Can Anyone Dethrone Disney?
To appreciate the Walt Disney Co.'s animation monopoly, you have to travel back to 1994--months before “The Lion King” shattered Hollywood records.
Far from Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held two test screenings of “Thumbelina,” showing clips from its animated movie to gauge audience interest. The first time around, audience reaction was flat. For the next test, according to people familiar with the experiment, Warners stripped off its company logo--and slapped Disney’s name on the exact same “Thumbelina” footage.
The test scores soared. (Warner Bros. declined to comment.)
“Toy Story” director John Lasseter is only half-kidding when he says, “You can have an hour and a half of blank film leader with the Disney name on it and people will go see it.”
What has been equally true is that if an animated movie--no matter how brilliant and entertaining--does not sport Disney’s logo, people will avoid it. It’s as if the movie has rabies: The audience steers clear, the theaters become empty quarantines.
Nevertheless, some of Hollywood’s biggest players--Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks--are now poised to challenge Disney’s animation dynasty, and their first three rival movies are nearing completion. Unlike earlier adversaries, the competing studios are committing vast sums to the campaign, erecting sprawling animation studios from scratch and organizing expansive marketing campaigns. The buildup for the animation battle has been happening for a couple of years, already dramatically changing the animation job market, but the next several months will finally see some of these competing studios’ big releases.
The goal is simple: Grab a slice of Hollywood’s single most lucrative franchise.
In just over a decade, Disney has turned animation from an ailing weakling into a show business steamroller, building the only real brand name in movies. The franchise is more profitable than James Bond and any cleavage you throw his way. Better than the “Die Hard” and “Lethal Weapon” series rolled into one. One animated movie alone--"The Lion King"--generated an estimated $1 billion in profits.
Not revenue. Profits. Every T-shirt. Every sing-along book. Every pair of flannel pajamas. Every ticket sold in Pago Pago and Bora Bora. Even an assumed clunker like “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” added an estimated $500 million to Disney’s bottom line--or about a quarter of Disney’s entire annual profit in a given year.
Disney executives say animation is more than twice as profitable as all of the studio’s live action films combined--with a fraction of the risk and effort. In an average year, Disney may release two animation films and 60 live-action titles (including Miramax films), and yet those two animated movies dwarf the 58 other releases. Calculating exact profits from animation is difficult, because the movies spin off other entertainment like parades at theme parks and TV programming. Some estimates say animation and its ancillary income may account for 70% of all of Disney’s profits. Warner Bros. once said that without animation Disney would trail Warners for top box-office share, which is a little like saying if it weren’t for Coke, Pepsi would be No. 1.
Given the loot, it’s not surprising new animation studios are popping up faster than ancient rocker reunion tours. Warner Bros., DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox and Viacom are gambling more than a combined $1 billion building mammoth animation departments, and several independent producers--from Morgan Creek (“The King and I”) to Nickelodeon (“Rugrats, The Movie”)--are quickly assembling new animated flicks. Faced with the new competition, Disney is working harder than ever before to evict the would-be claim jumpers, and has 10 animated movies in production.
The battlefield is cleared and the war is about to begin.
In the next 18 months, no fewer than eight Disney and non-Disney animated movies are set to be released, starting with Disney’s “Hercules” on June 27. The first high-flying challenger to the Disney empire is the debut film from 20th Century Fox’s new Arizona animation studio, director Don Bluth’s $60-million “Anastasia,” due Nov. 21. Fox’s next release, “Planet Ice,” should arrive in late 1998. Warner Bros. Feature Animation is set to release its delayed (and troubled) “Quest for Camelot” in early or mid-1998, followed by “Iron Giant” in the summer of 1999.
DreamWorks, whose Jeffrey Katzenberg helped build the Disney monarchy he’s now trying to overthrow, will unveil four animated films in the next three years, starting with the often dark and serious Old Testament tale “Prince of Egypt” in the fall of 1998. In animation’s version of the “Dante’s Peak"/"Volcano” race to theaters this year, DreamWorks and Pixar are both making computer animated movies: “Ants” and “A Bug’s Life,” respectively. MTV Networks’ $420-million animation investment (which includes a planned Burbank studio) will focus initially on lower-budget works. Projects include “The Stinky Cheese Man,” a “Beavis and Butt-head” sequel and the $15-million “Rugrats,” based on the TV show, which is due in the fall of 1998.
