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Why Disney Really Gave Up the "Ghosts"

Why Disney Really Gave Up the "Ghosts"

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"You have to be sh*tting me."

That's an exact quote, folks. That's what I said last Friday morning around 8:30 a.m. PST when the following e-mail popped up in my in-box:

I thought you should know that Disney Feature Florida had a surprise meeting this morning with David Stainton, Pam Coats, and Andrew Millstein, at which they announced that "A Few Good Ghosts" is being cancelled, and what's left of the animation department (over one hundred people) is being let go on January 14, 2004.

You might want to talk to some of your contacts and follow up on this ...

Now you have to understand that -- as I'm reading this and swearing profusely -- Michelle comes rushing into the room. After I read her the e-mail, my ex starts saying "This is huge news, Jim. We have to put this up on the Web immediately!?"

Which was advice that I (to my infinite sorrow) decided not to follow. Why for? Because I didn't know the guy who'd sent me the original e-mail. So my initial thought was that this has to be some sort of cruel hoax. A misguided prank that some disgruntled Disneyana fan is trying to pull on JimHillMedia.com.

I mean, why would the Walt Disney Company suddenly decide to shut down Walt Disney Feature Animation Florida? The studio that had just produced three straight hit films ("Mulan," "Lilo and Stitch" and "Brother Bear") for the Mouse? At 2/3 what it costs to make an animated film in Burbank? This is how you reward a successful team? By suddenly kicking them to the curb?

It just made no sense. Which is why Michelle and I spent the morning firing off e-mails in all directions, making all sorts of phone calls. Trying to get someone at Disney to go on the record, give us some sort of confirmation that this story was true and/or (hopefully) false.

By the time we finally got that confirmation late Friday afternoon, it was already too late. JHM had been scooped. Someone else on the Web had already broken the "Disney's Florida Animation being shut down" story.

Which -- in the long run -- really didn't matter to me. But what DID matter was the thought of those 250 talented people who currently work for WDFAF who were going to be put out of work as of mid-January 2004.

For the record: In spite of what has been reportedly earlier, the Walt Disney Company is now insisting that it actually hasn't made its mind up yet about what it's going to do with its Feature Animation unit in Florida. According to a statement released by a Mouse House publicist earlier this week: "At this point in time it is undetermined if there will be layoffs or not. We are exploring our options and looking at our overall development slate to determine our next steps with the many talented animators."

However -- based on what I've heard from several WDFAF staffers who actually attended last Friday's fateful meeting -- Stainton all but told the assembled artists that morning that the studio will be shutting down. So -- while the Walt Disney Company may be holding off 'til January 14th to make a formal announcement -- many of the artists and technicians who work at the Disney-MGM facility are already brushing up their resumes, sprucing up their portfolios. Since they KNOW that their jobs are going away in January of next year.

Mind you, there are some of the WDFAF faithful who are still holding out hope. Praying for the last minute reprieve. Hoping that -- over the next eight weeks -- that the Burbank studio might throw the Florida studio a bone, shipping a sequence or two from the films that the California crew has got in the works off to Orlando. Or that someone at Disney Television Animation may take pity on all these Central Florida artists who suddenly find themselves in jeopardy and opt to produce one of the corporation's direct-to-video sequels right here in the states (rather than shipping that film off to Australia to be animated).

Sadly, neither of these scenarios seems very likely. At least right now. Which is why a lot of these animators figure that they've only got eight more weeks of paychecks 'til they get tossed out in the cold ... (Okay. This is Central Florida that we're talking about here. So I guess the appropriate cliché for this occasion would be "tossed out into the relative humidity." But you get the idea, right? Anyway ...)

Which is why a lot of these WDFAF staffers are angry. Here, they've spent months rushing to get "Brother Bear" ready for its November 1st, 2003 release date (How many of you out there remember that "Brother Bear" was initially supposed to open in the Spring of 2004? And how -- back on December 1st, 2002 -- Disney Studio officials suddenly announced that "Home on the Range" and "Brother Bear" were going to swap release dates? Which meant that Florida's animators now had to finish their film six months ahead of schedule), delivering a motion picture that had exceeded the studio's box office expectations. (People in Burbank are still buzzing about how well "Brother Bear" did during its second weekend in wide release, with ticket sales falling off by a mere 4%.) And what's their reward for all their dedication and hard work?

Stainton sneaking into town, pulling a surprise meeting on the staff in order to pull the plug on "A Few Good Ghosts" and get the studio ready for closure.

