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Much Ado about Disney & the Muppets

Much Ado about Disney & the Muppets

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Do you remember the article that JHM ran last Monday about what a good job the Walt Disney Company had been doing reviving the Muppet franchise?

Well, you can scratch that, folks. Over the past week, I've had a number of employees who work in various  divisions of the Disney Corporation get in touch with me. And none of the people that I've spoken with over the past 7 days have had much good to say about what Disney's been doing with the Muppets.

"So what's the problem?," you ask. Well, for starters, there's the way that the Walt Disney Company initially went about acquiring these characters back in February. You see, Disney didn't snatch Kermit & Co. away from the Jim Henson Company because the Mouse had this all-encompassing plan in place about what to do with the Muppets. But -- rather -- because Michael Eisner learned that a prize that had long eluded him was suddenly available for a very affordable price.

Said one unnamed Disney insider:

"You have to understand that Disney basically bought the Muppets as a trophy for Michael Eisner. You see, Uncle Mike never quite got over the idea that the Jim Henson Company had slipped through his fingers back in 1990. That's why Eisner has continually pursued this company -- on and off -- for the past 15 years. All because Henson was 'the big one that got away.'

Well, once Eisner finally got his trophy, he had to actually justify the cost of acquiring these characters from Henson. Which is why Michael then turned to his trusted lieutenant -- Chris Curtin -- and said: "You're now in charge of selling the Muppets to all the divisions at Disney. So get these folks cracking on turning out new Muppet stuff."

The only problem is ... Most of the heads of the departments at Disney are still sitting on their hands when it comes to the Muppets. They're reluctant to spend good money on what many people consider to be a faded franchise."

Why would the department heads at Disney be thinking this? Well, I'm told that the company commissioned a survey that served up some pretty sobering results when it came to revealing what the public really thought of the Muppets. The way I hear it, Henson's creations have very limited appeal these days. Only adults from 25 - 48 (I.E. People who actually grew up watching the Muppets on TV on "Sesame Street" and "The Muppet Show") seem to have any real interest in seeing new Muppet stuff. And -- even among these folks -- the Muppets' appeal is mostly a kitsch / nostalgia-based thing.

So -- given that each division of the Walt Disney Company (Be it ESPN or Baby Einstein) is tasked with making money for the Mouse -- no one relishes the idea of getting behind this seemingly dead-in-the-water set of characters right now. After all, it may take years -- and ten of millions of dollars -- before this franchise can finally start making some serious cash for the corporation. So why not let some other department at Disney take the risk?

This is why so many division heads at the Walt Disney Company are reportedly hanging back when it comes to the Muppets. Take -- for example -- the corporation's theme parks. Their entertainment offices -- citing the excuse that all of their funding for 2005 has already been allocated for "Disney's Golden Celebration" (AKA The Disney corporation's worldwide & year-long celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of Disneyland) -- have actually pushed back their plans to bring any Muppet-related shows into the theme parks 'til at least 2006.

And Disney Consumer Products ... Well, given that licensors aren't exactly beating down Disney's doors in order to win the rights to produce new Muppet-based material, you can bet that these guys aren't that thrilled about all the extra effort that they're going to have to put in in order to make Kermit & the gang seem commercially viable again.

Speaking of an extra effort ... I'm told that Chris Curtin -- the general manager and vice president of the Muppet Holding Company LLC -- really puts on one hell of a show as he tries to sell the various department heads at Disney on the idea of finally getting serious about the Muppets. I hear that there are charts, graphs, bells, whistles. This really must be one hell of a PowerPoint presentation.

The only problem is ... Curtin's become the Walt Disney Company's equivalent of Willy Loman. What he's trying to sell, many divisions at the Disney Company just aren't buying. Which is why the Muppets continue to languish at the Mouse House.

"But ... but ... but," you stammer. "Chris Curtin's supposed to be Michael Eisner's longtime lieutenant, right? So shouldn't that mean that Chris can get Michael's help? Have Eisner order the various divisions of the company to start rushing Muppet-based stuff into production?"