Only a handful of companies are not massing troops in the animation wars.
Sony Pictures, MGM and Universal Pictures have no public plans to launch animation units. Universal’s home video division has generated more than $375 million in cassette sales from “The Land Before Time” and its direct-to-video brethren, but instead of a splashy animated feature, Universal is making two more “Land Before Time” video sequels and an animated direct-to-video version of TV’s “Hercules and Xena.”
As the debuts of the non-Disney animated movies draw near, the rival studios are sweating every detail. The executives are either convinced the more attention they lavish on a film the better it will do--or they are simply proving they did their best if (or when) the movie goes down in flames. In some ways, it’s as though Warners, Fox and DreamWorks are learning to walk for the first time, while Disney is already sprinting. The challenge is to not fall flat on their faces--just like all the others.
GOLIATH VS. LOTS OF DAVIDS
Each of the last six Disney films has grossed more than $100 million at North American theaters. Two (“The Lion King” and “Aladdin”) have surpassed $200 million. Of the 50 non-Disney-distributed animated movies released since 1989’s “The Little Mermaid,” a grand total of one surpassed $50 million--last year’s “Beavis and Butt-head Do America,” according to Entertainment Data Inc. No other non-Disney animated film has grossed even $30 million in that time frame.
Of the more than $1.8 billion in animation movie tickets sold in those eight years, Disney claimed a whopping 85% of the pot. (Warner Bros.’ “Space Jam” grossed $90.4 million, but the 1996 movie was a combination of live action and animation, and therefore is not counted in this study.)
“It is clearly competitive,” says Chris Meledandri, president of Fox Family Films, with obvious understatement. Adds a more candid Max Howard, president of Warner Feature Animation: “Of course there is tremendous pressure.”
The rival studios are studying Disney’s strategy the way an NFL coach might scrutinize game films, looking for openings and lessons. For its first animated movie, DreamWorks is trying to counter-program Disney, shooting for an audience years older than the average crowd for “Pocahontas” or “The Little Mermaid.”
Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Bill Mechanic, who formerly built Disney’s vast home video and international theatrical businesses, is, in the words of one colleague, “doing a full Jeffrey,” personally involved in almost every frame of “Anastasia” the way Katzenberg would watch over “Beauty and the Beast” or “Aladdin.” Katzenberg himself, not surprisingly, spends almost half his time in DreamWorks’ animation offices and has transferred some of his Disney tricks to his new digs: Every animated movie has an “emotional beat board” that tracks with string and push-pins the presumed audience response to each scene.
Disney is hardly flattered by the imitators.
With all the activity swirling around it (both Warners’ and DreamWorks’ animation facilities are mere blocks from Disney), Disney has gone on a huge hiring binge, nearly doubling its animation department from 1,248 employees in 1995 to 2,200 this year, spread out among four studios (in Florida, Paris and two in Burbank).
To assert its dominance, Disney will launch an armada of animated movies through the millennium, starting with “Hercules,” which looks more commercial than the strange “Hunchback of Notre Dame.” “Hercules” features gospel-style music and the voices of Tate Donovan in the title role, Danny DeVito as a satyr companion and James Woods as the villain Hades. Upcoming Disney titles include “Mulan” (summer 1998), Pixar’s computer-animated “A Bug’s Life” (fall 1998), “Tarzan” (summer 1999), “Kingdom of the Sun,” “Dinosaur,” “Atlantis,” “Treasure Planet” and “Fantasia 2000.”
And in a coldly calculated plot to torpedo Fox’s “Anastasia,” Disney will re-release 1989’s “The Little Mermaid” on Nov. 11, just before “Anastasia” comes out. (Disney re-released “Oliver and Co.” last year to coincide with--and, of course, kill--MGM’s “All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.”)
A CUTTHROAT JOB MARKET
The boom has revolutionized animation’s job market and even touched the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as studios are looking as far as the Philippines to import drawing talent. Pony-tailed art students who five years ago would spend their working hours staring at biscotti in some Melrose latte house are now commanding six-figure starting salaries. Veteran lead animators--especially those with a Disney credit or two--are banking $1 million a year, earning a share of a film’s profits, collecting potentially lucrative stock options and receiving rich signing bonuses previously reserved for the NBA. When Lasseter renewed his Pixar contract in February, the seven-year deal included a $1.25-million signing bonus and a base salary of $700,000 (with guaranteed 8% annual raises), according to securities filings.
