TEAM DISNEY--FLYING HIGH IN BURBANK
Dawn, the Disney studio, Burbank. The manicured lawns along Dopey Drive and Mickey Avenue glisten with dew as the sun burns through the Valley fog. At 6:15 a.m., the quiet of this gentle scene is shattered as a 5.0-liter, black-on-gray convertible Mustang glides past the guard at the kiosk. Minutes later, Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the motion picture and TV division, arrives at his desk. With a phone pressed to his ear and sipping a Diet Pepsi on ice, he starts his daily round of phone calls to agents, producers, directors and writers, one of whom might just deliver a megahit.
It’s an early start for a business that traditionally opens and closes late. It’s unheard of on a Sunday morning.
For the record:
12:00 a.m. Aug. 2, 1985 FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Friday August 2, 1985 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 12 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 2 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Lauren Shuler was mistakenly credited with producing “Desperately Seeking Susan” in an article in Calendar on Sunday. Shuler recently produced “Ladyhawke” and is now making “Pretty in Pink”; producers of “Desperately Seeking Susan” were Midge Sanford and Sarah Pillsbury.
Producer Steve Tisch (“Risky Business”) was on a flight to Dallas when he found himself seated near Katzenberg and Michael Eisner, Disney’s chairman of the board. For most of the flight, like a one-two puncher, they worked Tisch over. “Their enthusiasm was really contagious,” remembered Tisch. “I got off that plane feeling like the eighth dwarf. If they had asked me to put on a mouse suit and go work at Disneyland, I probably would have done it.”
Soon after Eisner and Katzenberg arrived at Disney, they met in a vacant office with Brian Grazer, producer of “Splash,” Disney’s biggest box-office attraction since “Mary Poppins.” After a brief discussion about plans for “Splash 2,” Grazer offered up another idea for something called “The Last Secret.” Recalled an incredulous Grazer: “Five minutes into the pitch, they said, ‘That sounds great, that’s fantastic, let’s do it!’ The next day, the papers were drawn up. It was like magic!”
In recent years, the magic was slipping away. Walt Disney Productions had fallen to the studio of last resort for movie makers--a dream factory running on empty that churned out annual reissues of classic animated films and the occasional syrupy feature that was too childish for adults and not sophisticated enough for kids. And the cornerstone of an American institution--movie making that captured hearts of all ages--seemed lost in the shuffle, dwarfed by a giant amusement-park company.
Last week, the $25-million animated “Black Cauldron,” one of the final projects of the previous regime, opened as its $25-million “Return to Oz” virtually disappeared from more than 1,000 theaters. As did “Tron” and “The Black Hole” before it, “Oz” characterized the problems previous studio executives had in reconciling the Disney tradition with changing consumer tastes.
Veteran producer Daniel Melnick makes this assessment of Team Disney: “You’ve almost got to regard it as a new company that has used an existing giant, albeit a sleeping giant, as the basis to grow.”
Disney now looks like a studio in flux overdrive. Cash-rich from record profits in other divisions (plus a limited partnership deal with Silver Screen Partners that pumps $200 million into the production pot), the brand-new team of creative executives is transforming Disney from a boutique operation turning out four or five movies a year to a full-service studio that will turn out 12 to 15 movies annually and plunge full force into the competitive TV game.
The new Team Disney is led by chairman Eisner, who arrived 11 months ago; Vice Chairman Frank Wells, a former chief of Warner Bros.; Katzenberg and TV developer Richard Frank.
(Eisner, Katzenberg and Frank were key players on the powerhouse Paramount Pictures team led by Barry Diller that launched movie-TV hits such as “Beverly Hills Cop,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Entertainment Tonight” and “Solid Gold.” Diller left, too, to join the enemy forces at 20th Century Fox.)
Says Skip Brittenham, a powerful industry attorney: “The book on Disney was that they were not in the mainstream of the business. Based on (Eisner and Katzenberg’s) track record at Paramount, it’s a whole new ballgame.”
Calendar conducted some four dozen interviews with writers, agents, attorneys, directors, producers and middle-level executives at Disney to form a composite picture of life on the Disney campus. Top management refused to be interviewed for this article, arguing that discussion of their achievements would be premature since none of their slate of films would reach the public for months.
