CHAPTER THIRTEEN – Change Sweeps Over the House of Mouse
When I arrived at Walt Disney Productions in the mid-seventies, the studio’s physical plant hadn’t changed much from the days Walt walked around the place: same art deco buildings from the forties; same stucco cracker-boxes dragged over from the old Hyperion Studios. Same sound stages.
The only new addition was an ugly concrete monstrosity called “The Roy O. Disney Building” inside the wall along Buena Vista Street. It housed publicity and a few other departments. A smart-ass traffic boy told me it was ugly because the structure was the end-result of the lowest bid from the outside architect and contractor who put it up. Multiple stories of gray concrete, the building looked like a government bunker from East Berlin.
Yet even though the lot SEEMED like a sleepy backwater, there were changes going on inside the company: Tokyo Disneyland was in the works. EPCOT at Disney World was on the drawing boards. And after years of mulling the idea over, the company launched “The Disney Channel,” as a cable network. But the Channel’s low-rent programming caused a lot of employees – me included – to predict an early death for the company’s television brainchild.
We turned out to be way wrong. ...
Disney Productions BME (Before Michael Eisner) was often derided by Hollywood wags as "the movie lot time forgot," divorced from the go-go tinsel town mainstream. Life was laid-back there, with a handful of live-action comedies made each year, and of course the occasional animated feature.
But as I look back on Walt Disney Productions, circa 1980s, it was changing, even as it struggled with the reality of "Disney After Walt."
It made runs at making BIG pictures (Pete's Dragon, The Black Hole, Tron, Something Wicked This Way Comes), and it sometimes went for projects that were higher class than it's middle brow comedies. Candleshoe, for instance, was a picture that began life as a David Swift project, with the director/writer of the original Parent Trap performing the same tasks on Shoe. Swift, however, left the project under a cloud and the movie turned out to be less than it might have been.
The other thing that happened BME was The Disney Channel. The idea of doing a cable network had been kicking around since the late seventies, but in 1983 it finally happened. The reaction of most of the young snot-noses in animation was "Oh my Gaawd! What a piece of crap!"
Because in the early days of the Channel, everything was low-rent. There was a Winnie-The-Pooh half hour with actors in animal suits, which was being shot in Hollywood on a tiny rental stage with chroma key, on a total shoe string. There were Disney story analysts who were writing half-hour scripts for the show outside of their day jobs, getting paid $2000 per teleplay. (Non-union, of course.)
And Disney staffers were producing documentaries for no money. And there was endless reruns of stuff from the vault.
Despite all the cheapness, the Channel took off. And today it's a powerhouse. People think it was an Eisner creation, but it wasn't. Michael Eisner pushed WDP into television animation and direct-to-video animation, and the studio made a mint. But the Channel was born during Ron Miller's tenure.