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The Once and Future Kingdom -- Part I: The Meek Shall Inherit the Happiest Place on Earth

The Once and Future Kingdom -- Part I: The Meek Shall Inherit the Happiest Place on Earth

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It all started with a rather daunting question: "What would it take to really revise, revive and revitalize the public perception of the Walt Disney Company?"

I was strolling around World Showcase when I first posed this query to Vance Rest. "And who's Vance Rest?" you ask. Well, Rest is a themed entertainment industry professional. Out of his own passion, Vance has visited every single one of the Disney theme parks, seeing Mickey at his best (Tokyo DisneySea) as well as at his worst (Walt Disney Studios Paris). And at each park he has used his keen eye to determine exactly what is needed at each park and how to accomplish it.

So why doesn't this guy work for Disney? "For the same reason I don't shout at the rain, Jim" he tells me. "There are no progressive reformers *inside* the Taliban." And thus Rest dispenses advice as a free agent.

But -- on that frigid night last December -- the only person who was seeking Vance's advice was ... me. The two of us had been talking about Roy Disney and Stanley Gold's efforts to unseat Michael Eisner. More importantly, what might happen should Roy and Stanley actually succeed.

After all, should these guys actually oust Eisner, Disney and Gold still face a pretty awesome challenge. Turning the corporation's rather toxic reputation around. Stripping away all of the cynicism that has become associated with the Disney name over the past 10 years.

I wondered aloud if it would actually be possible. That the Walt Disney Company's once shining reputation could be restored and redeemed. Vance immediately said "Certainly it could. But that the Mouse House managers would have to undertake some pretty heroic measures if they really wanted to pull this off."

"Like what?" I asked. And the rest Rest quickly spun out as we stood shivering in the cold outside of Epcot's International Gateway shops. The plan that Vance laid out was so ambitious, so audacious that I thought that "I've got to get this guy to write this stuff down so that I can share it with JHM readers."

So -- after much wheedling and whining -- I finally got Rest to agree to put part of his plan down on paper. Over the next three days, I'll be sharing some of Vance's theories with you ... as well as welcoming your input on his intriguing proposal.

I think that everyone who loves what the Walt Disney Company once stood for should take a gander at this document. To see one possible scenario that could (perhaps) return the Disney Corporation to its former greatness.

A quick explanation: Today's installment basically serves as an introduction to Vance's thesis. Laying out the premise of his plan, so to speak. On Tuesday and Wednesday, we'll get to the real meat of the matter. So be sure to come back tomorrow and Wednesday to read the rest of Rest's plan.

Anywho ... Let us know what you think, folks? In the meantime, let's have a big JimHillMedia.com welcome for Vance Rest!



... So other Storytellers of the '70s and early '80s had to be Disney for them.

By their own admission, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg would have made the "Star Wars" saga, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," the "Indiana Jones" trilogy and a plethora of other generation-defining, medium-changing films for Walt Disney Productions if the studio of that era had even been a shadow of what it had once stood for. The visionless drones who ran the Mouse Factory in the 1970s and 1980s even passed on the opportunities to make such beloved blockbusters as "E.T." and "Back to the Future," all the while okaying production of derivative tripe like "The Black Hole," and their 37 thousandth insipid "The Million Dollar Computerized Duck from Outer Space Who Wore Tennis Shoes" picture.

Still -- in spite of the fact that Mouse Corp was STAGNATE and DIRECTIONLESS during this troubled period in the company's history -- Disney still somehow managed to remain *PURE*. People kept Disney Magic in their own way. Allowing the Pixie dust from that classic Mickey Mouse watches that they'd always wear to seep into their veins. Clinging to the memory of movies, TV shows, and Disneyland visits from their childhood that were made during much happier, more *Creatively Courageous* times. This yearning for the Magic Kingdom's "Good Old Days" manifested itself with the birth of Disneyana Clubs and collectors groups in the 1980s, where people actively SOUGHT EACH OTHER OUT in order to remember WHAT DISNEY ONCE WAS.

Of course -- back then -- Walt Disney Productions was (if you'll pardon the tired analogy) a Mercedes that had become stuck in a snowdrift. A seemingly abandoned and forgotten vehicle that just needed someone to come along to turn the key and give it a little gas. And -- with the arrival of Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in September 1984 -- that's precisely what happened. Those two dug the Mousekecar out of that drift and put the Walt Disney Company back on the road to a creative and fiscally fantastic rebirth.

And -- for a while there -- it really did seem like the Mouse was magical once more. The studio produced these beautifully honed films like "Beauty and the Beast," "Aladdin" and "The Lion King." And Walt Disney Imagineering had this tremendous rebirth, serving up epic attractions like "Indiana Jones Adventure " and "Splash Mountain" that were both entertaining and ambitious.

