Dis draws up old game plan

Traditional ani ripe for return

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of its assets, kick around the idea of building a bunch of mini theme parks and show some love to what some consider an outdated medium: hand-drawn animated feature films.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 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. 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 Robert Iger on new media, and he said Thursday that though he's not necessarily in the market for acquisitions, if he was 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.

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."

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 Anaheim and Florida.

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.