman originally trained in live-action filmmaking, she has delivered an outsider’s perspective to the ultimate insider’s job in animation, guardian of a beloved brand that inspires theme park rides and drives toy sales. But during her tenure, the studio that used to make one feature a year has been pushed to create more content, including its first series for Disney+, while battling the unpredictable box office environment of the pandemic. Lee stepped into the top job six months after the company’s larger-than-life CCO, John Lasseter, departed abruptly amid what he called “missteps.” She was charged with refocusing a demoralized studio and delivering her own anticipated film, Frozen 2, in less than 18 months.
“People would ask, ‘How are you going to juggle it all?’ ” Lee says. It’s just a few days before Christmas, and she is talking by Zoom from the library of the Pasadena-area home she shares with her husband, actor Alfred Molina, and college-age daughter, Agatha Lee Monn. “I finally just said, ‘Guys, I got it. I’m a mom.’ ”
Lee’s ability to multitask has been key to the job. Just a few hours after she was appointed to run the studio, she was at a test screening in Arizona for the Wreck-It Ralph sequel, Ralph Breaks the Internet, along with Alan Horn, then chairman of Walt Disney Studios; Alan Bergman, then president; the film’s directors, Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, as well as its heads of story and its producers. After the screening, the team adjourned to an empty theater to discuss the focus group results, which signaled confusion about the end of the film, a problem they would need to solve quickly, as the movie was due in theaters in five months. “Everyone looked right at Jenn,” says Clark Spencer, a producer on Ralph Breaks the Internet who has since become president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. “She said, ‘We got too complex, we wanted too many set pieces, and we’re forgetting about the relationship between Ralph and Vanellope … Lose everything else. It could be funny. It could be interesting. You might love it. It doesn’t matter. We’ve got to track these two characters.’ She immediately focused the conversation. I was so impressed that in the few hours between when [her job] was announced and this meeting, she had the ability to do that.”
In succeeding Lasseter, Lee was filling the role of a giant, albeit controversial, figure at the studio. Lasseter had found creative and commercial success with both Pixar, which Disney acquired in 2006, and Disney Animation, but left the studio amid allegations of unwanted touching. (His role as CCO of Pixar was handed off to Up director Pete Docter.) When Lee stepped up, she decided she would play from her strengths, which lay in the scripting process, and acknowledge Lasseter’s, which were grounded in his background as an animator. When she first wrote for Disney, Lee had wanted more time for iterating — thanks to her, writers now get four drafts before the storyboard stage, whereas before they had only one or two. “I know the part of the process I’m really good at,” Lee says. “I know the part [Lasseter’s] really good at. I know that those two have to go together, and my job is to make sure that we’re well rounded in all areas. I wasn’t trying to be John.”
When it came to the animation, she relied on the experience of the people around her, including Spencer, who has been at Disney Animation for 28 years. Shortly after taking over for Lasseter, Lee addressed the studio. “I remember saying, ‘We know how to do this, you all know what to do … We’re going to carry this together,’ ” Lee says. “Those who’ve been a part of the studio for decades have become mentors and been excited for things to evolve the most. They’re partners to me. I confide in them.”
The pandemic has brought major challenges to the job that no amount of story craftsmanship can solve. In 2021, Disney Animation released two films theatrically (they usually release one a year), both originals centered on female characters of color: Raya and the Last Dragon, a fantasy based on traditional Southeast Asian cultures, and Encanto, a musical set in Colombia. As elsewhere in the industry, the pandemic dented the grosses for both titles despite positive reviews from critics and “A” Cinemascores from audiences. In November, just as children ages 5 to 11 were finally getting vaccinations in the U.S., Disney released Encanto with a 30-day exclusive theatrical window, but during the first weekend of that window, news of the omicron variant broke. The movie has earned $216.2 million so far, a small fraction of what pre-pandemic films like Frozen ($1.2 billion) and Moana ($643 million) collected. The studio released Raya in March simultaneously in theaters and on Disney+ Premiere Access, and that movie made $131 million in theaters. There are signs Encanto has found its audience in ways that are crucial to Disney’s bottom line: According to industry magazine Toy Insider, an $80 Encanto playset was one of the year’s top-selling toys. Meanwhile, the film’s soundtrack, with songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, has soared to the top of the charts since the holidays.
But figuring out what counts as a commercial success in the pandemic era — at a time when wins for the streaming service are a priority — is tricky. “It’s wonderful that families are coming back [to theaters], and it meant a lot that we could be in the theater, but we just don’t know,” Lee says of the future of the theatrical business. “We can’t compare to the past. I wish I understood exactly where everything was going. Maybe in a year we can revisit and we’ll know more. But I’m still processing.”
In March, Walt Disney Animation’s sister studio Pixar will send its third movie in a row, Turning Red, directly to Disney+, sparking questions about the future of the theatrical release there. Lee says that at her studio, the line between the different types of releases has grown hazier.
“We do not separate Disney+ or theatrical as one is better than the other,” she notes. “We give the artists the same resources, the same support, the same commitment. COVID has prepared us for unpredictability. The opportunity you get with either Disney+ or theatrical, because it’s Disney, is that your film or your series can reach the world.”
In order to meet the content demands of Disney+, the studio is growing. They have added new employees in Southern California and are hiring hundreds more for a new facility it is opening in Vancouver in 2022. In an effort to diversify her workforce, Lee has recruited storytellers from the live-action world, including Stella Meghie, who wrote and directed the 2020 Netflix film The Photograph and episodes of HBO’s Insecure.