So many people are hiring that artists who can barely draw basic body parts are getting jobs. The industry joke is 100% employment, 30% talent. Some studios are recruiting third-year students at schools such as CalArts and USC, and helping pay their tuition in exchange for job commitments.
“The animators all became quickly aware of how fast the market was changing--and it really was the day after DreamWorks was announced,” says Nancy Newhouse, a lawyer whose 200 animation clients include “Toy Story’s” Lasseter, Disney’s “Tarzan” director Chris Buck and DreamWorks’ “El Dorado” director Will Finn.
How important are the artists? Disney re-signed superstar animator Glen Keane (Ariel in “The Little Mermaid,” Beast in “Beauty and the Beast” and the title characters in “Aladdin” and “Pocahontas”) to a seven-year contract in late April. Minutes after the news hit the financial wires, Disney’s already strong stock climbed to a new all-time high.
Due partially to these accelerating salaries, the budget of a big animated film now exceeds $100 million, several producers say. Five years ago, a Disney animated movie cost only $40 million. But even with the spiraling costs, animated movies have no $20-million star salaries, and unlike Stallone or Schwarzenegger, Hercules doesn’t get a cut of the gross.
To gain an advantage (and build new outfits as quickly as possible), the new studios also have been hiring scores of Disney stars.
Warner Feature Animation estimates up to 80% of its staff members have a Disney pay stub in their file cabinets. Howard worked at Disney from 1986-1995. Among the other Disney alumni are Tony Fucile, who moved from “The Lion King” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to Warners’ “Iron Giant,” based on the children’s book by poet Ted Hughes.
DreamWorks has been particularly aggressive--some say too aggressive--raiding Disney’s easels. “Prince of Egypt’s” music is from “Pocahontas” alumni Stephen Schwartz and “The Lion King’s” Hans Zimmer. The tunes for DreamWorks’ “El Dorado: City of Gold” (a comedy set against the conquest) come from “The Lion King” scorer Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice. Key DreamWorks animators include James Baxter (Quasimodo in “Hunchback”), Duncan Marjoribanks (Ratcliffe in “Pocahontas,” Sebastian in “The Little Mermaid”), Finn (Cogsworth in “Beauty and the Beast,” head of story on “Hunchback”) and Kathy Zielinski (Frollo in “Hunchback”). “Prince of Egypt” is co-directed by Brenda Chapman, head of story on “The Lion King.”
Fox’s animation studios is headed by Don Bluth and Gary Goldman, who left Disney in 1979. The two have hired many overseas animators in an attempt to find fresh talent and keep costs in control, relocating its artists to Arizona. The international staff includes people from Canada, Spain, Germany, France, Ireland, England and more far-flung locales.
Bluth’s recent films--"Thumbelina,” “A Troll in Central Park” and “Rock-a-Doodle"--have all been box-office disappointments. People who work with Bluth say his films’ scripts have typically been weak. Fox, sources say, has labored to polish the “Anastasia” screenplay, offering the services of some of its live-action screenwriters.
Bluth himself says financial problems distracted his focus on those earlier underachievers. “I no longer have this worry every week about the payroll,” the director says. “I feel the burden greatly lightened.”
The competition between animation houses is not limited to movies. As soon as established animators’ movies wind down, they attract attention usually reserved for Madonna’s offspring. “Our artists are getting calls every day from the other studios saying, ‘When your contract comes up, give us a call and we’ll give you a better deal,’ ” says Bluth, who claims not to do the same. Director Brad Bird says he needs to be finished with his “Iron Giant” storyboards in September “in order to pick up all the people coming off ‘Quest for Camelot,’ ” and make sure they don’t sit around waiting for another job offer.
To protect its seat at the head of the table, Disney also is trying to price its emulators out of business. Disney now throws huge salaries ($3,500 a week and more) at such employees as lead key clean-up artists and locks up talent for the maximum seven years. Pixar, Disney’s computer animation partner, offers its employees potentially lucrative stock options, Lasseter says.
In response, Warners and DreamWorks are respectively offering bonuses and profit participation, but only DreamWorks has effectively matched Disney’s salaries.
