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Disney Chief Lets Out Roar Amid Anxiety Over Costly 'Dinosaur'

May 12, 2000|CLAUDIA ELLER

I walked into the Rotunda--Disney's executive dining room--for a lunch interview with studio Chairman Peter Schneider and animation chief Tom Schumacher with one particular question in mind: Why were they spending more than $200 million on a kids' flick about dinosaurs?

I put my tape recorder, steno pad and pen on the table, ready for our on-the-record interview about Disney's upcoming summer spectacle "Dinosaur."

Schneider, dressed casually in faded bluejeans and sneakers, bounded up to the table and stopped short. He seemed surprised to see the tools of my trade.

Acting as if it were presumptuous for a reporter to actually record his words, he insisted that this was not an official interview, especially if I was going to talk about costs.

When Schumacher joined us, we chatted, munched on the Rotunda's traditional crudites--jicama, green olives, carrots and celery--and then I cut to the chase. "Is 'Dinosaur' the most expensive animated movie ever made?"

In unison, they replied, "No."

In fact, "Dinosaur" isn't an animated movie at all, they argued. It is something, well, indefinable.

Really?

Schneider then asked if I had seen the movie, which, at that time, I had not.

"Then we cannot have a conversation. If you have not seen the movie, you can't have a valid conversation about it," Schneider snapped. "You haven't seen the movie?" he barked, his voice rising. "You don't have an idea what the movie is then. It's not an animated movie!"

Schneider, widely known as hot-tempered and inclined to what animators have dubbed "a Peter Schneider three-veiner," had lost his cool. Squirming, frazzled and flushed, he leaned back in his chair and said little for the remainder of the lunch.

After much back and forth about whether I could quote them, we settled on a few comments they would allow me to use.

Schumacher, who had been excited to tell me how proud he is of "Dinosaur," looked mortified by his boss' behavior. He politely answered my questions, explaining that "Dinosaur" is hard to describe because it combines animation and live action and therefore "doesn't fit any defined filmmaking form."

In Hollywood, anxieties run high on the eve of releasing costly and risky projects. No matter how proud they are of the artistic achievement, it's white-knuckle time in the Michael Graves-designed Team Disney building, where autocratic Michael Eisner watches every dollar spent in his entertainment empire as if it were his own.

And Schneider has a lot to prove as the new studio chairman. "Dinosaur," unlike the live-action movies he inherited from the prior regime, is his baby. It was conceived and produced while he was head of animation.

The great debate in Hollywood is over how much money Disney has riding on this movie. At lunch, Schneider reluctantly agreed to go on the record with a few words about costs.

"It doesn't make any difference what it cost, because it is about the investment in technology, the investment in story and an investment in our business which is animation," Schneider said. "At the end of the day, what's important is what's on the screen, not how much it cost."

One source privy to Disney's financials said the studio likely will record on its books that "Dinosaur" cost about $170 million. That's before adding overhead or the costs of the digital studio, created from the ground up in 1996, used to make "Dinosaur."

"Tarzan," Disney's most-recent animated release, also cost in that neighborhood.

Another source, who regularly conducts business with Disney's animation division, says there's no way the production cost "for Dinosaur" was less than $200 million.

Neither of these estimates include the tens of millions of dollars it costs to market and distribute the movie, which typically runs no less than $50 million for a Disney animated film.

There are good reasons why "Dinosaur" is so expensive.

Both it and "Tarzan" represent the high-water mark for costly animation. Those movies were in production when animators' salaries were at their zenith, following talent wars with DreamWorks SKG and other competitors who were launching new animation studios.

Not only did Disney have to pay top dollar for artists, the studio could ill afford to let anyone go between films. "The head count of animators inside Walt Disney Co. was at its peak," said a Disney source.

"Dinosaur" employed more than 900 people, and many traditional animators had to be trained in computer graphics.

Over the last 1 1/2 years, animators' salaries have started to come down, as Warner Bros. and 20th Century Fox have ramped down their animation studios. All companies, including Disney, have scaled back and renegotiated contracts.

"Dinosaur" originated at Disney in 1988 as a potential live-action movie to be directed by Paul Verhoeven. Since then, the studio explored various other forms--from traditional animation to stop-motion animation--but it wasn't until the computer technology was developed that "Dinosaur" could be realized as a photo-real animated movie.

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