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Company Town | THE BIZ / CLAUDIA ELLER

Draw and Fire : Disney Flexes Financial Muscle to Protect Its Animation Turf

October 10, 1997|CLAUDIA ELLER

Addressing News Corp.'s annual shareholders meeting in Australia this week, Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin noted that Disney was "determined to do anything they can to stop the success of 'Anastasia,' " the first home-grown animated feature from News Corp.'s 20th Century Fox movie studio.

Chernin couldn't be more right.

"Anastasia," a $53-million musical adventure due out Nov. 21, has to contend with Disney's animated reissue of its popular 1989 hit "The Little Mermaid" to its left a week earlier, a $75-million live-action "Flubber," starring Robin Williams, to its right five days later, and a double-bill release of "George of the Jungle" and "Hercules" at discount theaters on top of it opening day.

None of this heavy artillery comes as any surprise to anyone at Fox. Or to anyone in the movie business who knows Disney.

This is not a studio that takes anything lightly, despite how much executives there may want to downplay their effort to obliterate the competition.

Three years ago at Thanksgiving, Disney re-released its animated blockbuster "The Lion King" (just two months after its initial run) to blow animated movies like New Line Cinema's "The Swan Princess" and Fox's animated pickup "The Pagemaster" out of the water. It worked.

Last year, Disney torpedoed MGM/UA's animated sequel "All Dogs Go to Heaven 2" with its reissue of "Oliver & Company."

Who knows what Disney executives are scheming to do in Thanksgiving 1998 when DreamWorks SKG, co-founded by Michael Eisner's archrival Jeffrey Katzenberg, bows its maiden animated feature "The Prince of Egypt." (As if releasing "A Bug's Life," Pixar Animation Studios' follow-up to its 1995 mega-hit "Toy Story" won't make enough noise.)

"We will fight like we always do to maximize our gross--that's what we do," says Disney's distribution president, Phil Barlow. Barlow wants his friends at Fox to know, "Hey, guys, you shouldn't be surprised we're going to try and out-gross you. You want to play with the big boys? Welcome to the club!"

Barlow notes that Disney isn't doing anything any other studio wouldn't do in trying to maximize the value of its own movies. Nor is Disney doing anything different than it has ever done over the years in using its unrivaled marketing, distribution and financial muscle to protect its most valuable asset: its family brand name--the only one in the movie business.

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What's changed is that Disney is now faced with competitors like Fox, Warner Bros. and the fledgling DreamWorks SKG, who are making significant financial commitments to be in the animation business, treading boldly where no other studio has dared in six decades--on Disney's animation turf. You can bet Disney's not indifferent about it.

While Disney has dominated the genre since the 1930s, that doesn't mean the marketplace for animation--or any genre for that matter, be it action, horror, whatever--isn't big enough to make room for more movies, provided those are movies audiences want to see.

"We look at this like how do we expand the marketplace, not steal from it," says Fox's marketing president, Bob Harper.

Tom Sherak, Fox's domestic film group chairman, insists that Hollywood is fabricating some imaginary war between his studio and Disney.

"This is not about us versus them. They're doing what they're doing, and we're just releasing a movie." At the same time, Sherak does acknowledge, "Everybody's protective of their children, and these films are our children."

Similarly, Disney Studios Chairman Joe Roth says, "There's no pride of ownership here. The audience will go to whatever they want to see. There's plenty of opportunity, and one movie never destroys or stops another."

Yet the executives are somewhat disingenuous in suggesting there's no turf war going on here.

You can bet that executives at both studios are apoplectic about the other's presence in the family film arena in that their respective movies go after the same exact demographic.

Three months ago, Disney's ABC TV network informed Fox that it would not broadcast ads for "Anastasia" or any other animated movie in its "Wonderful World of Disney" 7 p.m. Sunday time slot so as to avoid brand confusion.

As it is, consumers have already walked into Disney's retail stores asking for "Anastasia" product. The movie, loosely based on the legend of the sole surviving member of Russia's last royal family, features a musical soundtrack, voices of famous personalities (including Meg Ryan as the title character) and an advertising campaign, all of which make it Disney-like.

Fox clearly thinks it has a winner (even the buzz out of Disney is that the film is good) and, therefore, was willing to risk throwing the movie directly into Disney's path. In plunking "Anastasia" smack in the middle of the competitive Thanksgiving holiday period, Fox is toying with a release window that Disney has often dominated over the years with such family hits as "101 Dalmatians," "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "Toy Story."

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