As Walt Disney's cartoon version of the Atlantis legend makes its national debut today, the company's bedrock animation division is in the throes of a major upheaval that will cut nearly 500 jobs.
Responding to high production and labor costs, Disney will slash its worldwide animation division from 1,846 to 1,368 jobs during the next 18 months, with most of the reductions coming from its Burbank headquarters, animation chief Tom Schumacher said in an interview.
And those who don't leave can expect 30% to 50% cuts in salaries once their contracts expire, Schumacher said.
The scaling back of the much-storied division, which comes as Disney is cutting 4,000 jobs in a companywide belt tightening, has sparked anger among some longtime animators. They say Disney is no longer nurturing top talent the way its founder did and that the division that produced such classics as "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" and "Peter Pan" is losing its way.
"I have known for some time that there was trouble in paradise," veteran Disney artist Dave Pruiksma wrote his colleagues last month, explaining his decision to leave Disney after a 20-year career. "I have watched with increasing concern and consternation as the artists of the studio were ever increasingly left out of the creative process to the point where their contribution was reduced to little more than numbers on a ledger."
The unrest comes at an inopportune time for Disney, which faces formidable competition in the animation arena. Archrival DreamWorks SKG has scored a monster hit with its fairy tale parody "Shrek," a digital animation movie that grossed more than $160 million in its first month. And "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" also will square against Paramount's video-game inspired "Tomb Raider," which debuts today. Disney executives say they aren't cutting back on quality, just fat.
"I've never seen a time when our films are more vital and there's greater creative range and diversity in our movies," Schumacher said. "I have an obligation to the company and to shareholders to be producing movies for the appropriate cost of what it takes to make them."
The economics of the animation industry no longer support the salaries Disney paid to lure top talent in the 1990s when the company engaged in a bidding war with DreamWorks and other studios, Schumacher said.
"Atlantis" tells the tale of explorers on a journey to discover the underwater civilization. Neither a fairy tale nor a musical, the action-oriented movie marks a departure from Disney's recent animation movies. The studio calls "Atlantis" its biggest animated-effects film, combining digital and hand-drawn special effects.
The film, which was four years in the making and cost $100 million, was produced by Don Hahn with a vocal cast headed by actors Michael J. Fox, James Garner and Leonard Nimoy.
"We decided we wanted to bring back the great genre of action-adventure movies that Walt was famous for in the 1950s and that filmmakers like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg rejuvenated two decades ago with 'Star Wars,' 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' and others," Hahn said. "We wanted to make a big wide-screen epic movie in animation."
The movie doesn't signal a shift from the more traditional Disney animation films, Schumacher said, noting that experimentation of styles has always been a company hallmark.
"I'm continuing the strategy of making a diverse slate of films," he said.
Although it's too early to measure how well the film will do ("Atlantis" premiered in Los Angeles last week), the movie has received mixed reviews from critics.
"It's a very tough market," said Bonnie Arnold, who produced Disney's successful "Tarzan" feature in 1999. "Everyone forgets that when 'Lion King' came out, there was nothing else."
"Atlantis" is one of six animation features Disney plans to release through 2003, including Pixar's "Monsters Inc." this fall and "Treasure Planet" next year. Although "Atlantis" targets older children, the film faces the challenge of connecting with kids who are increasingly sophisticated and who seem to prefer the look of computer-animated films such as "Toy Story," a joint production of Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, Arnold said.
Clearly, Disney has a lot riding on the film. After a golden era of hit films, which began in 1989 with the release of "Little Mermaid" and reached its zenith with "Beauty and the Beast" in 1991 and "Lion King" in 1994, Disney has had mixed financial success with its animation films.
Outside of the computer-generated hits the "Toy Story" films and "A Bug's Life," the last movie to generate a big profit for Disney was the 1995 release "Pocahontas." "Tarzan" also was a box office success.
The studio's more recent "Emperor's New Groove" was a box office disappointment. And the hugely expensive "Dinosaur," which used computer animation to provide visually stunning images, was not the roaring success Disney hoped it would be.
Although Disney animated features remain key profit drivers for the studio, they typically haven't generated the kind of huge spinoff sales of videos and merchandise of earlier blockbusters.
One reason Disney films haven't made as much money in recent years is rising production and labor costs. In the last decade, journeymen animators saw their salaries jump from $1,500 a week to nearly $3,000.
"It got to a place where films were reaching a decreasing level of profitability," Schumacher said.
But longtime animators say the more serious problem is that the division--once the premier place to work--lacks the creative vibrancy that fostered such hits as "Lion King."
"Morale at the studio has not been lower since I began work in the animation department some 20 years ago," wrote Pruiksma, who fashioned such memorable characters as Mrs. Potts in "Beauty and the Beast" and Flounder in "Little Mermaid."
Dan St. Pierre, who resigned in February after a 12-year career as a Disney animator, said the unit is in limbo.
"One of the great things about Disney is that they always had a number of projects in the wings," said St. Pierre, who heads visual development for DreamWorks. "Since I wasn't seeing as much of that going on, I felt it was time for me to do something new. There was not as much drive as there had been in the past in terms of pushing new projects."
Schumacher concedes the morale problems are inevitable during an economic slowdown.
"It would be naive of me to think that, in doing this kind of contraction, people would be happy," he said. "I feel confident I'm doing the right thing for the business."
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
Fewer Disney Animators
As "Atlantis" opens, Disney's animation division is cutting employees and employee salaries. The animation unit, which was beefed up after the success of "Lion King," peaked in 1997. By the end of 2003, it is expected to shrink by more than 35%. A look at the number of employees in the animation unit and an excerpt from a letter written by a former employee:
Sources: Times research, company reports