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Was "Brother Bear" really put into production because Michael Eisner thought that the Disney Store would then be able to sell more plush ?

Was "Brother Bear" really put into production because Michael Eisner thought that the Disney Store would then be able to sell more plush ?

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I know, I know. You people just love behind-the-scenes tales about the Walt Disney Company. Articles that take you behind closed doors in Burbank to reveal how the magic is really made at the Mouse House.

Well, if those are the sort of stories that you really do enjoy, have I got a book for you. Jeffrey Stepakoff's "Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved 'Dawson's Creek' and Other Adventures in TV Writing" (Gotham, May 2007) not only takes you behind-the-scenes at Disney, it also gives you an insider's view of virtually every studio in town.


Copyright 2007 Gotham Books

Of course, the only reason that Jeffrey is able to do this is because he's been working in the entertainment industry since 1988. You'll find his name in the credits for such diverse shows as "Beauty and the Beast," "Dawson's Creek," "Major Dad," "Sisters" and "The Wonder Years." So this is a guy who really knows the ins and outs of Hollywood.

But for Disneyana fans, the main reason that you'll want to pick up a copy of "Billion-Dollar Kiss" is the two years that Stepakoff spent working at Walt Disney Animation Studios. This book includes a surprising blunt account of how animated features came together at WDAS back in the mid-1990s. As Jeffrey remembers:

I spent 1994-96 working at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Rita Hsiao, a former "Wonder Years" assistant working full time in feature animation, recommended me to Disney. After they read my "Northern Exposure" TV spec, they asked me to develop a movie for them.


 Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

It was explained to me that Michael Eisner was very passionate about making a feature film about bears, presumably because of the possiblities of selling plush bears in the company's retail stores. That's pretty much all I got, bears. And of course, given the CEO's passion for the project, I elected to find my own passion for it, which was not hard.

Actually, once I signed up I did receive some notes that had been kicked around with Eisner. There was a page that said "King Lear / Joseph with Bears" and another that said "Antigone." These included a few paragraphs inserting bears into the classical themes. I would later learn that this was Disney's philosophy of storytelling. Find a well-known story, borrow the bones, Disney-fy it. Hey, it worked.

Being a student of drama, I was in my element, though at one point I developed a "Jazz Singer" version of bears, which the executives loved, but it ended up a bit weird for Disney. I spent months developing characters and a story for these furry critters, which was the first iteration of the animated feature later entitled "Brother Bear," released at the same time the ubiquitous plush bears were released in retail outlets worldwide.


Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

While I was working on the teddy bear flick, Disney asked me to join the team that was developing "Tarzan." They had a script that was written by a screenwriter, but the directors said they weren't pleased with how it turned out. So, working closely with the directors and board artists, I spent nearly a year reconceiving and rewriting the film.

It was great fun applying classic story craft to hand-drawn pictures. I hung out with storyboard artists, some of the most unappreciated storytellers in our culture. Most had low six-figure salaries, long-term contracts -- some were signed up for as long as seven years -- and they were still required to fill out time cards.

I worked with artists who had been at Disney so long they had worked with Walt. We'd have long, laid-back discussions about the same story point for weeks. Whether or not to kill Kerchak, Tarzan's ape dad, went on for months. The vast majority of my time was spent rewriting story sequences, little one- to two-age scenes. I'd rewrite the same page or two for weeks, over and over, whole board artists drew new pictures for the scene.


 Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. / Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

For this I was paid $6,750 a week. The studio happily paid my membership to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 839 (aka the Cartoonists' Union), which I was required to join because Disney Animation did not want the WGA anywhere near their place.

I came in at 9:30 a.m. every day and left at 5:30 p.m. every day. I ate leisurely at the shiny happy Disney commissary during my lunch break. I played lots of foosball, pinball and Ping-Pong with the board artists. I did not work weekends or holidays. There was no stress. No pressures of production. Our actors were all drawings, and unlike their live-action brethen, they caused very little mischief.