Which was why it appeared -- for a brief span of time, anyway -- that the generation who grew up loving Disney would be able to pass along that love to their children. Make them believe in the Magic too, so to speak.

It seemed that way. For a while, anyway ...


The company that stoked the fires of a billion imaginations -- redefining each of the multitudes of Art forms that it touched and giving birth to twice as many -- now faced the most singularly destructive force of our age: Cowardice.

To be specific, Cowardice of the Imagination. This cancer lingers in the shadows at the Walt Disney Company, shrouded in "business as usual" rhetoric that these suits use to justify their allegedly creative efforts to gut the company's legacy and drive its core ideologies to the brink of total collapse.

The Mouse Factory has become CORRUPT and desiccated. A wheezing, heartbreaking ghost of what it once was, forced to sell off its former glory, piece by piece. Its once enviably shimmering image has become ERODED. Which forced the People to once again turn to other Storytellers who had to become Disney in Disney's absence. Which explains why the public's rush to embrace the staggering magic of the Harry Potter books, the noble whimsy and heart of the PIXAR movies as well as the majestic "Lord of the Rings" films.

But now -- what with Roy Disney and Stanley Gold's stirring call to return the Walt Disney Company to its creative roots, that QUALITY (not commerce) must be the watchword that people most closely associate with the Disney name -- one has to wonder: Can this seemingly terminal situation actually be turned around?

After all, the Walt Disney Company has a fairly toxic reputation to overcome right now. Over the past 10 years, the Disney name has become far too closely associated with unnecessary direct-to-video sequels, theme parks that are built on-the-cheap as well as cutthroat corporate negotiating tactics. (EDITOR'S NOTE- Just look at all the negative press that the Mouse received late last week on the heels of Steve Jobs' decision to break off the Pixar contract extension talks. Stories like that would tarnish the reputation of most any firm. But for a corporation like Disney -- which works so hard to associate itself with GOODNESS, KINDNESS, INNOCENCE and FAMILY FUN -- a PR debacle like this could be truly disastrous. We'll try to get Vance's thoughts on the matter by tomorrow's piece.)

So -- you see -- this isn't a repeat of that "Just pull the Mercedes out of the snowdrift" scenario that Eisner and Wells were facing back in 1984. These days, the public -- all too often -- associates the Disney name with greed and short sightedness -- and some words I can't say without putting a 48 inch height requirement on the article.

Which is why Disney's coming battle -- to win back the hearts and minds of the people who have become all too dismissive, cynical and jaded toward the Mouse's efforts -- is going to be that much harder. After all, for almost a decade now, the public has had their love for the kind of magic that ONLY Disney could muster EXPLOITED by strip-mining ghouls.


TO WIN BACK the hearts and minds of the people, you have to understand how deeply the IDEA of Disney runs in our cultural fabric. Consider America, the world's Menlo Park. Our nation is Edison's Idea Factory. The United States of America was the first country in the history of history that was founded as an *experiment* in the accordance rights NOT IN RESTRICTING OR DENYING THEM.

The Pioneering of Ideas is America's raison d'etre. AND DISNEY IS A MICROCOSM OF THE AMERICAN SPIRIT. That's why the company's ideas and ideals always rang so true for the people of the world. HOLDING ITSELF TO A HIGHER STANDARD and TAKING RISKS are the very principles that the Walt Disney Company was founded on.

It is time for the Mouse to re-embrace these principles. For Disney to find its way back to greatness by remembering all that this corporation seems to have been forgotten over the past 10 years.

To do this, the current Disney management is obviously going to need a road map. Which I've tried to provide for them byputting together:




A 3 PART code book to the American Imagination


Television, the Internet, Music ... the Art that we see around us each day intravenously feeds us Storytelling fodder, sparking new thought, and fueling the imagination. And in our culture, by and large, the weekend means going to Storytelling church: The Movies.

There, a Storytelling clergy (a director) offers his interpretation of the human experience, myth, legend, or some drivel with Freddie Prinze Jr. Meanwhile, visiting Disneyland (or one of its sister kingdoms) is like visiting the STORYTELLING HOLYLAND. Be it once a year or once in a lifetime, a trip to the concentrated immersive wonder of Disneyland is Plutonium for your Imagination. To blow the "cannots" and "impossibles" clean out of your head.

With that, we come to the first Strategic Reversal checkpoint. This is the first PASS/FAIL point which Roy, Stanley and the rest of their "Order of the Phoenix" must adroitly navigate as they plan the biggest resurrection since the Biblical Age. And their entire noble endeavor won't make it out of the gate if they cannot make sweeping changes in this first arena.


The devastating fact of the matter is that the majority of the dogma shapers who currently work within the Walt Disney Company go to their jobs each day NOT to tell good Stories, but with the hope that they'll be able to do something that will impress their pseudo-intellectual friends. So the decisions that are being made that affect Disney's movies, theme parks and the jobs of thousands of the most talented artists walking the earth today are being made by people who are only concerned that their allegedly-creative endeavors will be considered socially acceptable to their old college buddies.