“You remember when Reagan was president and he said he was going to outspend Russia on defense?” says Jon Cantor, a lawyer representing some 350 animators. “And Russia said, ‘OK, we’ll outspend you, then.’ It ended up bankrupting Russia. Well, that’s what Disney will do to the competition.”
With all the activity, one critical question remains:
Can anyone besides Disney make money in animation? Historically, non-Disney animated films have as short a run as Larry King’s wives. So why have so many failed? “Cat’s Don’t Dance” offers a case study.
EVERYTHING BUT THE LOGO
It took 4 1/2 years to bring the animated musical “Cat’s Don’t Dance” to movie theaters. It took 4 1/2 hours to declare it dead on arrival.
At the film’s first March matinee at a spacious Pasadena theater, a grand total of 15 people bought tickets. “It was very well done. It was a nice movie,” said Michael Osborn, whose five-member family accounted for a full third of the house. “It’s too bad people aren’t coming to see it.”
The film’s collapse had little to do with what was on the screen. “Cats Don’t Dance” attracted largely positive reviews from some leading critics, and some reviewers said the Warner Bros. release surpassed Disney’s artistry. Missing, however, was the Disney name and the seemingly minor garnishes that increasingly determine success and failure.
There was no Danny the Cat Happy Meal at McDonald’s. Soft and fluffy “Cats Don’t Dance” toys were not spilling from Toys R Us shelves. Distributor Warner Bros. did not run a parade up New York’s 42nd Street and 10 blocks of 5th Avenue (as Disney will do with “Hercules”) to elevate the film from mere movie to cultural event.
In other words, producer Turner Pictures and distributor Warner Bros. thought “Cat’s Don’t Dance” was a movie and did not pursue tie-in deals. But successful animated movies are not movies. They are motors, and they don’t go anywhere without the fuel of merchandising and the wheels of event marketing. Disney knows how to build that car better than anyone else. And they’ve done it so well for so long customers won’t buy from another dealer.
“ ‘Cats Don’t Dance’ got great reviews and great exit polls. And no one knew it was out there,” says David Kirschner, the film’s producer, who says he was “devastated” by the film’s flameout.
He shouldn’t have been surprised.
Produced by since-folded Turner Pictures, “Cats Don’t Dance” was supervised by no less than eight executives in its lifetime, several of whom would have rather ironed Chris Farley’s underwear than make an animated movie. "(Turner Pictures President) Amy Pascal told me, ‘I don’t care for animation in any way, shape or form,”’ Kirschner says. “Those were her exact words.” (Now the head of Columbia Pictures, Pascal says she merely was not a fan of the story of cats in 1939 Hollywood and may well want to make an animated Columbia feature in the future. She did, however, speak highly of “Cats Don’t Dance” when it was announced.)
“I asked and I asked about the merchandise campaign,” Kirschner says. “And they kept saying, ‘We’ll get to it.’ They never did.”
Without studio support and concerted effort for fast-food and toy tie-ins, the $45-million “Cats Don’t Dance” was doomed. “When you do a film like this, you better damn well make sure you have support across the board,” Kirschner says. “Launching these films takes a year and a half of planning.”
Disney has practically copyrighted the book both on how to make--and, equally important, to launch--an animated movie. Children and their parents know about the next Disney film months before it comes out, and each film’s popularity builds awareness for the next. Since families now collect Disney videos the way earlier generations once did books, the cassettes have become incredible sales tools. The 21 million shipped copies of the “Toy Story” video carry a “Hercules” trailer, as do the more than 10 million cassettes of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”
There’s no limit to Disney’s merchandise efforts.
The floor-to-ceiling shelves in Lasseter’s Pixar offices are jammed with “Toy Story” booty. Among Lasseter’s collection is “Toy Story” lip balm, a “Toy Story” sushi lunch box (complete with “Toy Story” chopsticks) and three Buzz Light-
year dolls that declare “To Infinity and Beyond!” in French, German and Italian. Lasseter is desperately trying to find a “Toy Story” stamp from Uganda and will soon catch the “Toy Story” ice skating spectacular. Counting its domestic, international, home video and merchandise profits, “Toy Story” has spun off $400 million in profits.
The “Toy Story” merchandise testifies to the staggering ancillary appeal of a movie Disney admitted it underestimated. The goods simultaneously reinforce name-brand identification and create a thirst for more “Toy Story” experiences: Without appearing to sell anything, the toys and piggy banks and comic books turn prepubescent children into highly trained consumers. Not surprisingly, Pixar is hard at work on a direct-to-video “Toy Story” sequel, eager to tap the market before the attention subsides.
