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Disney’s Strategy Takes Calls for Protest in Stride

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

For Walt Disney Co., the summer of 1997 can be boiled down to this: another year, another boycott.

No war room, no crisis management consultants needed. Just issue a two-sentence statement in defense, and lay low until the headlines, the nightly news spots and the talk radio segments move on to another subject next week.

Few companies, and no Hollywood studio, has endured as many protests and boycotts as Disney--at least a dozen on a host of subjects in the past three years:

Baptists angry that Ellen DeGeneres’ TV character disclosed that she’s gay on ABC prime time, or that the company finally joined other Hollywood studios in offering health benefits to same-sex partners. Catholics angry at the movie “Priest,” released by its Miramax unit, depicting a gay cleric. Animal rights activists protesting a new animal theme park Disney is building in Florida. Arab Americans angry at what they believe are stereotyped characters in movies such as “Aladdin.”

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In the end, Disney will no doubt weather the latest storm without any threat to its stock price or $20 billion in revenues. As one former top executive said: “I can tell you Disney views this is as a gnat on an elephant.”

Or as another noted: “Any boycott by any special interest group can’t have any realistic impact on a company of that size. They seem to steamroll over it all.”

Wednesday’s vote by delegates at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas urging its members to boycott Disney--accusing the studio of “gay friendly” policies--is the latest attack. Disney executives privately say they weren’t surprised by the action because they were under the impression a boycott was already on, and numerous media accounts from last year suggested that one was in place. Members of the Southern Baptists say that last year the boycott was only threatened.

Inside the Burbank entertainment giant’s headquarters, according to sources, the atmosphere Thursday was one of resignation that as the entertainment industry’s most visible “brand,” and as America’s family entertainment icon, Disney will always be the target of choice for critics of Hollywood. Disney boycotts grab the attention of TV, newspaper and magazine editors in a way that a boycott of Fox, Sony Pictures Entertainment or Warner Bros. can’t.

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Companies that adopted same-sex benefits policies long before Disney--such as Universal Studios--aren’t as interesting as boycott targets. Neither are companies with popular family entertainment that offer same-sex benefits, such as Viacom and its Nickelodeon channel, or studios that featured gay characters as MGM/UA did last year in its hit film “The Birdcage.”

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There is also a belief inside Disney that, despite the impressive size of the Baptists’ 15.7 million membership, most members--and especially the young children--don’t take marching orders from the church hierarchy and don’t act as a monolithic movement.

“I’d like to see them tell 30 million or so children they can’t have Disney products,” another former top Disney executive said. “Disney doesn’t take this that seriously because they know these guys can’t deliver on the threat. They see this as a bunch of guys at the top of the church mouthing off to get publicity.”

The Southern Baptists may be the largest and most visible group ever to launch a Disney boycott, but how many of the denomination’s 40,600 independent congregations will adhere to the nonbinding resolution?

Several convention delegates registered displeasure with the strategy. Even ardent supporters concede that it is largely symbolic.

“We’re not naive enough to think that we can have a huge financial impact,” said convention spokesman Herb Hollinger. “But we will stand up and speak our piece.”

Hollinger said Southern Baptist leaders made several attempts to meet with Disney executives over the past year but were rebuffed.

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“We’ll just have to wait and see,” Hollinger said. “If enough gnats get on an elephant, it’s not going to kill the elephant, but its definitely going to get its attention.”

Disney’s response has been measured, and brief, straddling the line between defending itself while trying hard not to appear arrogant or too defensive. As one executive put it, “You don’t want to waive a red cape at the bull.”

Executives declined all formal interviews Thursday. Saying as little as possible publicly is Disney’s policy during a crisis, especially when the topic is inflammatory.

Disney’s only formal response was a statement issued Wednesday saying the company is “proud that the Disney brand creates more family entertainment of every kind than anyone else in the world” and that it plans to increase its family entertainment production.

What some in Hollywood find ironic is that Disney was one of the last studios to adopt health benefits for same-sex partners--only Twentieth Century Fox came later--and after much pressure.

