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Monday Mouse Watch: Harry Potter and the Letter of Intent

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Monday Mouse Watch: Harry Potter and the Letter of Intent

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So what's the verdict on Bob Iger's first year as the new head of the Walt Disney Company? Judging by various press reports that I've read over the past two weeks, most people seem to think that Bob's done a pretty good job so far.

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Oh, sure. There are those (myself included) who think that the Walt Disney Company paid way too much for Pixar. And there's still an awful lot of upheaval going on at Disney Feature Animation (Where just last week, it was revealed that there will be significant staff cuts once production of "Meet the Robinsons" is completed) as well as Walt Disney Imagineering (Where it's recently been rumored that several members of senior management will soon be shown the door).


But overall, the general feeling these days seems to be that the Mouse House is getting its house in order. And a lot of the credit for both Disney's rising stock price as well as the rising morale levels among Disney employees has to be given to Bob Iger.

Soooo ... Having had such a positive impact on the corporation during his first year on the job, what's Bob going to do now to top that? Well, to be honest, Iger's looking to borrow a page from Michael Eisner's old playbook.

To explain: How many people remember how exciting it was back in the mid-1980s when -- thanks to Eisner's Hollywood connections -- many of Tinseltown's top talents were suddenly willing to work with the Mouse? We're talking about people like Steven Spielberg (Who used his considerable clout to finally get "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" made) and George Lucas (Who lent both his "Star Wars" characters as well as his technical expertise to WDI in order to make "Star Tours" happen).

Disney CEO Robert Iger

Photo courtesy of Google Images

Unfortunately, Steven & George were eventually put off by Michael's overly-aggressive management style. Which is why Spielberg & Lucas both basically stopped doing business with Mickey by the mid-1990s. But -- for a brief while there -- it was a very exciting time to be a Disney fan. The very idea that George Lucas & Steven Spielberg -- the modern masters of film fantasy -- were both working with the studio as well as Imagineering in order to create brand-new films and theme park rides ... It just boggled the mind.

Well, now it's October of 2006. And while Spielberg & Lucas are still in the game, many other masters of fantasy have come on the scene in the past two decades. People who've created compelling new characters that have connected with audiences around the globe.

And Iger? He's anxious to start doing business with people like this. So that Bob can prove to the world that -- once again -- the Walt Disney Company is a place where top talents work together to creat the very best in family entertainment.

Toward that end, Disney officials very quietly began talks with J.K. Rowling, the acclaimed author of the "Harry Potter" series. And after months of negotiations, Rowling finally signed a letter of intent. Which then awarded the Walt Disney Company the right to begin preliminary development of a theme park-related project featuring the Harry Potter characters.

"Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling
Photo courtesy of Google Images

Now please note that we're only talking about just a letter of intent here. Which -- according to investorsworld.com -- is:

A letter from one company to another acknowledging a willingness and ability to do business ... A letter of intent is not a contract and cannot be enforced, it is just a document stating serious intent to carry out certain business activities.

And given Ms. Rowling's reputation for being one tough negotiator (Case in point: When Warner Bros. was getting ready to produce the very first "Harry Potter" film, the studio insisted that at least one actor in the cast be a "name." To be specific, Warners wanted Robin Williams for the role of Hagrid. But J.K. absolutely refused to allow the studio to cast this Academy-award winning comedian as Hogwart's big-hearted gamekeeper. And given that one of the terms of the sale of "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" movie rights was that the author had final approval over the film's cast ... Well, that's how Robbie Coltrane wound up filling Hagrid's over-sized boots) ... Just because Disney now has a letter of intent with J.K. Rowling doesn't mean that you should plan on queuing up for "Harry Potter: The Ride" anytime soon.

Mind you, Disney's still hoping that negotiations can be completed in time for the company to be able to formally announce its arrangement with Rowling between July 7, 2007 (I.E. When the seventh & final Harry Potter book will be released to stores) and July 13, 2007 (When the movie version of "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" is released to theaters). When the world is expected to be in the grips of unprecedented Harry Potter mania.

