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Merchandise has less magic with delay of 'Tinker Bell'

December 21, 2006|Joseph Menn | Times Staff Writer

Top Walt Disney Co. animation executives have delayed next year's release of a "Tinker Bell" DVD that the company was counting on to drive sales of a key new line of merchandise aimed at young girls.

The decision is important because Disney has been hoping Disney Fairies, introduced last year, can replicate some of the success the company has enjoyed with its lucrative Disney Princesses line of dolls, clothes, videos and other merchandise.

But executives from Pixar Animation Studios, who now run Disney animation, decided the plot of "Tinker Bell" needed some tinkering of its own.

As a result, the film, originally scheduled for next fall, is being pushed back until at least 2008, according to Disney animation employees and company executives.

Pixar executives John Lasseter and Ed Catmull were tapped to turn around Disney's feature animation unit, which has struggled in recent years to turn out hits, as part of Disney's $7.4-billion acquisition of the studio. Pixar's track record includes such blockbusters as "Cars," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles" and "Toy Story."

One of the first things the Pixar executives did was review existing Disney projects, taking an especially close look at the strength of their story lines. "Tinker Bell" is expected to introduce new characters to pave the way for new movies and other products with her friends.

Actress Brittany Murphy is scheduled to voice Tinker Bell, who doesn't speak in Disney's 1953 animated film "Peter Pan."

But Lasseter, who reports directly to Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, decided that the "Tinker Bell" script needed substantial work, according to Disney insiders. Another concern: that the DVD lacked appeal for older girls.

Disney had no comment. Employees who provided information did so on condition they not be named, citing the company's policy on keeping mum about projects that are still taking shape.

Ordinarily, the delay of a DVD movie would have attracted little attention. But "Tinker Bell" was to have been the centerpiece of a merchandise plan that has been in the works for years.

Disney Fairies was inspired by the success of Disney Princesses, which rang up sales of more than $3 billion, with a minimum 5% licensing fee going to the Burbank-based entertainment company. Items feature such characters as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty and Ariel from "The Little Mermaid."

Disney is already selling Disney Fairies books, play sets and dolls. One executive said that the company was sticking with a forecast of $500 million in overall retail sales related to the products for the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30.

Still, the merchandise line won't enjoy the kind of boost next year that comes from a heavily promoted DVD. Disney insiders expect the movie to still be made because of all the merchandise tie-ins.

One chief critic of Disney's direct-to-video strategy has been board member Steve Jobs, who in the $7.4-billion Pixar acquisition swapped his stake in that firm to become Disney's largest shareholder.

Jobs, who also runs Disney business partner Apple Computer Inc., has argued internally that Disney should make the movies better and release them to theaters, where continuing publicity would help lift DVD sales.

"Tinker Bell's" stumble, first reported on industry blog JimHillMedia.com, is only one of the changes being wrought by the Pixar executives.

The unit is in the process of firing about 160 of its 800 employees as it slows production to about one movie every 18 months from one movie every year. Pixar has kept its offices in Emeryville, Calif., which are not being cut back.

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joseph.menn@latimes.com

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