YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections


Way to go, mouse house

Disney, with its emphasis on quality, not quantity, winds up atop this year's Studio Report Card.

January 15, 2008|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

In the documentary "King Corn," a couple of guys decide to move to Iowa and see what it's like to grow an acre of corn. Even though it looks like a picture-postcard cornfield, they discover that what they've really done is grow an acre of sugar. Most farmers wouldn't dream of eating the corn they grow -- it's turned into high-fructose corn syrup, an industrialized sweetener that pops up in virtually everything we drink and eat, contributing to epidemic levels of diabetes and obesity.

It was an image that came back to me while researching the annual Studio Report Card. In today's Hollywood, most studios are not in the movie business, they're in the sweetener business, creating new generations of junk-food franchises. Five of the six top-grossing movies of 2007 were sequels, all of them at least the third installment in their series, none of them films for the ages.

Sequels make money -- lots of it. Under increasing corporate pressure to make even more -- and certainly not give it to the striking writers -- most studios now hand off anything that doesn't fit into an easily salable commercial genre to their specialty divisions, where rigid cost controls are easier to maintain. The model was popularized by 20th Century Fox, which never makes a movie it doesn't know exactly how to sell. It leaves quality issues to its Fox Searchlight subsidiary, the industry's leading studio specialty division, which is currently riding high with "Juno," the one breakout hit in a year when most specialty division movies died on the vine.

Now other studios are adopting the Fox model, notably Disney, this year's Report Card leader. Blessed with the most respected brand in the business, Disney is now less of a film division and more of a family entertainment company. Of the 11 movies it released in 2007, eight were Disney label movies, allowing the company to remain relentlessly focused on its brand. By releasing so few films, Disney was able to make more high-quality films by putting extra time into solving script, production and marketing issues than competitors like Sony and Warner Bros., who roll out more than 20 a year.

"We're probably in a different business than our brother and sister companies," says Disney studio chief Dick Cook. "We've learned that it's not how many you do but how good they are. If you only make 11 movies a year, you're not putting your movies through a meat grinder; you can be very specific about quality. That way, if we do stumble, and I'm sure we will, it will be because we were pushing the envelope instead of not keeping our eye on the ball."

What follows is my 2007 Studio Report Card with three grades: first for box office and profitability, second for film quality, third for overall success. (The grades don't include specialty division films, which are run as a separate business; as for the writers strike, it didn't hit the movie business in 2007 -- this year could be a different story.)



The studio has always had the industry's best brand, but never has it been more opportunistic about exploiting its strengths. Under Cook's leadership, the studio has expanded the Disney nameplate to include everything from sports comedies ("Game Plan") to Jerry Bruckheimer extravaganzas ("National Treasure: Book of Secrets"). The studio production cutback had its skeptics -- myself included -- but Disney had four of the year's 15 top-grossing films, led by a "Pirates of the Caribbean" sequel that made nearly $1 billion worldwide. In part because it released so few films, it generally kept quality high, earning critical accolades with Pixar's "Ratatouille" and "Enchanted," made by Kevin Lima, who's been at Disney as an animator and director for 20 years.

Performance: A

Quality: B+

Overall: A-



It was a wild roller-coaster ride at the most dysfunctional studio in town, especially in a year when DreamWorks, which supplied most of its big hits, openly feuded with top management and seemed eager to leave for greener pastures. By year's end, the studio had a new film group president, John Lesher, a talent magnet at Paramount Vantage who is supposed to bring new focus to the lot. The studio had everything in 2007: blockbusters ("Transformers"), sleeper hits ("Disturbia"), critic faves ("Zodiac"), disappointments ("Beowulf") and duds ("Heartbreak Kid"), though the hits easily outweighed the misses. Like Lesher, studio chief Brad Grey comes from the talent business, but the studio will have to find some new creative heavy hitters with DreamWorks heading out the door.

Performance: B+

Quality: B-

Overall: B


Warner Bros.

Los Angeles Times Articles