The merchandise tie-ins have grown so pervasive that Disney’s “Hercules” actually makes fun of the practice in the movie itself. After a particularly heroic feat, people in the film start wearing “Air Herc” sandals, drinking “Herculade” thirst quencher and Hercules signs autographs outside a Disney-fied “Hercules Store” crammed with figurines.
It helps, too, that Disney’s artwork and music are consistently good, and that “Beauty and the Beast” remains the only animated film nominated for a best picture Oscar. No one was fooled into thinking Miramax’s “Arabian Knight” was anything but a low-rent knockoff. Consequently, over the course of 35 animated features Disney has developed remarkable brand-name loyalty.
“People will go to see a Disney movie even if it’s not good,” says Warner’s Howard. “They have earned that--I don’t have that. I have to be great.”
“The word ‘Disney’ is like Santa Claus--you can’t invoke criticism,” says Bird, director of the upcoming Warners animated film “Iron Giant.”
And Santa was never so flush.
GIRDING FOR BATTLE
How do the Disney rivals match that clout? A lot of early planning and calculation.
Morgan Creek Chairman James Robinson says he wouldn’t be risking as much as $50 million challenging Disney if he didn’t have a pre-sold title. “If we didn’t have ‘The King and I,’ we wouldn’t be making an animated film,” Robinson says. “For a non-Disney film, you can’t get a better title--and we already know the music has tested well, so we’re keeping it in,” he says with a laugh. Morgan Creek already has been approached by several fast-food chains and toy companies, even though the movie is more than a year and a half from being finished.
Producer-director Bluth can’t come to the phone at the brand new Fox Animation Studios in Phoenix; he’s meeting with the “Anastasia” merchandisers. Hundreds of miles away, Burger King and Galoob Toys are cranking out their “Anastasia” merchandise. Back in Los Angeles, 20th Century Fox is laboring to launch the movie with more fanfare than “Independence Day” and “Star Wars.” With only 30 minutes of the film completed, Fox has started showing the unfinished footage to the media (as Disney first did with “Beauty and the Beast”), trying to generate positive buzz and awareness.
“Any independent animated feature can’t make it any more,” says Bluth. “I saw ‘Cats Don’t Dance’ and thought it was really good. But nobody knew it was out there. . . .I don’t think you can make an animated film by yourself. Even if it’s the best animated film in history, no one will see it if there’s no awareness.”
Part of Bluth’s “Anastasia” strategy is to get away from what is historically a tale of bloodthirsty Bolsheviks, the last Russian czar, revolution and a young woman who may have been slaughtered. In Bluth’s retelling, “Anastasia” is more fairy tale, a story of a little girl who may be royalty searching for identity. As the movie puts it, “Every lonely girl hopes she’s a princess.” The lead voices are Meg Ryan, John Cusack, Angela Lansbury and Christopher Lloyd. The music is by “Ragtime’s” Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty.
When Bluth began adapting “Anastasia,” he was mindful of creating characters that appealed to children and not coincidentally had tremendous toy potential. "(The dog) Pooka was created to give kids access to the story because it’s in many ways an adult story,” he says.
“What we set out to do is tell a great story--no one has the exclusivity in telling great stories in this medium,” says Fox’s Meledandri. “Are there marketing challenges in communicating that Fox has made a great animated film? Yes, there are great challenges. But when you step back and look at the overall risk, it’s similar to the risk you take with any film. If you succeed, people will come. If you fail, people will not come.”
The Disney challengers (and Disney itself) need to be careful that marketing does not get in the way of the actual film. “The amount of money spent is so astronomical and you have to make the deals so far in advance, the movie is not always the first priority,” director Bird says. “You have to make sure (the merchandise) doesn’t dictate what kind of entertainment we make.”
DreamWorks’ “The Prince of Egypt” doesn’t look like the typical Disney movie, with no wise-cracking sidekick and huggable furry companion (Habibi, the stubborn camel, does not speak). Among the artists the DreamWorks animators studied are French illustrator Gustave Dore, impressionist Claude Monet and director David Lean. The movie opens with the song “Deliver Us” as Moses is put in a basket in the river, and sequences include the tongue-twisting “Tzipporah Escapes” and “Hieroglyph Nightmare.” With the voices of Val Kilmer, Ralph Fiennes, Michelle Pfeiffer and Sandra Bullock, the estimated $60-million film features two highly complicated, computer-animated scenes: the parting of the Red Sea and the Burning Bush.