You see, you have to understand, folks: NO ONE at the Disney-MGM facility had known that Disney Feature Animation president David Stainton would be dropping by last Friday. Not even the folks who worked with David back in Burbank. WDFA staffers on the main Disney lot were supposedly given a cover story: That -- on Thursday afternoon -- - Stainton would be flying to New York City to meet with the folks at Disney Theatrical to "discuss future projects."

"Why did Stainton provide the folks back in Burbank with a cover story? Not reveal where he was really headed and/or what he was really up?" you ask. It's simple, really: To keep this potentially explosive announcement under wraps until the very last second on Friday. So that news of this pending Florida Animation lay-off wouldn't leak out in advance to the financial press. Which could potentially have had a disastrous impact on Disney's stock price.

For the most part, Stainton's plan succeeded. The news of "A Few Good Ghosts" getting cancelled and Feature Animation Florida possibly shutting down didn't really get picked up by the mainstream media 'til late Friday afternoon. And -- by then -- the New York Stock Exchange had actually closed for the weekend. Which meant that Disney's stock price really didn't take a whack from this potentially embarrassing bit of news on Friday. (Mind you, when the market re-opened on Monday morning, the price of Disney stock almost immediately dipped by $.25. Suggesting that there were at least a few Wall Street analysts who were distressed by this recent turn in events. And the value of Disney stock has continued to fluctuate as the week wore on. It closed yesterday at 22.79, which is clearly down from last Friday's close of 23.06. ) Which meant that David's attempt at damage control succeeded ... again, for the most part.

But you know what really galls the crew down at Feature Animation Florida? The fact that they were lied to by Disney management.

Look, no one at WDFAF is going to pretend that "A Few Good Ghosts" wasn't a film that had some pretty serious problems. Just listing the various titles that this movie has gone under over the past two and a half years ("My Peoples," "Elgin's Peoples," "Once in a Blue Moon," "Angel and Her No Good Sister" and "A Few Good Ghosts") speaks volumes about this troubled production.

So troubled -- in fact -- that, back in April of this year, Stainton ordered production of this film shut down so that WDFA could radically overhaul the movie's storyline. Which director Barry Cook and his talented team of story artists actually did. The end result of all their effort was screened for Disney CEO Michael Eisner not three weeks ago. And what did Disney's Big Cheese supposedly say once he saw the new version of Act 1 of "A Few Good Ghosts"? "You folks finally have a movie here."

Eisner's positive comments were reportedly echoed a week later from Stainton as well as veteran WDFA producer Pam Coats when they too saw Act 1 of "A Few Good Ghosts." They -- of course -- had a few minor story notes. But overall, David and Pam seemed quite positive about the picture.

Which is why everyone -- from Barry Cook on down -- feels blind-sided and betrayed by what happened last Friday morning. Given that the story crisis seemed to have passed for this production and that animation was finally officially gotten underway on "A Few Good Ghosts," no one at WDFAF had an inkling that anything like this was in the works. That their new film was ever in any danger of being shut down and/or that Disney's Orlando animation operation would ever be shuttered.

So what really happened here? Based on what I've been hearing from folks on both coasts, this is what I've been able to piece together:

Senior Disney Company managers had evidently decided months ago to shutter the Florida animation operation. But they opted not to announce this decision until AFTER "Brother Bear" was actually out in theaters. For fear that all the negative publicity that would inevitably erupt surrounding such an announcement might have a detrimental impact on the film's box office.

Want proof? Then drop by the "Magic of Disney Animation" exhibit at Disney-MGM Studio theme park when it finally re-opens this coming weekend after being closed for seven weeks refurbishment. Notice how the new version of this walk-thru attraction no longer talks up how Disney-MGM guests will be able to see actual animators in action. But rather, borrows a page from DCA's "Disney Animation" attraction. Which tries to give Disneyland Resort guests a basic understanding of how the animation process works without actually having to show them a real live animator.

This long-in-the-planning refurbishment of Disney-MGM's "Magic of Disney Animation" exhibit speaks volumes about what's actually been going on in Orlando. Mouse House managers have obviously known for months now that WDFAF would eventually be shutting down. Otherwise, why go to all the trouble of turning this studio theme park attraction into something that could still entertain WDW guests once all the animators were gone?

It's also fairly obvious now that Disney Studio officials had been counting on "Brother Bear" to tank during the film's domestic release, and then using the film's alleged failure as a convenient excuse to shutter the Florida animation studio.

