Disney gets back to nature

Times Staff Writers

Walt Disney Co., the latest entertainment company to hop on corporate America’s green bandwagon, is launching a new film production unit called Disneynature to make feature-length documentaries about animals and the environment.

The endeavor, inspired by the success of the 2005 Oscar-winning documentary “March of the Penguins,” is in keeping with Disney’s strategy to produce low-cost movies aimed at family audiences. “Penguins,” distributed by Warner Independent Pictures, cost about $8 million to produce and grossed nearly 10 times that at the U.S. box office.

“After that came out, a lightbulb went off and we said that should have been a Disney film worldwide,” said Disney’s chief executive, Bob Iger. “That’s part of the Disney heritage.”


The new unit marks a return to Disney’s onetime tradition of making nature films. From 1948 through 1960, the studio produced the 13-film series “True-Life Adventures,” eight of which won Academy Awards. “The Living Desert” was the first full-length feature to be released, in November 1953.

Under the new initiative, to be headed by Paris-based Disney veteran Jean-Francois Camilleri, each film is expected to cost $5 million to $10 million and will be marketed and distributed through Disney’s mainstream movie operation. Although the production budgets are much less than a typical feature film, payoffs nonetheless are hardly assured. “Arctic Tale,” the 2007 follow-up to “Penguins,” grossed just $1.8 million worldwide.

In a presentation Monday at Disney’s Burbank headquarters, Iger and Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook announced and showed snippets from the new label’s initial slate of seven films.

The first U.S. release, “Earth,” is set to open April 22, 2009 -- Earth Day. The 90-minute movie, based on the award-winning BBC and Discovery Channel series “Planet Earth,” will chronicle a year in the life of the planet. It will be narrated by James Earl Jones.

“The Crimson Wing: Mystery of the Flamingos” is scheduled for international rollout in December 2008 and will open in the U.S. next year.

The announcement, which came a day ahead of Earth Day, also provided an opportunity for Disney to tout its environmental credentials. Iger pointed out that at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., the company had nursed endangered sea turtles back to health, returned white rhinos to Africa and conducted a census of cotton-top tamarins, a species of monkey found only in Colombia.

The Disney Wildlife Conservation Fund also has given more than $11 million in support to 650 projects in 110 countries since 1995.

When asked whether Disney planned to donate proceeds from its upcoming documentaries to environmental causes, Iger said that decision had not been made.

In line with Disney’s approach of extending its creative franchises across the company’s various business units, Cook said he could envision the nature films inspiring opportunities in publishing, merchandising and theme park attractions.