Lee entrusted Meghie to write and direct Tiana, a Disney+ series based on the character from The Princess and the Frog. Meghie, who had been moved by the story of Disney’s first Black princess, had reached out to Disney’s live-action studio about a potential film adaptation of the 2009 property. Nothing came of it, but last summer Meghie received a call from her agent indicating that Lee wanted to meet her.
“Talking to Jenn is not like talking to a normal studio head,” Meghie says. “She’s a writer and a creative genius. I really was inspired by that conversation. She just seemed like such a good thought partner.” Lee did something unusual — she wanted not only to see a couple of Meghie’s four films, but asked to read a script for one of those films. “That was a very good sign to me, because it said she really wanted to get to know me as a writer,” Meghie says. “That gave me confidence.”
Another crucial hire was Mexican American director Carlos López Estrada, whom Lee tapped to helm Raya and the Last Dragon after seeing his film Blindspotting, a 2018 comedy-drama about a parolee who witnesses a police shooting. “I remember going, ‘This is a Disney movie,’ ” Lee says. “No one would say that necessarily. But you can see these qualities of this struggle to be authentic … to find the strength.” She also recruited Iranian American director Suzi Yoonessi, now making an original feature at the studio.
“[Lee] said, ‘I’m going to bring in talent that is going to be incredibly valuable to this studio. They’re going to bring in a different voice and perspective because they won’t have come directly from animation,” says Spencer. “It was a little uncomfortable for some people, because it was a new way of thinking about it. But she knew that, as a studio, we had to shift and change.”
Lee also has promoted from within, enlisting head of story David G. Derrick, who has Samoan heritage, to direct the upcoming Moana Disney+ series, and greenlighting debut features from Mexican-American animator Marc Smith and Filipino American Josie Trinidad, another head of story at the company.
Making this many original films and shows — five features, including Strange World, directed by Don Hall, and one series since she took over as CCO — is a creatively bold but potentially risky strategy commercially. If Lee is worried about the hazard of pursuing fresh material rather than doubling down on proven hits, she doesn’t show it. “For me, it’s the idea or the filmmaker” that justifies continuing a franchise, she says. “A filmmaker coming to me saying they are interested in continuing their IP [intellectual property] or someone having a brilliant idea — it has to come from the idea out.”
Lee, who grew up in Rhode Island, has had an untraditional path to studio chief. She studied English at the University of New Hampshire, worked in publishing at Random House and Time/Life in New York and went back to school at 30 to get an MFA at Columbia University. While there, she won awards for her screenwriting and had her daughter with her first husband. After grad school, two of her feature scripts were optioned, one by Leonardo DiCaprio’s Appian Way, but neither were made.
In 2011, Wreck-It Ralph director Johnston, a classmate from Columbia, recruited Lee to come to Disney Animation to help with a draft of the comedy. She arrived in Los Angeles as the divorced mother of a 7-year-old, expecting to stay eight weeks. But leaders at the studio were so impressed by her abilities to shape a story and steer a team, they invited her to join the company’s story trust, the group of filmmakers who give feedback on projects in the works.
In March 2012, the studio added Lee to the writing team of Frozen, which was struggling with the characters inspired by the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale “The Snow Queen.” Based on Lee’s contributions, particularly regarding the movie’s optimistic heroine, Anna, director Chris Buck asked her to join him as director, making her the first woman to helm a feature at the studio. Upon its release, Frozen became a juggernaut for Disney, earning the best animated feature Oscar, spawning a stage musical and an attraction at Epcot and making Lee the highest-grossing female director of all time until the release of Wonder Woman four years later.
“I didn’t experience the feeling of not having opportunity,” Lee says. “So many people across the industry did and felt that they could communicate with me, talking about the access they didn’t have or the feeling of being ignored in a room. There was this realization that, naively, I hadn’t experienced that. I never was afraid to speak my voice.” Lee wanted everyone who works for her to have that same feeling of acceptance at the studio. “And so I was like, ‘It has to be that way. It just has to, we have to change.’ I take that very seriously, because I sometimes have moments where I go, ‘How did I get through?’ “
In the years that followed, Lee began to climb at Disney, writing on Zootopia, directing Frozen 2 and contributing through the story trust. She also wrote the screenplay for Disney’s 2018 live-action adaptation of A Wrinkle in Time. “Jenn is someone who can drive the creative process not just as a storyteller herself but also in recognizing and fostering that spark in other storytellers,” says Bergman, now chairman of Disney Studios Content. “And she’s incredibly passionate about it.”
As Hollywood executive morning routines go, Lee’s is atypical in its focus not on company business, but on quiet thought: From 5 a.m. to 8 a.m., she asks her team to leave her alone to read scripts and work on her own writing.
“I tend to do my deepest creative work in the morning,” she says. “I like to get up at 5 with my scripts. I always say, ‘Send them at night. I don’t care. You can send them at midnight.’ I just know I’m going to read it with my coffee. I get up before the sun, and I sit, and I’ll work.”
Lee has a writing project of her own, though she won’t divulge any details about it. “What I love about the way Disney works is the CCOs are filmmakers,” she says. “The respect for the fact that we need to keep creating, that we are only good at our jobs if we are continuing to evolve as artists, was set from the beginning, and it is important to me.”
This story first appeared in the Jan. 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.