However, after a couple of years of writertopia, hanging out under the giant Sorcerer's Hat, I realized that I missed the pressures of TV. It took 10 years for "Brother Bear" to go from page to screen. There was no pressure at Disney Feature Animation because it took a decade to make a ninety-minute story! As fun as it was, and it was a blast, I missed not only writing something and then seeing it produced days later, I missed the excitement that only comes from the pressure of production, from being on a TV staff. At the end of 1996, I was ready for it again, in a big way.


 Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Wasn't it great to get that sort of inside view of how WDAS operated back in the mid-1990s? Well, "Billion-Dollar Kiss: The Kiss That Saved 'Dawson's Creek' and Other Adventures in TV Writing" has dozens of stories like this. Tales that take you behind-the-scenes at many of your favorite television programs.

So if you're looking for a juicy read as the Summer of 2007 draws to a close, you should genuinely think about picking up a copy of Jeffrey Stepakoff's latest. For "Billion-Dollar Kiss" really does have the write stuff.

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  • I don't  know if I once knew this and forgot, but I don't remember knowing that "Brother Bear" was 10 years in the making.  My husband and I are huge "Brother Bear" fans, so it was nice to get a little inside info.  

    I think that any Disney movie with cute, furry animals will sell more plushes than movies without cute, furry animals- the cute, furry animals appeal to both boys and girls (while Princess plushes don't, for example).  

  • Seems like a misleading headline ... the guy says the movie was made "presumably" for that reason ... even the "insider" doesn't really know if that was the case or not.

  • "Brother Bear" went through all those years in development because they didn't have a story concept, just a marketing one. As soon as Lion King was a hit (not only in theaters, but even more so in plush retail), Mr. Eisner wanted another animal film. "I want 'Lion King' in North America", was the quote bandied around the studio.

    They had a marketing concept, not a story for years, They weren't looking for heart, just dollar signs. The development team went through many writers, concept artists, directors and 'development execs' until the floundering orphan project came to Florida around 1998/99.

    It was Aaron Blaise who picked up the mantle, begged for it in fact. Aaron loves bears, has been doing wildlife paintings of them for years (plus he shares a love of Albert Bierstadt paintings with Michael E.). He lead the team that got the story up and running. Early in 2000 Bob Walker was teamed up with Blaise and with their producer, Chuck Williams, they went in search of the story's soul -- not it's toy line.

  • You know these stupid marketing concerns are nothing new. I remember how worried the studio heads were about The Lion King because there were no humans, specifically no "princess character" to placate the Barbie crowd, and they were astounded when it went on to make over a billion dollars in merchandise revenue.

    The bottom line is that a good movie sells itself. These overpriced execs with their MBAs can research trends and reanalyze the figures from previous films until the the end of time, but the truth is they haven't got a clue as to how to make a successful animated feature.

  • This "writer" guy sounds like he should have been laid off a long time before he left.

  • By the way, I did not intend to disparage the artists working on the film before it came to Florida. I was intending to point a finger at the  directives they were given, the constant changes from above as they searched in vain for something that would grab certain development execs who had risen through the ranks of the accounting department.

    There wasn't a person who could champion the story.

    I think when it came to Florida, it escaped all the big cheeses who were jockeying for credit on what was supposed to be the next Lion King.

  • ON THE TIME CARD THING . . .

    The reason six-figure professionals fill out time cards is not to track their comings and goings, but to correctly allocate their time to the various projects they are working on.

    The time card is how a salary becomes a capital asset.  When a completed film (or theme park attraction) goes onto the books, the salaries of the people who create it are included in setting the value of the asset.  Then the asset can be depreciated over time, lowering Disney's tax liability.

    If the hours don't get on the time card, this doesn't happen.

    People elsewhere in the entertainment community don't usually see this (they fill out time cards for other reasons), because they are usually working on just one project at a time.

  • I actually read this book a few weeks ago.

    It was a pretty good read.

  • Wow, no wonder prices keep going up - $6K a week to play foosball!

  • Anybody who would trade 6 grand a week to hang out with Disney artists and create, while playing foosball and ping pong, for a high stress TV job is out of their minds. I was paid a whole lot less in the TV biz for years of bust my ass work, with lots of stress. I never worked at Disney, but given this guy's description, I'd a done it for 6x less a week and never complained.

  • Nicely put

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