Some who have viewed portions of the work say the story of faith, slavery and deliverance is not something for toddlers. The film will probably be rated PG, and is aimed at 8-year-olds and up. “I saw the first six minutes of ‘Prince of Egypt,’ ” says attorney Cantor. “It looked like an animated version of ‘Schindler’s List.’ I said to Jeffrey, ‘What audience are you going for?’ ”
Katzenberg declined to be interviewed. But the film’s two producers say the film is indeed geared to an older, more sophisticated crowd. "[The audience] expects something they can take their 3-year-old to without any problem,” says the film’s co-producer, Penny Cox. “This is a different film, with hard issues and hard questions.”
Meanwhile, DreamWorks executives say they are agonizing over how to promote the film: A Promised Land Picnic Set would look sacrilegious, but is a Ramses coloring book irreverent? When you make “The Lion King,” everything down to (and including) promotional toilet paper seems acceptable. But how do you create a profile if you can’t churn out consumer products? Will education programs offered through religious organizations turn “Prince of Egypt” into an event?
Equally important, how do you prepare an audience for a movie with no singing crab or dancing teacup? While Disney can take some liberties with the life story of Pocahontas and Fox can (and will) do the same with Anastasia, you can’t really rewrite the Old Testament.
DreamWorks certainly hopes “Prince of Egypt” will be a hit, but the studio, in an unusual spin-control move, already is saying the movie’s value cannot and will not be measured in ticket sales alone. It is critical, for starters, that “Prince of Egypt” proves the new studio is not trying to clone Disney movies.
“It is less about what the film grosses,” Cox says. “The significance is less about the bottom line than in succeeding in making the movie we set out to make. What this movie has to do to be successful for DreamWorks is to be done well.”
As “Prince of Egypt” demonstrates, the animation wars carry the promise of new animation styles. With so many people clamoring for their services, artists suddenly are empowered, free to make movies the way they want to. If a studio executive interferes too much, they simply move on. The money and the jobs are out there.
“One of the nice things at Disney now is there’s a strong creative vision by the director,” says Lasseter in a thinly veiled broadside at former studio chairman Katzenberg. “There’s a difference when the director is the director of the picture and a studio executive is the director of the picture.”
“The artists have more choices than they’ve ever had before,” says Ron Clements, the co-director of “Hercules.” “You can make choices and work on films you want to work on.”
No one knows, of course, who will triumph and who will perish --only that somebody will crash and burn. Warners’ “Quest for Camelot” was started in 1993 and has had significant story problems. Its first director, Bill Kroyer (“Ferngully . . . The Last Rainforest”), left the film last summer, as did two lead animators and a number of people in the art department. If Warner Bros. executives are unimpressed with storyboards for “Iron Giant,” it may not go forward, immediately interrupting the studio’s planned stream of titles.
“You’ve got to be making something,” says Howard, who says “Iron Giant” will be made. “There’s a danger in not making something.”
“Of all the players in the ring, not everyone is going to make it,” says Bluth, whose last studio, Sullivan Bluth Studio, flopped. “Somebody is going to get hurt and lose a lot of money.”
“When Jeffrey was here years ago he would say, ‘Guys, I want you to know I believe in monopolies,’ ” says John Musker, “Hercules’ ” other co-director. “Now, he obviously believes in at least duopolies.”
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Animation: The Modern Era
1984--Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg take over Disney management.
1985--The $30-million “Black Cauldron,” Disney’s first animated movie in four years, bombs.
March 1986--Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” reissue grosses $40 million, sells well at video stores.
November 1986--Universal’s “An American Tail,” produced by Steven Spielberg, premieres, makes $47.4 million. Disney takes notice and steps up production.
September 1988--Disney’s “Bambi” comes out on video, sells 10.5 million copies.
December 1988--Disney’s “Oliver & Co.” and Universal’s “The Land Before Time” open simultaneously, both do well.
November 1989--Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” debuts, grosses $84.4 million, ushering in the new golden era of Disney animation.
