Can it be? Is niceness starting to infect the corridors of the notoriously pugilistic Walt Disney Studios?
Maybe it's the Seven Dwarfs grinning down from atop the new corporate offices on the Burbank lot. But cynics would attribute it to the drubbing that Disney has taken at the box office, inside its theme parks--and in the press (most recently pieces in New York magazine and Vanity Fair), where questions about Disney's ability to reverse its losing streak have gotten louder.
Disney executives didn't go into the summer expecting "101 Dalmatians" to be their big hit of the season, but that it was. Following the successful run of "What About Bob?," movies such as "The Marrying Man," "The Rocketeer" and "V.I. Warshawski" proved disappointing at the box office.
But change is clearly afoot. First, industry insiders report that Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg is sending out signals that the studio is going to give directors and writers--and even executives--more creative control over their movies. And those that deal with the studio report that it seems slightly less haughty, more open to new ideas.
Next comes news that the youthful chiefs of Disney's two movie divisions--David Hoberman at Touchstone Pictures and Ricardo Mestres at Hollywood Pictures--have had a reconciliation after three years of strained silence.
The pair met for dinner a week ago at Morton's to patch over their differences. "It re-established communication," says Hoberman.
The root of the rift, sources say, was the colliding career paths of these two ambitious men. In late 1988, when Disney formed a new production arm called Hollywood Pictures, the official line was that the studio wanted to double its movie production. But there was also widespread speculation that another reason was a desire to keep both men happy--and ensconced at Disney.
Rivalries between the two peaked when Hoberman was promoted to the No. 1 spot at Touchstone. By creating Hollywood Pictures--a move that Katzenberg and company Chairman Michael Eisner had discussed for several years--Mestres would have his own studio to run. But some sources close to the studio say Katzenberg continued to encourage "creative tension" between the pair in an effort to squeeze out better movies. If that was true, the strategy has not paid off.
Now the studio has a lot riding on "Billy Bathgate," a costly gangster movie starring Dustin Hoffman that opens Nov. 1.