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Udder Madness at the Mouse House

Udder Madness at the Mouse House

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I know, I know. Last week, I promised that JimHillMedia.com was going to cut back on its coverage of the Disney Feature Animation situation. And that was honestly my intention.

But then Disney insiders began feeding me all of these stories about last Wednesday's "Town Hall" meeting for Feature Animation employees. You know, the meeting where WDFA president David Stainton attempted to rally the troops ... as well as put a somewhat friendly face on Disney management's recent decision to shutter the company's Central-Florida-based animation unit.

So (please forgive my awful Michael Corleone impression here, but ...) "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in!"

"So where did this meeting take place, Jim?," you ask. Not on the Burbank lot. But -- rather -- one town over in beautiful downtown Glendale. The 700 or so hardy souls who still work for WDFA gathered at the Alex Theater last Wednesday morning. Though -- given what had just happened in Orlando -- no one knew quite what to expect.

At 10 a.m. sharp, WDFA president David Stainton took the stage. And -- once again displaying the tact and sensitivity that have already made this man a legend in the animation industry -- he tried to tell a joke that went over like a lead balloon with this anxious assembly of animators.

Literally the first words out of Stainton's mouth were: "So I'm having a great week!" Not "Thank you for coming. I know that this has really been a tough couple of days for the Feature Animation family. And you must have some questions about what just happened down in Florida. So let me try and explain why we did what we did ..." But "So I'm having a great week!"

Sigh

I'll say this much for David. After that extremely awkward beginning, he did allegedly try and put a human face on what just happened to the crew at Feature Animation -- Florida. Stainton supposedly reiterated much of what had been said earlier about Disney's decision to close WDFAF. (I.E. That that studio had to be closed because Mouse House managers now felt that it was necessary for all of the company's artists and technicians to be under one roof once more, so that they could all work together to deliver the best possible animated features for the Disney corporation to release, etc.)

Then -- sensing that the crowd in the Alex was feeling rather dispirited -- David reportedly switched gears. Insisted that Disney Feature Animation already had some really great films in the pipeline.

This was Fred Tio's (the senior vice president of marketing for the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group) cue to quickly mount the stage. And then -- with a flurry of hand gestures -- Tio mapped the allegedly brilliant advertising campaign that the Mouse's marketing department already had in place for WDFA's next big release, "Home on the Range." Fred supposedly felt that the film's marketing campaign couldn't miss because of HOTR's "killer catch phrase": "Bust a Moo on April Two!"

Sensing that the audience wasn't quite buying what Tio was trying to sell, Stainton reportedly stood up and made his way back to the mike. Once there, David allegedly revealed the real reason that the Motion Picture Association of America had slapped a PG rating on "Home on the Range": One joke in the film (a line you can actually hear in the "HOTR" trailer: Maggie's "Yes, they're real and stop staring.") had supposedly upset the MPAA board. Which is why they felt they had no choice but to assign this Walt Disney Pictures release a PG rating.

(WDFA vets who attended last Wednesday's "Town Hall" said that Fred didn't exactly endear himself to the crowd by continually insisting that it was his department's great marketing campaigns that would guarantee that Disney Feature Animation's next few releases would be hits at the box office, rather than the films themselves.)

Anyway ... once again sensing that he was losing the crowd, Stainton allegedly hustled Tio offstage and -- in rapid succession -- brought up the production teams for "Chicken Little," "Fraidy Cat," "A Day with Wilbur Robinson," "American Dog" and "Rapunzel Unbraided." Each of these productions' directors gave a brief speech as they off showed some art work and/or work-in-progress footage. In an effort to familiarize the audience at the Alex with all of the other projects that WDFA had in its production pipeline.

But even this segment didn't quite go according to David's plan, as "Rapunzel Unbraided"'s director Glen Keane took to the stage and talked and talked and talked. Keane may be a truly gifted animator, but he is not much of a public speaker. Though the crowd may have "Oohed" and "Aahed" when they saw his CG ballerina test, they reportedly weren't all that impressed with Glen's ham-handed attempts at humor. Particularly his digs at the Fiona character in Dreamworks' "Shrek."

