Saturday, May 13, 2006

The First Disney Animation "Gong Show"

It was early '85. Michael Eisner had been ensconsed at the Mouse House for some months... Jeffrey Katzenberg had only recently arrived from Paramount, and Burny Mattinson pressed me into pitching the "Basil of Baker Street" outline boards to him up on the second floor of the Animation Building. I recall having irritable bowel as I did it. Soon thereafter, the animation story crew and animation showed up for a "get to know you" meeting late on a Saturday morning. Jeffrey was there, along with a large contingent of animation staff. Michael Eisner came in wearing a sweat shirt and jeans, with a large German shepherd in tow. He settled into a chair; the dog plunked down in a corner. We all sat around a long conference room table and introduced ourselves, giving our names, a little bit of our Disney history, and when we had gotten there. I remember Pete Young saying he'd been at the studio since 1970, Eisner squinting at him: "How old were you then? Fifteen?" Tad Stones -- now a producer at IDT, then an up-and-comer at Disney's -- got into a back and forth with Michael E. about what kinds of projects Feature Animation should make. Jeffrey and Michael had a jocular debate over which of them had been the one with the brain-wave for "Beverly Hills Cop." The meeting ended with a promise of more meetings. Almost immediately we got the word that Michael and Jeffrey wanted a pitch session where everyone would come up with story ideas for new projects. And they wanted it soon. There was a mad scramble as everyone rooted around for hot projects that would click with the new studio bosses. I trolled through the studio library, but mostly sat in my small third-floor office stewing, despairing about not cominhg up with anything good. Pete shared his idea about doing "Oliver Twist" with dogs. I smiled and thought: "Damn. Why didn't I think of that?" The hour and day of the pitch session arrived. This time the meeting was in a medium-sized room in the Disney commissary, and my stomach was jumpy, my hands damp with sweat. Jeffrey and Michael sat at the head of the table like demanding uncles. One by one we unveiled our ideas: Producer Joe Hale (already warring with Katzenberg) came up with some WWII-themed projects. John Musker unveiled a hip, edgy retelling of "Little Red Riding Hood." I produced Mickey-Donald-Goofy version of Kipling's "The Man Who Would be King," and quiet, soft-spoken Ron Clements waved the flag for "The Little Mermaid," and "Treasure Island in Space." (I know there were other pitches and projects -- I also pitched a couple of Bill Peet books that were shot down -- but time has erased them from memory.) Michael and Jeffrey's judgements regarding what we presented were crisp and brutal: they either took to an idea or they didn't. Pete scored big with his pitch for "Oliver." That was the one that got the brightest green light. I got a go-ahead to write something up on "The Man Who Would be King," (which Jeffrey then cooled on), and Ron Clements got a "no" on "The Little Mermaid" because the company had recently done "Splash" and E & K were not interested in doing animated fairy tales but only modern stories (this changed, didn't it?) Michael remarked that they had pushed a "Treasure Island" plotline for a "Star Trek" movie while at Paramount, but he wasn't sure about an animated feature based on "TI." Ron, however, was nothing if not tenacious. He kept pushing both "Mermaid" and "Treasure Planet," and both ultimately got made. (If memory serves, John Musker's "RRH" project got developed a bit further and then was dropped. But you might consider it an early prototype of the "Shreks" and "Chicken Littles" that came later.) So that was the first big pitch session -- as my faulty memory recalls it -- over a quarter century later. Three animated features ultimately came out of it. Michael and Jeffrey are now gone from Disney. I'm looong gone from Disney. Pete Young is long dead. Tad is elsewhere. Only Ron and John, two of the most successful Disney Feature Animation directors in history, remain. There must be a lesson there somewhere, but damned if I know what it is.


Anonymous said...

Sometime in the early nineties I pitched to both Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg.

I got the distinct feeling they both wanted to be somewhere else. Not a fun time.

Kevin Koch said...

It's ironic that Jeffrey liked the idea of "The Man Who Would be King," then cooled on it. From the early scripts and boards I saw of "The Road to El Dorado," it started out very similar to TMWWBK. Then, as we all know, it morphed into something very different.

Anonymous said...

Cripes, look at the size of Jeffrey's glasses! He looks like a giant cartoon bug! Gotta love the 80's.

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