Team Disney is buying up people and projects at a dizzying pace. They’ve signed up everyone from Bette Midler to a first-time screenwriter from Inglewood who, until recently, mixed margaritas for a living. Also producer Lauren Shuler (“Desperately Seeking Susan”), the “Airplane!” writing-directing-producing team of the Zucker brothers and Jim Abrahams and writers Dan Petrie Jr. (“Beverly Hills Cop”) and writer-director Paul Mazursky (“Moscow on the Hudson”).
As a sample of activity, Disney has unleashed more than 40 press releases in the last nine months just announcing talent deals and executive appointments.
It’s Hollywood’s first boot camp. They’re working on a steady regimen of 18-hour days six days a week. In the past six months, Disney has put some 75 movie projects into the development pipeline, made a deal with ABC to revive the Sunday evening Disney anthology series (now called “The Disney Sunday Movie”) next season, sold two Saturday morning cartoon shows and announced plans to construct a $300-million full-service studio and movie theme park next to Disney World in Florida.
Dubbed by one observer “Paramount in the Valley” because about 13 executives were recruited from the studio, the new regime has set the breakneck pace at least partially to communicate a message to the creative community: Disney is back.
The overdrive mentality seems to have been well-received by investors--the stock closed at 86 3/4 Wednesday, nearly double its trading price before the new team arrived--and by Hollywood’s creative types, who are always willing to greet a new buyer with open arms. “They are kind of like kids in a candy store,” says Jim Abrahams, who jokes that his two-year deal requires him and the Zuckers to make 23 pictures about lost dogs in 24 months. “They have walked into an enormous empire with phenomenal assets that have not been exploited in a decade.”
At most agencies, movie agents are assigned to “cover” individual studios to keep track of projects and possible opportunities for clients. At Disney, Katzenberg and a flock of youthful aides-de-camp (including Lou Camer, a full-time, 19-year-old creative affairs executive) are assigned to cover agencies.
“Put on your crash helmet,” Katzenberg told newly recruited production vice president Jane Rosenthal, 28, on the eve of her first day.
“Katzenberg is like a gladiator with a mission,” says William Morris packaging agent Mike Simpson, who receives calls every Monday morning from Katzenberg or one of the team asking what scripts he read over the weekend. “The man is possessed.”
Those who know him well say that is a chronic condition for this intense, deadly serious, 34-year-old native New Yorker whose diminutive appearance is dwarfed by 20/20 ambition. During his 10-year tenure at Paramount, starting out as Diller’s assistant and ending up as president of production, Katzenberg was nicknamed “The Golden Retriever” for his ability to ferret out material.
Whereas Eisner is occupied with the grander overview of Disney business, Katzenberg is the point man on the movie assault. More than just executing other people’s visions, Katzenberg now can pick projects that appeal to him and Eisner. (Insiders say that while Katzenberg has the power to “green light” a movie, as a rule he always consults with Eisner, who at this point always gives the final yes at Disney.) And he seems to be working with even greater ferocity.
“He has this compulsion to be on top of everything,” says David Kirkpatrick, executive vice president of production at Paramount and a former colleague. “A screenplay, a pitch, he wants it all, even if it’s just to pass (decline) on it.” (He calls those projects “bow-wows” or “anteaters.”)
Katzenberg has clearly come a long way. At 15, he volunteered for John Lindsay’s New York mayoral campaign. A college dropout (he started at NYU but decided not to finish), he helped two of Lindsay’s campaign chieftains run a restaurant called Jimmy’s on the site of the old Toots Shor restaurant. But that wasn’t for him, and Katzenberg set out to make inroads in show business, first as an agent, then as assistant to Diller at Paramount in 1974.
Katzenberg’s ambition is almost legendary in the business. When Mark Canton, a Warner Bros. executive, bought Katzenberg’s white Porsche Carerra, Canton told friends that his concern was that the car would start up and leave the garage by itself at 4:30 every morning. As it turned out, Katzenberg sold the Porsche because he couldn’t drive and talk on the car phone at the same time, so he traded down to an automatic Mustang.
And Katzenberg is constantly nurturing relationships. When the entire Creative Artists Agency took a weekend retreat in Palm Springs, Katzenberg sent a pickup truck full of cake and ice cream for the entire group. When director Martin Brest (“Beverly Hills Cop”) complained to a friend that he was gaining weight between projects--he says he loses about 20 pounds while directing--a package arrived at his door the next day. “This bathtub-size collection of cakes and muffins arrived with a note saying I would get one of these every day until I committed to a Disney movie,” Brest says.