Then -- when all hope seemed lost -- *** Cook took the stage. Cook -- the longtime Disney Company employee ("How longtime?" you ask. *** actually started working for the Mouse back in 1970 as an hourly employee at Disneyland. He drove the Monorail as well as the Santa Fe and Disneyland railroad during his tenure in Anaheim. He even met his wife, Bonnie, while working at the theme park) who Michael Eisner named as chairman of Walt Disney Studios back in February 2002 -- did what Stainton, Tio and Keane couldn't do. He spoke from the heart and really got to the animators who were assembled at the Alex.

"How did he do that?" you ask. By reminding all of the artists and the technicians inside that theater that it was up to them to carry on the legacy of Walt Disney and Feature Animation. And the best way to do that was to make the best films possible. That -- no matter what Fred Tio had said previously -- that good marketing wasn't the most important part of the puzzle. Good movies were.

(This last comment by Cook was the cause of a lot of conversation back in Burbank last Wednesday afternoon. Animators who had attended the meeting at the Alex kept saying: "What's the significance of what *** said. Does that meant that he actually disagrees with what Fred was saying [I.E. That marketing is the most important part of the puzzle]? Does this mean that there's yet another power play going on behind-the-scenes at the studio? Was Cook making some sort of statement about how Tio's been performing lately? Does this mean that Disney Studios will have a new head of marketing soon?"

My apologies, folks. But this is actually how business is conducted in Hollywood. Where even the most innocuous sounding of statements can be parsed within an inch of its life. As industry insiders attempt to glean every iota of meaning out of even the most meaningless of statements. Spending hours puzzling away, wondering "What did he actually mean when he said that?")

Anyway ... given how long Keane's comments had run, the WDFA "Town Hall meeting (which was originally only supposed to run 'til 11:30 a.m.) dragged on 'til past noon. Then -- proving that he hadn't really learned anything from his recent experience in Orlando -- Stainton allegedly asked if anyone in the auditorium had any questions.

Luckily (for David anyway), last Wednesday wasn't a repeat of what happened back at WDFAF. There were no boos or audible grumbles this time. Just polite questions from the audience at the Alex. Which included:

Is the Walt Disney Company going to continue to make direct-to-video sequels to Feature Animation productions? Yes.

Are Disney Television Animation and Walt Disney Feature Animation going to merge? No, but -- in the years and months ahead -- WDFA staffers should expect to see more lines of communication opening up between DTA, DisneyToon Studios and WDFA. The cooperation's really looking to improve coordination and communication between these three divisions of the company. With the hope that this will help the Walt Disney Company get the best possible returns out of its various brand lines.

Is the Walt Disney Company looking to bring in "new talent" (I.E. live action directors) in an effort to re-energize Feature Animation? Provided that the right project comes along, it's a possibility.

Finally, by 12:15, the "Town Hall" meeting at the Alex finally busted up. And -- as all the WDFA staffers stumbled out in the sun light -- some were supposedly heard to grumble: "Well, that was a tremendous waste of time."

Why the negative attitude? Here, let's let one Feature Animation insider explain:

"(Look, it's all well and good that) David, Fred F*cking Tio and *** Cook all praised us for our legacy of animation. But who's left? All of the cleanup, most of the traditional animators, most of the effects and background crews, the scene setup and camera and scanning and layout and everyone who worked on the traditional movies ... They're gone.

(At the meeting at the Alex), we were surrounded by computer nerds with pocket protectors who haven't ever made a movie. Well, nerds and creative execs.

It's sad. (The Disney) legacy (that *** Cook talked about) is just that: a legacy. It's done, Jim. And it ain't coming back."

I know, I know. That's a pretty depressing story. Particularly for a already cold and bleak Wednesday in January. But I just wanted you to know that -- in spite of the fact the Feature Animation Florida story seems to have run its course -- confusion still reigns in Burbank. Which is why JimHillMedia.com will continue to track all the trouble that Disney is having in Toontown these days.

So my apologies to all you JHM readers who actually thought that this story was over. But -- based on all the intriguing e-mails that I got over the Martin Luther King day weekend -- it would appear as if we've just scratched the surface here. So I hope you'll indulge me as we continue to shine our spotlight on Stainton and Co. for a wee bit longer.

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