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COVER STORY

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

DreamWorks, whose Jeffrey Katzenberg helped build the Disney monarchy he's now trying to overthrow, will unveil four animated films in the next three years, starting with the often dark and serious Old Testament tale "Prince of Egypt" in the fall of 1998. In animation's version of the "Dante's Peak"/"Volcano" race to theaters this year, DreamWorks and Pixar are both making computer animated movies: "Ants" and "A Bug's Life," respectively. MTV Networks' $420-million animation investment (which includes a planned Burbank studio) will focus initially on lower-budget works. Projects include "The Stinky Cheese Man," a "Beavis and Butt-head" sequel and the $15-million "Rugrats," based on the TV show, which is due in the fall of 1998.

Only a handful of companies are not massing troops in the animation wars.

Sony Pictures, MGM and Universal Pictures have no public plans to launch animation units. Universal's home video division has generated more than $375 million in cassette sales from "The Land Before Time" and its direct-to-video brethren, but instead of a splashy animated feature, Universal is making two more "Land Before Time" video sequels and an animated direct-to-video version of TV's "Hercules and Xena."

As the debuts of the non-Disney animated movies draw near, the rival studios are sweating every detail. The executives are either convinced the more attention they lavish on a film the better it will do--or they are simply proving they did their best if (or when) the movie goes down in flames. In some ways, it's as though Warners, Fox and DreamWorks are learning to walk for the first time, while Disney is already sprinting. The challenge is to not fall flat on their faces--just like all the others.

GOLIATH VS. LOTS OF DAVIDS

Each of the last six Disney films has grossed more than $100 million at North American theaters. Two ("The Lion King" and "Aladdin") have surpassed $200 million. Of the 50 non-Disney-distributed animated movies released since 1989's "The Little Mermaid," a grand total of one surpassed $50 million--last year's "Beavis and Butt-head Do America," according to Entertainment Data Inc. No other non-Disney animated film has grossed even $30 million in that time frame.

Of the more than $1.8 billion in animation movie tickets sold in those eight years, Disney claimed a whopping 85% of the pot. (Warner Bros.' "Space Jam" grossed $90.4 million, but the 1996 movie was a combination of live action and animation, and therefore is not counted in this study.)

"It is clearly competitive," says Chris Meledandri, president of Fox Family Films, with obvious understatement. Adds a more candid Max Howard, president of Warner Feature Animation: "Of course there is tremendous pressure."

The rival studios are studying Disney's strategy the way an NFL coach might scrutinize game films, looking for openings and lessons. For its first animated movie, DreamWorks is trying to counter-program Disney, shooting for an audience years older than the average crowd for "Pocahontas" or "The Little Mermaid."

Fox Filmed Entertainment Chairman Bill Mechanic, who formerly built Disney's vast home video and international theatrical businesses, is, in the words of one colleague, "doing a full Jeffrey," personally involved in almost every frame of "Anastasia" the way Katzenberg would watch over "Beauty and the Beast" or "Aladdin." Katzenberg himself, not surprisingly, spends almost half his time in DreamWorks' animation offices and has transferred some of his Disney tricks to his new digs: Every animated movie has an "emotional beat board" that tracks with string and push-pins the presumed audience response to each scene.

Disney is hardly flattered by the imitators.

With all the activity swirling around it (both Warners' and DreamWorks' animation facilities are mere blocks from Disney), Disney has gone on a huge hiring binge, nearly doubling its animation department from 1,248 employees in 1995 to 2,200 this year, spread out among four studios (in Florida, Paris and two in Burbank).

To assert its dominance, Disney will launch an armada of animated movies through the millennium, starting with "Hercules," which looks more commercial than the strange "Hunchback of Notre Dame." "Hercules" features gospel-style music and the voices of Tate Donovan in the title role, Danny DeVito as a satyr companion and James Woods as the villain Hades. Upcoming Disney titles include "Mulan" (summer 1998), Pixar's computer-animated "A Bug's Life" (fall 1998), "Tarzan" (summer 1999), "Kingdom of the Sun," "Dinosaur," "Atlantis," "Treasure Planet" and "Fantasia 2000."

And in a coldly calculated plot to torpedo Fox's "Anastasia," Disney will re-release 1989's "The Little Mermaid" on Nov. 11, just before "Anastasia" comes out. (Disney re-released "Oliver and Co." last year to coincide with--and, of course, kill--MGM's "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2.")

A CUTTHROAT JOB MARKET

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