When the Zuckers and Abrahams were writing “Airplane!,” they couldn’t decide whether to go with Paramount or Avco Embassy. Finally settling on Avco Embassy, they called Katzenberg to give him the bad news--but by the end of the phone call, Katzenberg had changed their minds and the movie was made at Paramount. How did Katzenberg persuade them? Joked Jerry Zucker: “He put a horse’s head in our bed.”
At this point--the real test will come when the movies come out--Disney’s makeover seems to be well-received by the movie community. As they did at Paramount, Eisner and Katzenberg have earned a reputation for making fast decisions. “If you turn in a script on a Friday, by Monday they have suggestions for the rewrite,” says Dan Petrie Jr., who was signed to a $1.5-million, three-year deal to write, produce and direct movies for Disney. “At other studios, they’ll pay you $200,000 to write a script and then wait six months after you deliver it to let you know what they thought of it.”
But a number of critics say there is sometimes an arrogant subtext to the way business is conducted and that often they’re too tough on prices paid for their own good. “They are so tight on deals,” says one prominent agent. “They really think you should consider it an honor to do business with them--that they know how to make pictures better than anyone else. . . . Money is not everything, but it is something. They are not the only ones making pictures, and sometimes they do come off penny-wise and pound-foolish.”
Industry observers say that Disney has a precise sense of what kinds of movies they want to make. At Paramount, the mix ranged from “Witness” and the “Star Trek” series to “48 HRS.” and the “Friday the 13th” slaughters. At Disney, insiders say they’re developing a wide-ranging palate of “high concept” movies (translation: strong story, instantly recognizable plot lines) leaning toward comedy. “We understand comedy and we’ll move in that direction,” says one ranking executive. “Don’t expect to see ‘Friday the 13th,’ but ‘Flashdance’? Sure.”
“Unlike a lot of studios today, they have a product point of view,” says Bill Block, International Creative Management literary agent.
To protect the pristine Disney image for family entertainment, racier fare will fall under the Touchstone Films banner, though insiders say that brand name is due for a change because the new team finds it a bit pretentious.
Following are some of the high-priority movies coming from Disney in the next two years. Several are shooting now, but in some cases the deals are still being haggled. With 75 projects in development, this list is not all-inclusive.
“Down and Out in Beverly Hills"--Shooting now in Beverly Hills and due out next spring, this updated remake of Jean Renoir’s “Boudu Saved From Drowning” was one of the first movies green-lighted by the new regime. Directed by Paul Mazursky, it’s about a wealthy couple (Bette Midler and Richard Dreyfuss) who take in a drifter (Nick Nolte), who then wreaks havoc on their once-comfortable lives.
If you think the cast is atypical for Disney, there’s an added curiosity: The next-door neighbor is played by Little Richard.
(And look for more Midler movies. She has a production and development deal at the studio and Midler is a loyal Eisner/Katzenberg fan. She said in an interview, “Even when I was down on my luck, they felt I could make a good picture.”)
“Captain Eo"--Currently shooting, this 12-minute 3-D short produced by George Lucas, directed by Francis Coppola and starring Michael Jackson, will become a permanent attraction at Disneyland and Epcot Center. No one is giving out budget numbers, but the film is said to cost between $10 million and $15 million. It is part of an overall attempt to update the theme parks (Lucas is also said to be working on a “Star Wars” ride at Disneyland as well).
“My Science Project"--One of a crop of science-tinged youth comedies, it’s about a high school senior who must complete a science project for an ex-hippie teacher (Dennis Hopper) or he won’t graduate. To make matters worse, the poor guy has lost his woman. It stars a handful of youthful unknowns (none of the “St. Elmo’s Fire” gang here). Directed by the film’s screenwriter, novelist Jonathan Betuel, who also wrote “The Last Starfighter.”
“The Journey of Natty Gann"--This is one of the few holdover projects backed by the new regime. A 13-year-old girl (Meredith Salanger) heads from Chicago to Seattle in the height of the Depression to find her father. Along the way, she is befriended by a spunky 16-year-old boy (John Ciusak) and a friendly wolf who together help her to overcome a series of obstacles on the way. A classic Disney concept with a modern look. Jeremy Kagan (“The Chosen”) directed. Due in September.
“Splash 2"--Although the deal isn’t set, Disney is developing a “Splash” redux script that would reunite everyone’s favorite mermaid (Daryl Hannah) and the very hot Tom Hanks. Alex Gorbey and Andy Rose are scripting for producer Grazer, whose “The Last Secret” (the plot remains a secret) probably will be made at Disney before this one. Insiders say Disney would have to pay Hannah upward of $1 million plus a profit participation to bring her back--and this may not fit Disney’s cost-conscious plans. In the era of the sequel, the obvious commercial potential of the project makes it a movie they are eager to make.
