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Three to get ready ...

Three to get ready ...

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My apologies if today's column comes across as somewhat scattershot. But I'm in the middle of packing for my upcoming trip down to Orlando ...

"Wait a minute, Jim," I hear you say. "Didn't you say -- at the start of last Friday's 'Remembering Light Magic' story -- that you were leaving for Central Florida then?"

Well, as it turns out, Nancy and I did begin our drive down to Disney World last Friday morning. But en route, Nancy began developing these weird leg pains. And since my fiancée has previously had some trouble with blood clots, I thought it best that we turn the car around and have our family doctor check her out.

Just for the record: We made it as far as Hartford, CT. And -- before we headed back to New Hampshire -- we did manage to cram in a quick visit with Jeff and Flo Lange. So Friday's 200 mile round trip wasn't a total waste.

ANYWAY ... Several days later, Nancy's doctors determined that what we feared to be phlebitis was actually tendonitis. Which is painful but thankfully not life threatening.

So tomorrow morning, Nancy and I climb in our Escape again and -- hopefully -- actually make it all the way to Orlando this time. Here's hoping, anyway.

Okay ... enough with the personal crap. Let me now tell you about the weird experience that I just had at our local Disney Store.

While Nancy was at her doctor this morning, getting the final okay for tomorrow's road trip, I popped over to the mall to pick up the copy of "Treasure Planet" that I'd pre-ordered.

So I step up to the counter at the Disney Store, hand over my receipt, and ask for my "Treasure Planet" DVD. The woman behind the register says "Okay, Mr. Hill ... but wouldn't you also like to pre-order your copy of 'Jungle Book 2' while you're here? "

This Disney Store cast member then directed my attention to the "Jungle Book 2" promotional materials that were prominently displayed at the store's main sales counter. (Which the store's personnel had evidently just put up that morning.)

I politely demurred, explaining that I'd left my wallet out in the car. Which I had.

This was when this Disney Store cast member did a somewhat startling thing. She actually took the bag that had my "Treasure Planet" DVD in it out of my hand and placed it behind the counter. This woman then turned to me and said "Tell you what. I'll hold onto to your 'Treasure Planet' DVD while you go out to your car and get your wallet. That way, you won't miss out on pre-ordering 'Jungle Book 2.'"

I just stood there with my jaw hanging open for a moment. I mean, I've heard about hard selling before. But how bad must things be at the Disney Store if the cast members there are willing to hold guests' merchandise hostage in order to pre-sell a few more copies of "Jungle Book 2?"

I honestly didn't know what to say for a moment. I eventually burbled something to the effect of "I'm sorry, but I can't today. You see, I'm trying to be good here. I leave for Disney World tomorrow." To which this Disney Store employee replied "Oh, you don't want to buy anything down there. They're going to make you pay tax."

It was really a Fellini-esque exchange. Eventually, I was able to persuade this cast member to give me back my "Treasure Planet" DVD. Which she did, reluctantly. But -- as soon as I stepped away from the counter -- this Disney Store employee started right in on the customer that was standing behind me. Giving them the full court press about the advantages of "... pre-ordering 'Jungle Book 2' today."

Without a doubt, this was the most bizarre interaction I've ever had with a Disney Store cast member. Which is why I'm asking: Was this just one weird employee, or are these aggressive sales tactics now standard operating procedure for DS?

My apologies to any Disney Store cast members that the above news item may offend. That's honestly not my intention here. But I just found this incident to be so bizarre. So I was hoping that maybe some of you DS employees could shed some light on what was going on here?

Was this just an isolated incident? Or is there an in-store contest going on? Perhaps a sales quota, where Disney Store cast members have to sell so many "Jungle Book 2" per shift ... or risk banishment from the Magic Kingdom? Any info you Disney Store veterans can provide would be very much appreciated.

And finally, how many of you read this story from yesterday's Los Angeles Times? The one where David Stainton, the new head of Disney Feature Animation, spoke with Claudia Eller and Richard Verrier about his vision for the Mouse Factory.

One paragraph from this piece is reportedly really pissing animation professionals at Disney. What's so offensive about this section of the story. It reads as follows:

One thing Stainton said he knows for sure: The studio's core audience for animation is 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents. "If you think you're making a movie for everybody, you're making a movie for nobody."

Now please understand that David's spent the last few years at Disney Television Animation. Where the target audience for the video premieres that Stainton and his team churned out (I.E. "The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea," "Cinderella II: Dreams Come True," and "The Lion King II: Simba's Pride") really was 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents.