November 1989--"All Dogs Go to Heaven,” distributed by MGM, grosses $27.1 million.
July 1990--Universal’s “Jetsons: The Movie” grosses $20.3 million.
November 1990--Warner Bros.’ “The Nutcracker Prince” grosses just $1.8 million.
March 14, 1991--Lyricist Howard Ashman (“Little Mermaid,” “Beauty and the Beast”) dies of complications of AIDS.
November 1991--Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” opens; it grosses $145.9 million, earns best picture Oscar nomination and goes on to sell 22 million videocassettes.
November 1991--Spielberg’s “An American Tail: Fievel Goes West” opens the same day as “Beauty and the Beast,” gets clobbered.
April 1992--Fox’s “FernGully . . . The Last Rainforest” grosses $24.7 million.
November 1992--Disney’s “Aladdin” breaks animation records, grossing $217.4 million, and sells 18 million videos.
June 1993--Fox’s “Once Upon a Forest” takes in $6.6 million.
June 1993--"Happily Ever After,” a low-budget “Snow White” knockoff from First National Film Corp., fizzles.
October 1993--The video release of “Aladdin” incorporates revised song lyrics to mollify protests from Arab Americans.
November 1993--Spielberg’s “We’re Back: A Dinosaur’s Story” grosses $9.3 million.
November 1993--Robin Williams says Disney misappropriated his voice to sell “Aladdin” merchandise. He and Disney later patch things up.
March 1994--Warner Bros.’ “Thumbelina” grosses $11.4 million.
May 1994--20th Century Fox launches animation division.
June 1994--Hemdale’s “The Princess and the Goblin” takes in $2.1 million.
June 1994--Disney’s “The Lion King” premieres; it goes on to break “Aladdin’s” record, grossing $312.9 million and selling 26 million videocassettes.
October 1994--Katzenberg leaves Disney; he, Spielberg and David Geffen found DreamWorks, with animation a business cornerstone.
November 1994--Fox’s “The Pagemaster,” with the voice of Macaulay Culkin, grosses just $4.2 million.
March 1995--Christian Movie Guide magazine says “Aladdin” includes the lyrics “All good teenagers take off your clothes.”
April 1995--MGM’s “The Pebble and the Penguin” grosses $4 million.
May 1995--Warner Bros. Feature Animation announces “Quest for Camelot” as its debut production.
June 1995--Disney’s “Pocahontas” grosses $141.6 million.
July 1995--Warner Bros. hires top Disney executive Max Howard to head feature animation department. Disney sues.
August 1995--Antiabortion American Life League says dust clouds in “The Lion King” spell out “SEX” and that the bishop in “The Little Mermaid” has an erection. Other critics say “Little Mermaid” artwork includes a hidden penis.
August 1995--Miramax’s “Arabian Knight” takes in $669,000.
August 1995--Fox announces “Anastasia,” kicks off a year and a half of heavy promotion.
September 1995--Miramax makes animation deal with director Henry Selick (“The Nightmare Before Christmas”).
November 1995--Disney’s “Toy Story” takes in $191.8 million.
November 1995--Directors Gary Trousdale and Kirk Wise (“Beauty and the Beast”) sign long-term Disney deal.
December 1995--Universal’s “Balto” grosses $11.3 million.
April 1996--Directors John Musker and Ron Clements (“Little Mermaid,” “Aladdin”) sign Disney deal.
June 1996--"The Hunchback of Notre Dame” opens; it goes on to sell $100.1 million in tickets for Disney.
June 1996--DreamWorks breaks ground on Glendale animation studio.
December 1996--Paramount’s “Beavis and Butt-head Do America” becomes first non-Disney animated film to gross more than $50 million, with $63.1 million.
January 1997--Warner Bros. announces it is moving “Quest for Camelot” from 1997 to 1998.
March 1997--Despite positive reviews, “Cats Don’t Dance” brings in just $3.2 million for Warner Bros.
April 1997--Animator Glen Keane (“Beauty and the Beast,” “Pocahontas”) signs seven-year Disney deal. Stock hits all-time high.
November 1997--Disney schedules theatrical re-release of “The Little Mermaid.”
November 1997--Scheduled release date for Fox’s “Anastasia.”
* MORE TOON TALK
In Monday’s Calendar: the roles of the Internet and high school and college campuses in promoting new, cutting-edge animation talent.