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"Hocus Pocus" cast & crew return to the Disney lot to reminisce about the making of this Halloween favorite

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"Hocus Pocus" cast & crew return to the Disney lot to reminisce about the making of this Halloween favorite

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D23 members got a treat (rather than a trick) earlier this month when the Official Disney Fan Club celebrated the 20th anniversary of "Hocus Pocus" by holding two screenings of this Kenny Ortega film on the Burbank lot back on October 19th.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

According to Billy Stanek, D23's web editor, the Studio really went all out for this celebration. Not only digging down deep into the Company's Archives to unearth iconic props & costumes that were actually used in the production of this Walt Disney Pictures release but also by inviting members of "Hocus Pocus" 's cast & crew to come take part in this on-the-lot event.

"For many of these people, it was the first time that they'd all been together again since filming wrapped back in February of 1993. So it was great to see all of them kissing, hugging and reminiscing," Billy enthused. "It was kind of surprising how many of the people who worked on 'Hocus Pocus' actually came out to this event. At our first screening that day, the first three rows of the theater were filled just with people who'd worked on the movie."

Mind you, one of the many reasons that so many Disney vets turned out was that -- after the 2 p.m. screening -- "Hocus Pocus" creator & producer David Kirschner along with numerous members of this film's cast (among them Kathy Najimy, Thora Birch, Doug Jones, Omri Katz and Vinessa Shaw) and this movie's production team (composer John Debney, production designer William Sandell and make-up artist Tony Gardener) all took part in a Q & A to discuss how this Halloween favorite actually came together.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"For David Kirschner, 'Hocus Pocus' was a very personal project. It actually started out life as this bedtime story that David once told his daughter about this boy who'd been turned into a cat by a trio of witches as he was trying to protect his little sister," Stanek explained. "Kirschner then turned the legend of the Sanderson Sisters into a short story for Muppet Magazine and then -- over time -- decided to turn this Halloween-themed tale into a full-fledged film script."

And when it came time to try & convince Walt Disney Company executives that their studio should be the one to produce "Hocus Pocus," David put together a very clever pitch for this project.

"The first thing that Kirschner did was to cover the table in this conference room with candy corn. So that the room itself smelled like Halloween," Billy continued. "Then he hung a handful of carefully chosen props on the wall. Two brooms & a vacuum cleaner. Which -- of course -- is what the Sanderson Sisters rode in modern times when they went after the children of Salem."

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And -- obviously -- Disney execs must have liked David's pitch. For the next thing you knew, Soundstage 2 (i.e., the largest one on Disney's Burbank lot) was filled with all sorts of elaborate sets. Everything from an over-grown New England graveyard to a full-sized version of the Sanderson Sisters' house.

"During the Q & A session, Thora Birch talked about how working on 'Hocus Pocus' was her favorite time ever working on a movie set and how -- during breaks in filming -- she'd go into the Sanderson Sisters house and explore, opening drawers, seeing what she could find," Stanek said.

Kathy Najimy also spoke fondly on her time on Soundstage 2. How -- because of the earth & fake cobwebs that were used in the creation of this particular set -- it had a very unique smell. And these days, Kathy just has to be someplace that smells like that set and she's immediately taken back to all those happy days that she spent working on "Hocus Pocus."

(L to R) Kathy Najimy, Thora Birch, Sarah Jessica Parker and Bette Midler.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And for Kathy Najimy, because she was such a huge Bette Midler fan, to get the chance to work side-by-side with her idol on a big budget studio fantasy film with elaborate costumes & sets & make-up was kind of a dream come true," Billy said. "Kathy actually made a joke to this effect during the Q & A session. Explaining that -- since her character is kind of like a blood hood, given her ability to sniff out children -- that's why if you sometimes see something that looks like drool dribbling out her character's mouth, it's not because Kathy's character is supposed to be dog-like. But rather because she's just so happy to be up there, sharing screen time with Better Midler."

Which isn't to say that every aspect of working on "Hocus Pocus" was a pleasure. Due to the many safeguards that Hollywood now has in place to protect underage performers, Birch, Katz and Shaw were only able to work so many hours a day. Which is why production of this Kenny Ortega film stretched from mid-October of 1992 all the way through to early February of 1993. But the upside of this longer-than-usual shoot is that it then gave the "Hocus Pocus" team the chance to get the details on this fantasy film just right.

"Peggy Holmes -- the choreographer on this movie -- was able to choreography everything in this movie. From the way that the Sanderson Sisters walked right through to the individual flying styles of each of the witches," Stanek stated. "Kathy talked about how Peggy asked this actress for a drive around the Disney lot. So that Holmes could then base the way Mary Sanderson flew her vacuum cleaner on the way Najimy drove her car."

Which sounds strange, I know. But when you're on an elaborate fantasy film like this which evolves flying sequences, bewitched cats, and sometimes headless zombies, a performer can sometimes get asked to do some very bizarre things. Take -- for instance -- Doug Jones, who played poor bedraggled Billy Butcherson in this motion picture.

"Doug told this really funny story about that moment in 'Hocus Pocus' where Billy finally gets to cut the stitches that Winifred had used to sew his mouth shut all those centuries ago so that he can then tell this witch what he really thinks of her," Billy said. "Well, Kenny Ortega thought it would be funny if -- when Billy finally opened his mouth for the first time in 300 years -- all this dust and a live moth would come flying out. So with an ASPCA rep standing by, they placed the moth & all that dust in Doug's mouth and then got ready to shoot. But then there's some sort of delay due to a lighting issue. But in the meantime, Doug's mouth begins to fill with saliva. Which is why -- when the camera finally rolled -- what came out of Doug's mouth wasn't a moth & some dust but little bits of a moth-flavored mudpie."

