Why Original 'Lion King' Writers Are Losing Out With This Year's Remake

Courtesy of Photofest; Courtesy of Disney
Disney’s 2019 remake of 'The Lion King' is expected to closely adhere to the 1994 version’s script.

As the studio readies a new version of the 1994 classic, as well as 'Dumbo' and 'Aladdin,' for 2019, long-standing credit and residuals disparities upset story artists who worked on the earlier versions.

Storyboard artist Jorgen Klubien looks back fondly on his contribution to Disney’s hit 1994 film The Lion King and is proud that producers acknowledged his conceptualization of a key scene by awarding him a coveted “story” credit. That’s why it stung when he learned that his credit may not appear on this summer’s CGI-enhanced remake, due out July 19, despite a trailer in December that indicates the new movie will hew closely to the original script.

“How can they not bring my credit forward? How can they just eliminate it?” Klubien asks. As Disney readies 2019 remakes of not only The Lion King, but also Aladdin and Dumbo for theatrical release, the question of who gets credit and residuals is likely to become more hotly debated.

For many writers of animated works, the answer has long been the same: no residuals. The original Lion King, like most animation, was not made under Writers Guild of America jurisdiction. Instead, the writers, like the majority of visual artists on the film, performed their work subject to the jurisdiction of The Animation Guild. TAG, which is also known as Local 839 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (the umbrella union for below-the-line crew) offers few credit protections and no residuals, as are routine under the WGA rules.

Rewind 80 years and it’s easy to see how live action writers and their animation brethren ended up in different unions. In 1938, the National Labor Relations Board denied a studio challenge to the newly-formed Screen Writers Guild, one of the predecessors of today’s WGA. The decision discusses the process of purchasing a story, then developing it into a treatment and screenplay. Interestingly, the Guild agreed to dismiss Disney from the case for reasons unstated in the decision. A year later, the Board considered a similar challenge to an early animation union, the Screen Cartoonists Guild. The writing process described was less formal: “The ‘idea’ for a story may originate with anyone,” said the NLRB. “The director and the story man develop the idea into a story suitable for screen projection within the allotted time for exhibition.”

Today, those “story men” include the artists who prepare preliminary boards outlining a movie. “Story artists [often] are (informally) relied upon to contribute all manner of dialog, business, blocking, and scenes,” says University of Western Ontario professor Matt Stahl, who has written extensively on animation labor, echoing what THR learned from a variety of sources.

The distinction between above- and below-the-line unions has proved decisive: Above-the-line guilds achieved residuals for their members as early as 1941, but IATSE did not. Today, most forms of reuse trigger residuals for writers, actors and directors, but only a subset trigger IATSE residuals, and those are paid only to the union’s pension and health plans collectively, not to individual crewmembers. Even SAG-AFTRA voice actors receive animation residuals, but TAG writers don’t.

“It’s basically all politics,” says Stahl. “At certain moments the circumstances enabled groups of creators to make claims for residual or reuse rights under threat of strikes, employers caved, and these systems became institutionalized.”

And there things stood for many decades. “Animation didn’t start to earn serious money until the 1990s,” says former TAG president Tom Sito, pointing to The Little Mermaid, Disney’s 1989 reinvigoration of feature animation and Fox’s The Simpsons premiere the same year. Meanwhile, then-upstart Pixar had begun to pioneer the use of computer animation around the same time.

The WGA took notice, forming an Animation Writers Caucus in 1994. Four years later, says WGA president David Goodman, Simpsons writers sought representation by the WGA, not TAG. Fox acceded, setting a precedent for later shows such as Family Guy and bifurcating TV and film animation writers into haves and have-nots. “It’s all about leverage,” Goodman notes. Today, the WGA covers such Netflix series asBoJack Horseman and, Goodman says, Apple’s upcoming Central Park. Those shows’ writers enjoy residuals and potential participation in merchandising revenue and Broadway ticket sales (for projects that make that leap), whereas TAG writers are stuck with what they can negotiate. (Neither TAG nor Disney commented for this story.)

Consider the upcoming Lion King, which in truth is photo-realistic animation created using VFX techniques — and by artists who probably aren’t unionized at all, as IATSE has largely failed in its attempts to create a VFX workers union. If the new film is written under WGA jurisdiction (a matter the WGA says it can’t ascertain) then its credited writer(s) will be entitled to residuals, even though the writers of the original film are not. Since the original film was made outside WGA jurisdiction, it’s considered “source material,” explains the WGA’s head of credits, Lesley Mackey, just like a novel or comic strip, and compensation for its writers is outside the WGA’s purview.

It gets more complicated: Klubien is one of 17 people who received story credit on 1994’s Lion King. Eight more received an “additional story material” credit. TAG has virtually no rules regarding credit, but if the film had been WGA, Klubien might never have received a story credit at all, because WGA rules prohibit more than two writers or teams from sharing story credit, and Klubien’s biggest contribution was to a single scene.

Meanwhile, original writer Tom Disch and another early scribe, Ron Bass, got no credit at all, while Linda Woolverton — who received shared screenplay credit — says that Disney gave her a royalty on the Broadway Lion King. But, she recently told THR, “I’m not happy that I don’t get to participate” in the 2019 remake.

Nor does the remake entitle her to guild residuals. All of this might be more sorted out if the WGA were involved. “It’s truly ridiculous that animation directors and writers are not covered by the DGA and Writers Guild,” notes an animation veteran. Woolverton, who has diversified beyond animation, says the lack of benefits like residuals “was one of the reasons I did leave.”

A version of this story appears in the Jan. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.