Photo by Jeff Lange

Still, given how protective J.K. can be about her characters ... Disney knows better than to count on their "Harry Potter" letter of intent being turned into a really-for-real full-blown contract. Which is why senior company officials decided to put together a contingency plan. One that would still allow the Mouse to be in business with a modern master of fantasy should Rowling actually decide to pull the plug on Disney's theme park deal.

"And which other modern master of fantasy are we talking about?," you ask. Well, how many of you caught that story last week about how the Walt Disney Company has been in discussions with Peter Jackson and the Weta Workshop? You know, the folks responsible for the smash hit "Lord of the Rings" film trilogy?

Th press reports will tell you that the real reason that Mouse House officials have been meeting with Jackson is because Disney is interested in using Weta's artists to create new animated films for the studio. But given that Walt Disney Pictures is actually planning on scaling back on the number of feature length cartoons that it will be releasing each year (With the hope that this artificial scarcity will then translate into renewed audiences' interest in new Disney animated films) ... Well, that cover story doesn't hold much water then, does it?

"Lord of the Rings" director Peter Jackson
Photo courtesy of Google Images

So what other reason might Disney officials have for meeting with Peter Jackson? Perhaps to gain access to Weta's extensive design library for a yet-to-be-announced "LOTR" -based project?

Well ... Let's just say that -- should J.K. Rowling opt not to take her current arrangement with the Mouse beyond the letter-of-intent phase -- Mickey now has a hobbit up his sleeve.

Anyway ... If you were wondering what Bob Iger was going to top last year's landmark deal to acquire Pixar Animation Studios ... Well, now you know.

Your thoughts?


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  • blackcauldron85 said:
    " 'since Warner still has the more familiar movie imagery tied up, as it's already a cash-hub of their MovieWorld parks overseas.'
    So, HP already has theme park attractions existing?  So why would Disney steal someone else's idea? "
    They didn't "steal" it, it was their own idea to do a HP deal.  Just after the books/movies first came out.  Seven years ago.  (Dating back to all those annoying fanboy rumor-misinterpretations, and our trying to tell them it was just for showing the movie on ABC, or selling the books in Epcot UK, etc.)

    And Bob announcing that they "finally closed" the deal with JK after all these years--despite the clock ticking for the franchise--is the good and bad mark of the Iger administration.
    Call it the Oswald the Rabbit Factor:  Bob doesn't care WHEN Disney finally wraps up a long-argued negotiation deal...He just wants to show us proudly that they DID finish it.  :)
  • The only motivation I see in this plan was to make up for the fact that Disney passed on both Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings when both series were pitched to them in the early 2000's.

    Disney can save a lot of time and energy if, instead of making more acquisitions for their already overcrowded property, they just focus on what they have now, and I DON'T mean those sinister spin-off shows or sequels. Pirates of the Carribean and Narnia can easily compete with Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings if enough time and effort are put into those series.
  • All in all I think Iger has really turned a corner for Disney. Even the most cynical of us can see the tonal shift in both the official and "unofficial" releases coming from inside the mouse over the last year.

    My only gripe with Iger so far would be that while spending money to lure talent like Rowling and Jackson is a no brainer, but how about putting some money into exsiting franchises that they allready own or just paid for like the Muppets.

    The reason Muppet Vision is the 3rd most attended attraction in MGM is that - not only is the itself fantastic - but they actually spent soem time with outside area to lure guests in. Whereas by comparrison the remodel in DCA looks even worse. The rarely needed que line is exposed and the cheap looking characterizations now adourning the sign look just that - cheap. And how about making that glorified kiosk outside into a much more substanial store that could focuse on both Monsters Inc., Muppets, and other random DCA Merchandise.

    And now that Disney wants to get into making shorts agian, how cool would it be if they got Spielberg on board to made some new Roger Rabbit shorts or rides!

  • I come nearly every day, but I've learned to take Jim's reporting with a grain, nah, sack of salt. I have it firsthand  from a Story guy at Disney that Jim's coverage of events and decisions that take place within Disney is often just plain wrong. A blog does not a responsible journalist make. Anyone with a computer and a point of view can become a popular blogger. Becoming a journalist takes considerably more effort and discipline.
  • Hi, this is my first post here, and guess what, I'm going to disagree with everyone here.