“Offbeat"--A comedy about a library worker whose life is changed when a cop friend asks him to take his place at an audition for a modern dance program sponsored to promote community relations. To his surprise, the librarian finds he’s a natural and wins a spot in the show. In a series of masquerades where the librarian is impersonating the cop, the two now have to play out the lie. Judge Reinhold and Meg Tilley star, Michael Dinner (“Heaven Help Us”) directs. Shooting now, due out in February.
“Tough Guys"--A rare star vehicle for Team Disney, this comedy employs Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster as two bank robbers just released from prison who are having a tough time catching up with a much-changed world. To make matters worse, someone is committing robberies in their famous style. Ink is still drying on deals for Lancaster and Douglas, but Jeff Kanew (“Revenge of the Nerds”) is set to direct a script by James Orr and Jim Cruickshank. If the deal comes through, due out next spring.
“Ruthless People"--Who could imagine a Disney movie starring Madonna? Disney is feverishly trying--and reportedly close--to hiring the singer to play a lead in this very black comedy written by newcomer Dale Launer about a man who refuses to pay the ransom on his kidnaped wife. The Zucker brothers and Abrahams have agreed to direct and are collaborating on the rewrite. The project is said to be a high priority. Interestingly enough, Columbia put this script into turnaround (making it available for pickup by other studios).
“The Navigator"--Randal Kleiser is directing this adventure about a kid’s relationship with an alien spacecraft that has its own personality. The two go off on an adventure together. Should start shooting this fall for next summer. To be co-financed with Producers Sales Organization.
“Big Business"--Producer Steve Tisch’s first movie for the revamped studio, this is billed as an updated version of Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors.” Two sets of identical female twins are born in the same town the same night and are accidentally mixed up. Thirty-five years later, the unsuspecting four women wind up in adjacent suites at the Plaza Hotel. A series of mistaken identity mishaps ensues. This project has what is known as a “flashing green light.” That is, “It’s going to get made,” says one Disney insider. Screenwriters Dorie Pierson and Mark Rubell are working on the rewrite.
“A Night on the Town"--The story of a man about to go in for heart surgery who is convinced he is going to die and decides to go out for one last night on the town. Script is being written by Joseph Rubin and David Loughry and will be produced by Ufland/Roth Productions. This one getting a lot of “heat,” as they say.
“In the Hall of the Mountain King"--The odds-on favorite to mark Sidney Poitier’s return to the screen, this is the story of an urban cop who tracks a psycho-killer with the aid of a mountain man. Initially, the pair stalk the killer in the wilds relying on the mountain man’s skills. The story concludes in an urban setting--perhaps Toronto--where Poitier takes over. The project has priority because of Poitier’s interest.
The aforementioned is anything but a traditional Disney menu but, in addition to these projects, Disney will continue to re-release classics from the past, including “101 Dalmations” at Christmas and “Sleeping Beauty” next year. In addition, the new regime has just released “Pinocchio” to the burgeoning videocassette market where, at $79.95, it has sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week. A Disney insider says that does not mean the film will be taken out of theatrical rotation but that “Pinocchio” won’t be back in theaters for seven years. Disney executives are monitoring this situation closely before deciding whether to go the same way with other classics.
They also seem intent upon stepping up production of animated features from one every four years to one every 18 months. Still, don’t expect to see $25-million budgets (i.e., “The Black Cauldron”). As they were at Paramount, these people hope to keep the vast majority of their features in the medium-priced $10-million to $15-million budget range. (While the bulk of their films were moderately budgeted at Paramount, there were exceptions. “Explorers,” for example, cost $23 million and is fizzling at the box office.)
In TV, Disney is producing the “Disney Sunday Movie” for ABC, which will air 23 of the one- and two-hour made-for-TV movies.
It also has sold two Saturday morning cartoon shows, “The Wuzzles” to CBS and “The Gummi Bears” to NBC. (Ironically, the two shows will compete in the same 7:30 a.m. time slot.) To save dollars, both shows will be voiced and designed here, but the actual animation work will be done in Japan and will employ cheaper limited-animation techniques. While this wouldn’t seem likely to enhance the company’s historic achievements in the animated arts, the results will be known--and perhaps debated--in the fall.