You know. Producing something less lame than what Disney usually does. EX: Disney's California Adventure theme park. Which was built on a shoestring ... "But (According to the rationalizations of the too-cool-for-school execs who okayed the project) that's okay. Because no one really needs all that UNCOOL Disney magic garbage anyway. Shopping, High-End Dining, and a few cheap naked Thrills. That's the ticket."


Why do these people, who are so clearly unfit for their professions, seek out jobs at the Walt Disney Company? Status. Having a job at a major media outlet has a certain cachet to these idiots. Having a high profile position at a Fortune 500 corporation like Disney is considered extremely sexy by creeps like this. More importantly, it gives them the illusion of depth as a human being without their actually having to achieve anything.

So ambitious bottom-feeders like this pursue jobs at the Walt Disney Company (With the hope that a position at the Mouse Factory will eventually serve as a stepping stone to the corner office at the Gap or Comcast) with little real understanding of how truly difficult the Mouse Factory is to run.

This is a fascinating, though ultimately depressing and devastating, phenomena. Everyone *thinks* they know a lot about Disney. And -- what's worse -- that they know the proper way to run the Mouse House. There is a perception that Entertainments (particularly ones that focus on innocence, hope, whimsy, and fantasy) are simplistic. Additionally, everyone thinks they know a lot about Disney because it is such a sprawling and accessible company. Everybody knows somebody whose cousin worked there and SWEARS that a guy got decapitated on Space Mountain, and he may or may not have been eating Pop Rocks and drinking Coke while it happened.

The attitude that seems to prevail within the Team Disney building (be it in Anaheim, Burbank and Orlando) these days is: "How hard can this be? It's just a dumb amusement park" or "It's just a cartoon that's aimed at 4-year-olds. What the hell do you need to *know* to do that?!? I went to the park once when I was a kid. I watched Saturday morning cartoons. Ergo I know how to build theme parks and/or make cartoons."

Sometimes the way that these people think is downright terrifying. Take -- for example -- the rationale behind the creation of Disneyland's 45th parade. Which seems to have been cobbled together by allegedly creative drones who were thinking along these lines: "My pseudo-intellectual theater friends will think that I'm lame if I create a *real* Disney parade. So -- instead -- I will offer the guests an artist's interpretations of the Disney characters -- with the actor's faces showing through -- as well as a gilded Tantor."

You want to know the really sad part? The main reason that most of these people actually take these "simplistic, beneath-them jobs at Disney" is in order to get to ESPN anyway. Because everyone who likes watching sports on television thinks that they already know everything that they need to know about how to run a sports television network.

Sensing a pattern yet?


In order to turn this exceedingly cynical situation around, we need the Walt Disney Company to be made up of men and women who are not here just because of the allegedly "cool" aura that they acquire by working for a major media outlet. In order for the Mouse House to come back to full flower, we need people working there who are not afraid of the real Disney (I.E. The spirits of HOPE, HONOR, INNOCENCE, WHIMSY and PLAY that embody that work). Inspired artists, technicians and executives who understand that magic is really just a turn of a bedknob away.

On a strictly procedural level, WE NEED PEOPLE WHO ARE WILLING TO GO INTO THE THEME PARKS AT LEAST ONCE A WEEK. Not execs who never leave their offices, who base their allegedly in-depth knowledge of what the guests are supposedly experiencing based on PowerPoint presentations they've attended and/or roller coaster specials that they've viewed while watching the Discovery Channel. No more FOCUS GROUPS and SURVEYS. These Disney Company officials have to acquire their keen understanding of what the guests are going through by watching, listening, and (above all) BEING A GUEST.

The same applies for the Studio. The people who work there should be animation fans who would never blaspheme their artform by saying that it's a medium meant "just for kids." As Guardians of Disney's Heart and Soul, they must know why a story is told through animation. (I.E. YOU ARE CHARGED WITH TELLING THE STORY OF CHARACTERS SO CAPTIVATING, SO MOVING, THAT THEIR TALE *DEMANDS* THE CARE OF FRAME-BY-FRAME CRAFTING BY MEN AND WOMEN WHO BEGIN WITH A BLANK PAGE AND FINISH WITH 1/24TH OF A MOMENT ERUPTING WITH LIFE.)

There is a place in this world for the computer. But there is no place for fools who think that traditional animation's day is done.

Okay. I've given you folks a bit of the back story about the Walt Disney Company's recent past. As well as a sense of the sorts of people that we need manning the Mouse Factory these days in order to bring it back to greatness. Tomorrow, I'll lay out a possible road map for Mickey. A path that the Mouse could follow should the corporation actually wants to earn back the loyalty and trust of its once faithful customer base.

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