    I think one of the main reasons Disney creates rides based on outside properties (Star Wars, LOTR, Potter) instead of using there own stable of characters is probably because it gets more people in the park. Think about it this way: There's a new ride opening in Disney World based on Finding Nemo. Who's going to Disney World to see that? Disney Wolrd buffs and Finding Nemo fans, who, often times, are the same people. But, let's say there's a new attraction opening based on Harry Potter. Who's going to Disney World to see that? Disney World buffs and Harry Potter fans, who aren't always one and the same. So now they've got the usual people in the parks, plus Harry Potter fans. Do you see what I'm getting at?
  • So the logic is: if Disney had scored the film rights to Harry Potter a few years back, opening a Harry Potter ride wouldn't increase attendance because it would already be a Disney property? But since Harry is a Warner Bros film - attendance will increase?

    Attendance blips radiate from quality. If the Harry Potter ride is on par with the US versions of the Winnie the Pooh ride, the attendance blip will be pretty small. When Universal Orlando opened its Spiderman ride, the Toby films weren't even on the drawing boards. (Alright, Spidey took several years and was going to be directed by James Cameron after Terminator, but I digress). Spiderman was "the ride to go on" that year because it was so good, not because it was based on a current hip film.

    Chasing after what was the hot property three years ago isn't the answer. If you offered the world's best flight simulator, with a 3D experience, an interactive AA co-pilot, different shows every time, that you could personally control how rough the ride was - you could theme it to "Plane Crazy" (a fairly unhip Disney property) - because word would get out that the ride was amazing.  You still gotta have a new E ticket (or at least D+) ready to open next year to keep 'em coming back.

    Quality actually sells. Especially in today's internet world, where you can quickly find out if the vacation you're considering holds up to the resort's press release. If you just want to get people in the gates this fiscal year - great, sign up Harry Potter, and next year LOTR, etc etc. If you want people to keep coming back - take all that witchcraft and sorcery stuff, spend the money you saved by not paying Ms Rowling, make the best ride you can, and base it on the wizard's duel section of Sword in the Stone - sell a few more DVD's of a property your company owns outright. Or be real daring, and create a new storyline for the ride. The Haunted Mansion, Pirates, Country Bears, Small World, Carousel, America Sings, etc were not (gasp) based on movies, but were original ideas for park entertainment that somehow entertained people.
  • Even if Disney had accquired the HP film rights, what I said still would stand. Disney would be building an attraction for something that already has a built-in fan base of millions, many of whom wouldn't normally travel to Disney World. And assuming they made the attraction on par with, say, Everest, then this could become something of a Mecca for Harry Potter fans.

    That being said, I do realize that Narnia also has a large fan base, although I don't think it's quite as big as Potter's.  I do think it's foolish to not use capitalize on this lucrative franchise, but I can see why Disney wants to grab Potter as soon as it can. Let's be reasonable, Potter is a much more viable cashcow at this point. What will be interesting to see is if the wizardboy has staying power.

    Arguments aside, I think the idea to create new storylines for old Disney attractions is a really good one. On a completely unrelated subject, I wish Disney World would learn to take care of the attractions it has. I was just on the Haunted Mansion down there, and during the library scene, the floating candlabra was so dimly lit that the only people who even saw it were the people who knew to look for it. It was a real bummer.
  • I don't think Harry Potter would be specifically associated as a Disney film. I certainly don't think Narnia is either- especially since it's a co-production with Walden.

    If Disney's keen on bringing creators into ride development, I think they should go with someone either cheaper, someone who's created content for Disney (meaning Disney owns it already), or both. A HP or LOTR ride is going to bring attention and ticket buyers before its level of quality makes or breaks it, but I'm not so sure the license fees are worth it. I think going with some sort of Gargoyles attraction would be an idea to think over. It's a property that has annual fan conventions, and if you could transfer that into resort business, it's a potential source of both revenue and publicity with minimum cost. Just a thought.
  • Most everyone on here has been quick to jump and say the theme park rides that are new have been crap.