Don't believe me? Then let's take another look at Disney's decision to release "Brother Bear" on Saturday, November 1st versus the traditional Friday opening. The Mouse said that they went with this release date because they were concerned that kids would be too busy trick-or-treating on Friday, October 31st to bother with going to the movies. But could this have actually been done as a way to artificially hobble the picture, make "Brother Bear" appear to under-perform at the box office by giving it only two days to sell tickets on that crucial opening weekend, rather than the traditional three-day total?

And then you have to factor in Disney's decision to put "Brother Bear" into theaters in direct competition with another Mouse House movie, "Scary Movie 3." (For those of you who don't know: "Scary Movie 3" is a production of Dimension Films, which is a division of Miramax Films, which is itself a separate division within Walt Disney Studios.) Why would you do something like that -- put an animated film that you hope will appeal to young adults head-to-head with a movie that you KNOW will appeal to young adults -- unless your aim all along was to trip up "Brother Bear"?

However, given "Brother Bear"'s obvious success at the box office, Disney studio officials could no longer use this film's alleged under-performance as their convenient excuse to shut down Feature Animation Florida. So what did they opt to go with instead? Suddenly expressing grave story concerns with a film that Eisner, Stainton and Coats had all already said was markedly improved mere weeks earlier: "A Few Good Ghosts."

And what was the excuse that David reportedly gave Florida's animators for his sudden reversal on "A Few Good Ghosts"? Stainton supposedly said that there were concerns at the studio level that the film's characters, music and storyline weren't "universally appealing." Translation: Given that this is an animated film that's set in Appalachia, featuring a blue grass score written by country music legend Ricky Skaggs and performed by Nashville favorite Dolly Parton, the suits back in Burbank were suddenly concerned that a cornpone cartoon wouldn't appeal to moviegoers overseas. Or -- for that matter -- that "A Few Good Ghosts" (with its hick-centric story about two star-crossed lovers who are brought together by a family of ghost who live inside a bunch of folk-art dolls) wouldn't be all that entertaining to many American moviegoers who live in the inner city and/or suburbia.

Now keep in mind that Stainton is trying to sell this sorry excuse as the REAL reason that he's suddenly decided to pull the plug on "A Few Good Ghosts." That country music -- and a country-themed storyline -- wouldn't really appeal to moviegoers today. At a time when one of the top concert acts in the US of A is Toby Keith. Who's about as country as they come.

But -- then again -- what do you expect from a Disney executive who allegedly makes fun of some of his studio's top animators because they actually live "way out in the sticks"? In far-off Valencia, CA!

So, you see, the truth of the matter is: Disney Studios execs didn't just suddenly decide to shut down production on "A Few Good Ghosts" last week. They'd actually left that film in production as busy work. As something to keep WDFAF animators preoccupied. So that no one down in Orlando would be aware of what was REALLY in the works: Which was the eventual shut-down of the Feature Animation Florida studio.

Which brings us to the bigger question: With Disney shutting down its Feature Animation operations in both Paris and Orlando as well as its Television Animation unit in Japan, and coupled with the Mouse's decision to sell off its Disney Stores retail chain ... what's really going on here?

So I asked a Wall Street analyst (one of those very folks that Michael Eisner is so desperate to please these days, rather than focus on pleasing the Disney Company's customers and/or cast members) to take a closer look at the situation. After agreeing that I would not reveal his name to JHM readers, he offered this analysis:

Were you to strip the Disney name off of this company, it would be fairly obvious what's going on here. Jim. Shutting down or downsizing somewhat redundant divisions. Selling off unprofitable operations. This is what a major corporation always does when it's trying to look more attractive to outsiders.

So I have to wonder: Is Eisner looking to redeem his now somewhat toxic reputation with Wall Street insiders by trying to merge the Mouse with some other media giant? Or is he just looking to sell the Walt Disney Company outright to the highest bidder?

Kind of scary to think about, isn't it? That pulling the plug on "A Few Good Ghosts" and the potential closure of the Walt Disney Feature Animation studio at the Disney-MGM Studio theme park in Orlando, FL may actually be indicators of bigger things to come. Like the whole Walt Disney Company supposedly going up for sale.

Make you think, doesn't it? Me? It just makes me mad. Just thinking about all the animators and artists in Orlando who poured their hearts and souls into "A Few Good Ghosts." Never realizing that they were just being strung along by a bunch of suits in Burbank. Who only saw the Florida studio as yet another pawn in Michael Eisner's never-ending game of corporate chess.

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