Walt Disney Studios halted production Friday of its long-troubled animated project "A Few Good Ghosts," raising questions about the fate of the company's Orlando, Fla., animation facility and its staff of some 258 artists who were working on the project.
Disney's animation president, David Stainton, confirmed Friday that the movie was being shut down and that "over the next six weeks we are going to examine all our options going forward," including shuttering the Florida studio.
"By January, we hope we'll have a more concrete plan for the [Orlando] studio," said Stainton, declining to elaborate further.
The potential closing of the facility reflects management's desire to streamline its ranks and focus its production resources at its Burbank headquarters.
Walt Disney Co. recently laid off 50 animators in Orlando, closed its Paris animation studio and shuttered its animation unit in Tokyo, laying off more than 100 employees. In all, Disney has slashed more than 700 jobs in recent years, leaving the company with a total of about 900 animation workers, including those in Orlando.
To try to rein in escalating production and labor costs, Disney also has sliced animators' salaries as much as 50%.
Disney, which pioneered the art of hand-drawn animation, has been trying to creatively reinvigorate the high-profile unit at a time when audiences seem to have shown a preference for cutting-edge 3-D computer-generated movies over traditionally drawn cartoons.
Stainton and others in the animation business downplay the importance of which technique is used to create cartoons. Audiences, they say, respond to great stories and characters.
Point in fact, the traditionally animated "Brother Bear," a tale about an American Indian boy who is transformed into a 7-foot grizzly, is performing well at the box office, grossing more than $51 million since its wide release two weeks ago.
Still, Stainton has acknowledged that Disney's animation slate will be heavily dominated by computer-generated or mixed-media projects.
"A Few Good Ghosts," a combination of computer animation and traditionally drawn 2-D human characters, went into production this summer. It would have been the fourth feature produced entirely at the Florida studio, the others being Disney's "Brother Bear," "Lilo & Stitch" and "Mulan."
There is no other project in production or development in Orlando, where in 1989, 70 artists were assigned to an animation showcase attraction at Disney-MGM Studios.
Stainton, who was in Orlando on Friday morning to announce to the crew that production of "A Few Good Ghosts" was being shut down, sent out an e-mail Friday to employees at Disney Studios in Burbank explaining the decision.
"The fundamental idea is not strong enough or universally appealing enough to support the kind of performance our movies must have today," the e-mail said.
"A Few Good Ghosts," a project that has undergone several title changes since its inception, has long been troubled. In February, shortly after he took over Disney's struggling animation operation and he and Walt Disney Chief Executive Michael Eisner saw a story reel, Stainton pulled the project back to have it retooled. But ultimately, Stainton said that "despite the best efforts of the crew, the fundamental idea was not working."
The story is about two star-crossed lovers reunited by a family of ghosts who inhabit the bodies of folk-art dolls.
Orlando Sentinel staff writer Tim Barker contributed to this report.