    Only 2 rides have opened under Lasseter. Everest, and The Seas with Nemo and Friends. Everest, regardless of whether you like coasters or not, is a beautiful ride. The que has rich storytelling, and the ride is top notch.

    Having recently ridden Nemo this past weekend, the imagineers have redeemed theirselves, I actually got a little fverklepmt in the last scene of the ride, where the nemo characters are swimming in the tank with the real characters. Its a beautiful, and well made dark ride. Proving that Disney Imagineering, still had what it takes to create an awesome family oriented ride, despite the crapfest that is Stitch.

    Anyway, I'll be dissapointed if they outsource the HP concept to another country. Idk if HP's numbers are big stateside... but I would think so. And building JUST a roller coaster or dark ride would be a waste of time. There was a concept I read about, where you get to go explore Hogwarts Castle, because its open house day or something. Now that would be worthwhile. Go sit in on one of Snape's classes... Go out and pet an animatronic Hippogriff.  Just go up into the owlrey and see the owls. Ntm all the room for character look-alikes. DIsney has to know how nuts most every person in this country would go for a concept like that.

    Same thing for LOTR.
  • Peeps, this is the same company that turned down a chance to make a LITTLE MERMAID dark ride, ferchristsakes - something that would have nonstop lines all day.

    I don't have my hopes up for Disney to recognize flaming hot properties that would bring hordes to the park.  
  • Looks like Jim is incorrect on this. Just read on MuggleNet that it's not true. Surprise, surprise.

  • Tomoyo said:
    I think going with some sort of Gargoyles attraction would be an idea to think over. It's a property that has annual fan conventions, and if you could transfer that into resort business, it's a potential source of both revenue and publicity with minimum cost.
    Well, you probably missed the Goliath (the gargoyle, not Jojo's pal) character M&G's, if he's still making them--
    Probably because he's one of the obscure characters relegated to Halloween-party appearances only, along with the Three Caballeros and Kingdom Hearts' Sora...Which is a relative indicator of how hot Gargoyles is on Disney's current audience-identification radar.
    (Oh, and of course, he can only come out at the after-dark events--Would look strange during the day.)  :)
    scottshelton said:
    "Peeps, this is the same company that turned down a chance to make a LITTLE MERMAID dark ride, ferchristsakes - something that would have nonstop lines all day. "
    Probably because they thought that a dark ride would be more expensive to maintain than a live show or a character area...Not sure if it was, but the live show and character areas were a heck of a lot more imaginative than those first few out-of-the-gate ideas--
    Which is the one idea any aspiring Imagineer has to learn, particularly when looking at a HP-style "outside" franchise:  Not EVERY single tie-in attraction has to be the freakin' Peter Pan Ride!  :)
  • . . . .and to be fair I should add to my above post that I'm not aware that Jim has ever billed himself as a journalist. It's the audience and the mainstream media, unfortunately, who have sorta moved him away from blogdom and closer to "real journalist". And frankly, what the heck is a real journalist anymore anyway?

    At the same time, as DizHawk points out, there is also now blog evidence that this is a fabrication. Not that Jim himself fabricated it, necessarily. Just didn't corroborate the story with journalistic discipline before publishing it. Unless Mugglenet is being untruthful about having heard from "a representative for Jo."

    I'm glad this is just Disney and the Potterverse rather than something really important.

    But it's all fun anyway, isn't it? The speculation, the rumor, the debunking. . . .
  • a representative for JK Rowling informed www.mugglenet.com today that there was no truth to this "letter of intent" story
  • I read the Mugglenet blurb. It's also on Leaky Cauldron as well. Emmerson (of Mugglenet) and Melissa (of Leaky) were the two webmasters given exclusive access to Rowling at the release of Book 6 - interviewing her in her home, receiving praise for their websites from Rowling, yada, yada, yada. Unless "a representative of Jo" has fed them a line, it would seem they would get the inside info from a pretty reliable inside source. What gives Mr. Hill?  
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