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Can Anyone Dethrone Disney?

Competing studios have spent more than $1 billion to challenge Disney's domination of animated feature films. The stakes are high--but the payoff is higher.

June 01, 1997|John Horn | John Horn is the entertainment reporter for the Associated Press and recently completed the National Arts Journalism Program fellowship

To appreciate the Walt Disney Co.'s animation monopoly, you have to travel back to 1994--months before "The Lion King" shattered Hollywood records.

Far from Los Angeles, Warner Bros. held two test screenings of "Thumbelina," showing clips from its animated movie to gauge audience interest. The first time around, audience reaction was flat. For the next test, according to people familiar with the experiment, Warners stripped off its company logo--and slapped Disney's name on the exact same "Thumbelina" footage.

The test scores soared. (Warner Bros. declined to comment.)

"Toy Story" director John Lasseter is only half-kidding when he says, "You can have an hour and a half of blank film leader with the Disney name on it and people will go see it."

What has been equally true is that if an animated movie--no matter how brilliant and entertaining--does not sport Disney's logo, people will avoid it. It's as if the movie has rabies: The audience steers clear, the theaters become empty quarantines.

Nevertheless, some of Hollywood's biggest players--Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, DreamWorks--are now poised to challenge Disney's animation dynasty, and their first three rival movies are nearing completion. Unlike earlier adversaries, the competing studios are committing vast sums to the campaign, erecting sprawling animation studios from scratch and organizing expansive marketing campaigns. The buildup for the animation battle has been happening for a couple of years, already dramatically changing the animation job market, but the next several months will finally see some of these competing studios' big releases.

The goal is simple: Grab a slice of Hollywood's single most lucrative franchise.

In just over a decade, Disney has turned animation from an ailing weakling into a show business steamroller, building the only real brand name in movies. The franchise is more profitable than James Bond and any cleavage you throw his way. Better than the "Die Hard" and "Lethal Weapon" series rolled into one. One animated movie alone--"The Lion King"--generated an estimated $1 billion in profits.

Not revenue. Profits. Every T-shirt. Every sing-along book. Every pair of flannel pajamas. Every ticket sold in Pago Pago and Bora Bora. Even an assumed clunker like "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" added an estimated $500 million to Disney's bottom line--or about a quarter of Disney's entire annual profit in a given year.

Disney executives say animation is more than twice as profitable as all of the studio's live action films combined--with a fraction of the risk and effort. In an average year, Disney may release two animation films and 60 live-action titles (including Miramax films), and yet those two animated movies dwarf the 58 other releases. Calculating exact profits from animation is difficult, because the movies spin off other entertainment like parades at theme parks and TV programming. Some estimates say animation and its ancillary income may account for 70% of all of Disney's profits. Warner Bros. once said that without animation Disney would trail Warners for top box-office share, which is a little like saying if it weren't for Coke, Pepsi would be No. 1.

Given the loot, it's not surprising new animation studios are popping up faster than ancient rocker reunion tours. Warner Bros., DreamWorks, 20th Century Fox and Viacom are gambling more than a combined $1 billion building mammoth animation departments, and several independent producers--from Morgan Creek ("The King and I") to Nickelodeon ("Rugrats, The Movie")--are quickly assembling new animated flicks. Faced with the new competition, Disney is working harder than ever before to evict the would-be claim jumpers, and has 10 animated movies in production.

The battlefield is cleared and the war is about to begin.

*

In the next 18 months, no fewer than eight Disney and non-Disney animated movies are set to be released, starting with Disney's "Hercules" on June 27. The first high-flying challenger to the Disney empire is the debut film from 20th Century Fox's new Arizona animation studio, director Don Bluth's $60-million "Anastasia," due Nov. 21. Fox's next release, "Planet Ice," should arrive in late 1998. Warner Bros. Feature Animation is set to release its delayed (and troubled) "Quest for Camelot" in early or mid-1998, followed by "Iron Giant" in the summer of 1999.

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