Well, yes. In theory, that's how the system should work. But the fact of the matter is ... What with having to deal with all of that "Save Disney" nonsense, then stepping down as Chairman of the Disney corporation, dealing with his own succession issues instead of getting ready for the Ovitz compensation trial, Michael Eisner's been really distracted these past few months. Which is why Disney's CEO  hasn't been able to pay much attention to what's been going on with the Muppets.

Which -- to be honest -- suits the heads of the various divisions at Disney just fine. Given that there's a very strong possibility that Michael Eisner may be out of power as early as June of 2005, some department heads are deliberately dragging their feet right now. Waiting to see if Disney's next CEO is just as gung-ho as Eisner is about Henson's creations.

That may explain why -- to date -- only three divisions of the Disney corporation have heeded Chris Curtin's call and begun working on Muppet-related projects. These departments of the company are:

  • Disney.com
  • Buena Vista Home Entertainment
  • ABC Television

Of course, it's fairly easy to understand why these three divisions at Disney were so quick to get in the Muppet business. Disney.com is always looking to up its hit count. So it just stands to reason that -- the sooner Muppets.com is up & running -- the sooner the Mouse can start snatching customers away from Henson.com, MuppetCentral.com, toughpigs.com and kermitage.com.

As for Buena Vista Home Entertainment ... These guys are constantly on the prowl for new titles to put in Disney's retail pipeline. Which is why these guys are already hard at work churning out those full season "Muppet Show" DVD sets.

And ABC ... Well -- at the time when Disney initially acquired the Muppets -- the Alphabet Network was still in the toilet. Which was why ABC was perfectly happy to grab a Muppet-related project that the Jim Henson Company had originally developed for Fox and schedule that TV movie to run during the network's May 2005 sweeps.

And that TV movie is -- of course -- "The Muppet Wizard of Oz." The high-profile project that many folks at Disney hope will finally the characters back into the spotlight.

The only problem is ... There have recently been some disquieting rumors about "The Muppet Wizard of Oz." How this project -- which was once supposed to have been a top tier TV movie like ABC's remake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's "Cinderella," which Disney produced back in 1997 for $17 million -- suddenly had its budget scaled back. Though no one that I spoke with at the Mouse House this past week wanted to go on record about what "Oz" supposedly cost now, insiders have suggested that this new Muppet TV movie actually cost about as much to produce as the Muppets' last TV movie, 2002's "It's a Very Merry Muppet Christmas Movie."

And -- given that press reports from when "It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie" initially aired on NBC suggested that that TV movie cost $10 million to produce ... Well, I'll leave it to you to decide what Disney cut the budget of "Muppet Wizard of Oz" back to.

This news -- plus those persistent rumors that  Mouse House officials may have also mucked with this TV movie's script just prior to the start of production -- doesn't exactly bode well for "The Muppet Wizard of Oz." Which is why some Disney insiders are already pinning their hopes on the projects that follow "Oz."

"And what might those projects be?," you query. Well, I'm told that Disney has already copywritten titles for at least two other TV movies: "The Muppet Alice in Wonderland" and "The Muppet Peter Pan."

(Speaking of the Muppets & that much beloved JM Barrie story ... Did you know that the Imagineers already had plans to send Kermit & Co. off to Neverland? Strange but true, folks? As part of the "Great Muppet Movie Ride," a project that was planned for the Disney-MGM theme park but ultimately never built, the Muppets were supposed to have parodied Disney's 1953 version of "Peter Pan." You can see a concept drawing for this particular sequence in that attraction below)

There's also supposedly been some semi-serious talk of doing yet another seasonally based "Muppet" TV movie. Something along the lines of "It's a Very Muppet Christmas Movie." A television program that's deliberately designed to be a perennial. Only this TV movie would celebrate some holiday other than Christmas.

With this in mind, Disney is supposedly eyeballing a script that the Jim Henson Company once developed for a "Muppet Haunted Hotel" film. With the thought that -- with a little bit of rewriting -- this project could possibly become a Muppet Halloween TV movie that Disney could run in 2006 or 2007.