Disney also will produce a half-hour Saturday night sitcom this fall on NBC, “Golden Girls.” Nicknamed “Miami Nice” at NBC, it’s about three women (Bea Arthur, Betty White and Rue McClanahan) sharing a house in Miami. It’s being written and produced by Susan Harris (“Soap”).
Disney has also signed Cindy Williams to a two-year television and movie deal and will produce a half-hour comedy for her on ABC that will start in mid-February.
If there is a new Disney style here, it would seem to be this: The executives are hands-on players who like to work from scratch. Some studios wait for ideas to roll in; Disney is more likely to “four-wall"--generating ideas in-house and build creative teams around them. It’s the reverse philosophy of Burger King. Says one agent: “They find a director they like, they sign him up and they tell him to do it their way.”
And they move fast. Over the July 4 weekend, six scripts came in and already three have been given go-aheads.
That is an unusually high return on investment in a business where typically only about 10% of what goes into a development pool is actually made. “The intention there is to make movies, and not overponder them,” says director Brest. “The important thing is to get out and do it.”
The Disney troupe has strong say when stories are being constructed and characters created. In retrospect, this is much like movie making in the ‘30s and ‘40s, when studio chiefs kept actors, actresses, directors and writers under contract and simply assigned them to whatever films they chose to. In this case, Team Disney is trafficking in ideas instead of actors.
“A lot of the best movies came out of a system like that,” says screenwriter Andy Boorwitz. “People say they hate to take dictation from a studio head, but the system is changing and I don’t think that’s so bad. The hands-off philosophy created its own share of catastrophes.”
Long hours and earnestness are no guarantee to success in the crap-shoot world of movie making, and there are longstanding problems endemic to Disney. In the movie business, the theaters in which your movie plays can be virtually as important as the quality of your movie. Volume studios like Paramount and Universal are known for their excellent “tracks” or relationships with the exhibitors. At Disney, because there has been so little product in recent years, insiders say that the relationships have never been as strong as its competitors’. “From the exhibitor’s point of view, Disney was always a minor supplier,” says producer Tisch (whose family owns 235 Loews theaters). “It is critical that they now establish credibility with the theater owners.”
As an example, an executive at a competing studio argues that had “Splash” been made at another studio, it might have been in the theaters longer and sold even more than its $70 million in domestic ticket sales.
“Absolutely false,” argues Richard Cook, senior vice president for domestic distribution and the key man in the quest to shore up Disney’s theaters. Cook says “Splash” played in some 1,200 theaters and that those theaters matched up well with any other hit at the time.
Cook, a survivor from the old regime, admits that relationships with exhibitors are indeed a high priority. “We work on it every day. In the past, Disney was unable to develop a solid relationship with the theater owners because we did not have a consistent flow of product. We might have a Christmas release but we didn’t have one before or after the holiday. . . . Now there is a real feeling that everyone is pulling for us. They (the theater owners) want us to succeed.”
As a result, Team Disney’s first crop of pictures is critical. With a string of hits, theater owners and fans alike may jump on the bandwagon, creating demand and returning the luster to the Disney name. “Our reputation will only stand up for a time,” says one high Disney executive. “The exhibitors will play ball with us to a point, and then we will have to deliver the product. On that count, we will be judged real soon.”
There’s almost a collegiate atmosphere on the Disney lot. A renovated wing in the animation building houses writers and producers, many of whom confer on projects in the hallways. “When you enter the studio, you have the feeling of a Midwestern college campus,” says David Bombyk, a young producer who recently signed a Disney deal. “They will use that atmosphere to get a lot of people working together creatively.”
Says Bette Midler: “They are so determined to break through and put the studio back on the map. The level of enthusiasm is so high.”
Jokes Jerry Zucker: “They’re thinking of changing the logo to Walt turning in his grave.” Or maybe smiling.
8:30 p.m. The Disney lot, Burbank. An A-list group gathers to celebrate the opening of “The Black Cauldron,” the animated feature that took 12 years to come to the screen. The lot looks festive tonight, decorated to look like a Renaissance fair complete with wandering minstrels. The usual assortment of life-size Disney characters mill about with celebrities and deal makers. Guests nosh on a lavish catered barbecue.
But upstairs in the Animation Building, Ricardo Mestres, 27, and David Hoberman, 32, top lieutenants on the new Team Disney, are in a meeting and are chewing on a pizza they had had delivered.
“Great party, huh?” says Hoberman earnestly. “We’ll be down in a minute.”