“It was three years of intense lobbying at every level of Disney,” said Richard Jennings, executive director of Hollywood Supports, an entertainment industry clearinghouse for AIDS issues and gay and lesbian concerns.

Disney’s legal department initially said that it couldn’t offer the benefits because it would be a taxable benefit to domestic partners, “which was just erroneous,” Jennings said.

Disney was obviously concerned about its image and a potential backlash, Jennings said. But two things helped force its hand. Disney agreed to acquire television network ABC, which already offered benefits to employees that Disney couldn’t exactly take away. And it was faced with more intense competition for talent, especially in such areas as animation where competitors were trying to raid its staff. Not offering the benefits available at other studios put it at a potential competitive disadvantage.

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Disney offered the benefits in October, 1995. In the meantime, a number of major non-entertainment companies have been offering the benefits as well, such as Bank of America, IBM, Microsoft and Xerox.

Despite the charges of loose morals, Disney’s culture remains decidedly conservative. Years after most businesses succumbed to casual Fridays, Disneyland still has a dress code so exacting that it dictates rules on everything from toupees to wearing underwear.

Park executives were mortified late last year when pictures of women baring their breasts on the Disneyland’s Splash Mountain ride began circulating on the Internet, courtesy of an employee prankster. An internal investigation failed to turn up the culprit, who swiped the pictures from an electronic camera that snaps souvenir photos of riders--some of whom like to flash more than a smile.

Disney’s stock has shown no signs of being affected by the boycott announcement, rising 87.5 cents to $83.375 on the New York Stock Exchange. On the front lines, few believed that it would have much impact.

“I seriously doubt it will make any difference,” one Disneyland employee said. “People will stop coming here when it gets too expensive or when they stop having a good time, but not because the Southern Baptists tell them to stay home.”

At a Disney Store in Northridge, where one wall is loaded with “Hercules” merchandise, the boycott appeared to have had little impact.

Marie Caulkins, at the store with her 7-year old daughter, said of the Southern Baptists: “I’m pleased they took a stand and sent a message. I have boycotted Disney’s movies” in recent years, she said, explaining that she avoided most animation films because she found them too lurid for children.

Caulkins said, “I support the things I like” that Disney turns out. Yesterday she reserved a copy of Disney’s 1959 classic film “Sleeping Beauty” for her daughter.

Another customer, a middle-aged woman, was in the store asking about ticket prices at Disneyland. Her sister is visiting next week from Las Vegas and they are going to the theme park. “I’m not boycotting anything,” she said.

Some Disney fans on the Internet expressed support for the boycott, but not out of philosophical or spiritual kinship with the Southern Baptists. “Good! Let ‘em boycott. It’ll cut down on the crowds,” read one post on a Disneyland computer bulletin board.

Times staff writer Barry Stavro contributed to this story.

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The Most Protested Place on Earth

At least a dozen protests and boycotts have been launched against Disney since 1994. Analysts say none has had a noticeable impact. Some examples of protests and boycotts:

* National Hispanic Media Coalition: Protest alleged poor track record in hiring Latinos.

* American Family Assn.: Christian pressure group complained of an alleged “homosexual agenda” and Disney’s forays into more mature films.

* Assemblies of God: Boycott for “abandoning the commitment to strong moral values” in part because of unofficial annual “Gay Day” at Walt Disney World.

* Florida Baptist Convention: Boycott for offering same-sex partner benefits.

* People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals: Protesting Wild Animal Kingdom in Florida.

* Historic preservation groups: Protest now-scrapped plans for American history theme park

* Foes of Proposition 187: Boycott to protest donations to Gov. Pete Wilson’s reelection.

* Anaheim H.O.M.E.: Homeowners protesting new theme park next to Disneyland.

* Arab American groups: Protested alleged stereotypes in such films as “Aladdin.”

* Catholic groups: Protested the Miramax film “Priest” about a gay priest.

* Communications Workers of America: Anti-Disney protests during ABC negotiations.

* Human rights activists: Protested allege use of sweatshops in Haiti, which Disney denies.

* Disney shareholder activists: Protested former President Michael Ovitz’s severance deal.

Source: Times reports; Researched by MARLA DICKERSON and JAMES BATES / Los Angeles Times


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