But when it comes to the most successful animated features of the past 10 years -- films like "Shrek" (which grossed $267 million domestically), "Monsters, Inc." ($252 million), "Toy Story II" ($245 million) and "Ice Age" ($176 million) -- the only reasons that these motion pictures made serious coin was because teens and young adults embraced these movies. Even WDFA's top grossers of the past decade -- "The Lion King" ($313 million domestic), "Aladdin" ($217 million), and "Beauty and the Beast" ($145 million) -- only performed as well as they did because they didn't aim too low. That they included characters, storylines, and songs that entertained audiences of all ages. NOT just youngsters and their parents.

Some WDFA vets that I've spoken with today have serious concerns about what Stainton is up to. Here's a particularly biting quote:

"David's trying to dumb down what Disney does. Radically change how Disney Feature Animation operates so that it's more like Disney Television Animation. So that we can quickly churn out all of these low budget projects -- stuff that's on a par with "Return to Neverland" and "Jungle Book 2" -- that are sure to turn a profit even if audiences and critics don't exactly embrace them."

Me personally? I don't think that things are quite as bleak at all that for Disney Feature Animation. I mean, sure, Stainton's keeping a close eye on the bottom line. But that doesn't mean that everything that WFDA does from here on in will be of video premiere quality.

Case in point: "Enchanted," the ambitious WDFA project that David just revived. This romantic fable -- which is slated to be directed by Adam Shankman, the guy who just helmed Touchstone's latest blockbuster, "Bringing Down the House" -- will reportedly use a combination of live action footage and animation in order to tell the tale of a fairy tale princess who winds up banished to the real world. Specifically, the Big Apple.

And Stainton was also smart enough to shut down production of "My Peoples" / "Once in a Blue Moon" in order to put the film in for some serious retooling. This Barry Cook project reportedly has a very pleasing score (written by Ricky Skaggs) as well as some pretty intriguing characters. But the film's story was supposedly a mess. Which is why David allegedly tossed out the film's original screenplay and brought a brand new set of writers to try and save the film.

Now where this gets interesting is that Stainton's orders to "My Peoples / Once in a Blue Moon"'s new team of writers reportedly went something like this:

1. You can't touch Ricky Skaggs' songs.
2. You have to use the characters -- more importantly, the character designs -- that had been created for the first version of the film.
3. The film's new story has to have plenty of heart and humor

Kind of an intriguing challenge, don't you think?

If it's any consolation, David did the exact same sort of thing with Randy Fullmer and Mark Dindal's "Chicken Little" feature. He supposedly ordered that -- in order to make the movie's central character more sympathetic -- that the filmmakers change Chicken Little from a boy to a girl.

So clearly Stainton's a hands-on kind of guy. Who perhaps needs to think twice before he chats with the press again. Why for? Well, telling reporters that Disney's core audience is 4- to 10-year-olds and their parents just proves to the folks over at Blue Sky, Dreamworks/PDI and Pixar Animation Studio how truly out-of-touch Mouse House management is when it comes to what entertains today's audiences.

More importantly, David needs to understand that a seemingly innocent slip of the tongue can potentially end your career at the Walt Disney Company.

Don't believe me? Then let's talk about Bob Weis, former rising star at Walt Disney Imagineering. Bob was the WDI creative VP who rode herd on the development of the Disney-MGM Studios, the WDW theme park that Michael Eisner absolutely loved. Which is why Uncle Mike put Weis in charge of his next pet project: a theme park that would celebrate American history.

From all accounts, Bob came up with a killer design for Disney's America. It was honestly a theme park that would have done the Walt Disney Company proud. It was only during the November 1993 press conference -- when Eisner and Weis unveiled their plans for the Haymarket, VA. Project -- that he let his tongue trip him up.

Replying to a reporter's questions about what sort of exhibits guests could expect to find when they visited Disney's America, Weis tried to emphasis the hands-on nature of the park's various exhibits and attractions by saying:

"We want to make you a Civil War soldier. We want you to feel what it was like to be a slave, or what is was like to escape through the Underground Railroad."

It was Weis' seemingly off-the-cuff comment -- "We want you to feel what it was like to be a slave ..." -- that many Mouse House insiders feel actually sank the Disney's America project. How so? Well, critics of the project were quick to leap on Bob's remarks and used them as an example of how insensitive the Walt Disney Company was sure to be with its recreations of key moments in America history.

Oh, sure, it wasn't just Weis' "slave" comment that doomed Disney's America. But it certainly didn't help. So it's probably no coincidence that -- shortly after Michael Eisner's October 1994 announcement that the Walt Disney Company had changed its mind about building a history-themed theme park in Prince William County -- Bob Weis left WDI.

So my advice to David Stainton is: The next time you chat with reporters, you might want to keep Bob Weis in mind. After all, your next off-the-cuff comment may do more than just offend your staff. It could also end your career.

Okay, that's enough yammering for today. I gotta finish packing the car.

Talk to you later,
jrh

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