(Speaking of horror ... Another one of the sequences that the Imagineers mapped for "The Great Muppet Movie Ride" was a scene where Kermit & Co. sent up James Whale's 1931 horror classic, "Frankenstein." You can see the concept drawing for that sequence -- which includes a monster-sized Beaker -- below.)

Okay. While fans will probably be glad to hear that there may soon be other Muppet TV movies entering Disney's production pipeline, the downside is ... There are currently no plans to do any new Muppet theatrical releases. Nor is there a new weekly TV series starring the Muppets under consideration at ABC. (You see, now that the Alphabet Network has a couple of hit series [I.E. "Desperate Housewives" and "Lost"], they're not as desperate as they once were for new Muppet-based show ideas. Why is which ABC execs supposedly told Chris Curtin to get "lost" when that Disney rep recently came by to pitch them on the idea of the network running a new Muppet TV series.)

Mind you, even though ABC isn't currently in the market for a Muppet-based TV series, I hear that the Disney Channel may soon be. There's been some semi-serious talk about the basic cable channel reviving the old "Muppet Babies" TV series. Though -- instead of using traditional animation to show Baby Gonzo, Scooter & Skeeter at play -- Disney now reportedly plans to use motion-capture technology to produce an all-new CG version of that same show, which would then air in the Disney Channel's "Playhouse Disney" programming block.

There's also been rumors that this basic cable channel is also looking into reviving an idea for a Muppet-based TV series that Jim Henson himself once pitched: "Muppet High." This proposed TV series -- which was to have feature teenage versions of Kermit, Fozzieet al -- looks to be a smart fit with the Disney Channel's early evening line-up. When the Mouse aggressively pursues tween viewers.

So -- as you can see -- there's some disturbing trends afoot concerning the intergration of the Muppets into the Walt Disney Company, despite Chris Curtin's best efforts. With Kermit, Miss Piggy, Gonzo & pals continually being forced to play characters other than themselves, or having to play babies or teenaged versions of themselves. Some longtime observers of the Muppets think that this is a rather odd way to try & introduce these characters to a new generation. I mean, how are consumers supposed to get to know Kermit & Co. if the Muppets don't actually ever look or act like the characters that people have loved for nearly 50 years now?

Speaking of which ... 2005 is the 50th anniversary of the Muppets. But do you think that Disney has any plans to acknowledge this anniversary? NOOOOOOO ... All of Disney's marketing might has been thrown behind that "Disney's Golden Celebration" event. Though I hear that there is a potentially fun idea in the works for 2006. Which is that Disney celebrates the Muppets' 51st anniversary in a rather hurriedly & deliberately-slapped-together-looking  manner. As if both the Mouse & the Frog had forgotten that this anniversary was coming up.

Well, that's it for today, folks. I promise that we'll explore all the subjects that we've touched on today in future JHM columns. As well as address some other intriguing issues ...

"What other intriguing issues?," you ask. Well ... Why do you suppose -- when  the Mouse acquired the Muppets -- Disney turned that holding company into an LLC? Why would Mickey's lawyers insist on doing something like that? The answer may surprise you ...

But that's a story for another time ...

Your thoughts?

jrh

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  • What a difference nine years (and different management) makes.

    It's currently December 2013. Since this article was first written, The Muppets have made several Youtube/music videos, tv specials had a successful theatrical film in 2011 and another theatrical film is coming in March 2014.

    Things are looking up for our fuzzy Muppet Show friends.

    Now if only WDI would finally create a Muppets ride.

    I know there are several people out there who nag "The Muppets are different now, they aren't the same" Well, of course things are different! Considering how long the Muppets have been around (and the fact that some of the original Muppet performers have passed away or retired) change is inevitable. That is not necessarily a bad thing.

    On a related note, the Sesame Workshop folks seems to be doing alright as well. New episodes of Sesame Street are still being made. Despite all of the competition out there,

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