Which makes the shooting of "Hocus Pocus" sound like it might have been ... Well, grueling and gross. But it wasn't. At least not according to Bette Midler. Who -- in a pre-taped appearance for tomorrow's "Katie" (i.e., that syndicated daytime talk show that Disney/ABC Television Group produces)  -- talked about working on this particular Walt Disney Pictures release was her favorite movie-making experience of all time. Looking back on this film shoot, the Divine Miss M told Ms. Couric that ...

Copyright Disney / ABC Television Group. All rights reserved

"Oh, I loved it. We made ('Hocus Pocus') before the tidal wave of Halloween happened. In the old days, it was 'Oh, Halloween is Halloween. And the kids will go out.' But now it's huge. The kids, grown-ups, everybody takes part in it. And this movie was kind of the beginning of the wave. And Kathy Najimy & Sarah Jessica Parker & I, we laughed the whole time. We flew. And we got to wear crazy noses and fake teeth. And we just had the best time."

Here's another "Hocus Pocus" -related tidbit that Bette shared with Katie? You know Winifred Sanderson's unique make-up in this movie? Ms. Midler herself designed that look herself. "And I still have those false teeth," she proudly admitted to Ms. Couric.

Anyway ... Getting back to this D23 presentation: After the 3:30 p.m. Q & A session wrapped, everyone exited the Walt Disney Theater and then gathered in front of the commissary for an informal meet-n-greet session. Those members of the Official Disney Fan Club who wanted to talk with and/or get their pictures taken with members of the cast & crew of "Hocus Pocus" were free to do so. While still others got on line to go check out the Disney Archives exhibit, where they could then see props and costumes from this film. Which included Mary Sanderson's witch dress ...

Kathy Najimy poses with her old "Hocus Pocus" costume. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... a cage from the Sandersons witch house, the Zippo lighter Max uses to summon the "burning rain of death," Winifred Sanderson's famous spell book ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... the witches cauldron, and Dani's hat, which only just recently was rediscovered by the Walt Disney Archives staff.

Thora Birch tries on the hat from her Dani Dennison costume.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

  Once they passed through this exhibit space, event attendees could then enter the "Hocus Pocus" merchandise area. Where (thanks to a retail collaboration between D23 & Creature Features) they could then purchase fun items like a refrigerator magnet version of Winifred's spell book ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

... or a limited edition glicee that noted artist & conceptual designer Miles Teves created for the Sanderson Sisters Back from the Dead Tour.

Copyright Disney / Creature Features. All rights reserved

Better yet, event attendees could then purchased a special reissued version of the "Hocus Pocus" soundtrack and then get their CD recorded by this film's composer, John Debney.

And as soon as this meet-n-greet sessions wrapped by 4 p.m., it was time for the first group of D23 members to exit the Lot so that the next set of event attendees could enter the Walt Disney Theater for a second Q & A session with the "Hocus Pocus" cast & crew. And then at 5 p.m., the second screening of this Kenn Ortega movie got underway.

All in all, it was a memorable afternoon on the Disney lot for these D23 members. Especially since there were a number of Official Disney Fan Club members who actually came in costume as the Sanderson Sisters ...

Things seem to have taken a dark turn at the corner
of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive.
Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved

... who then used this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get their picture taken with members of this movie's cast.

A trio of Sanderson Sister lookalikes pose with Thora Birch. Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Which made this "Hocus Pocus" 20th anniversary celebration a perfect prelude to Halloween 2013.

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  • Awesome event, wish i could have been there. My wife and I watch this movie every Halloween (and just so happened to watch tonight before i read this article!). Its a cult classic and I'm glad the cast seems to enjoy the legacy it has. I've heard rumors of a sequel being pitched, and while I wouldn't be opposed to it if done correctly, I don't think it could match the magic that the original has.

    EDITOR'S NOTE: Back in July of 2012, Moviehole reported that Walt Disney Studios supposedly had a "Hocus Pocus" sequel in the works entitled "Hocus Pocus 2: Rise of the Elderwitch." The Studio issued a denial the very next day, but that rumor has hung on.

    In fact, "Hocus Pocus" producer David Kirschner didn't help matters when -- at this month's D23 20th-anniversary-of-"Hocus-Pocus" event -- he revealed that Disney had purchased the rights to do a "Hocus Pocus" sequel.

    So on the heels of David's comments, I reached out to a friend at Walt Disney Studios and asked for some clarification. She quickly came back to me with the news that there is no "Hocus Pocus" sequel in active development. Which is Disney corporate speak for "We're keeping our options open here."

    Anyway, on the heels of the coverage that the 20th anniversary of the release of this Kenny Ortega film has gotten, one wonders if Disney execs are now circling back on the idea of doing a "Hocus Pocus sequel. I mean, given how vocal both Bette Midler & Kathy Najimy have been about how much they enjoyed shooting the first film, it doesn't sound like it would be all that difficult to get those two to commit to appearing in a sequel.

    And then let's remember that Mr. Ortega didn't just direct one sequel to that super-popular Disney Channel movie, "High School Musical." He directed two.

    And finally there's this other interesting tidbit: Why was this proposed "Hocus Pocus" sequel supposedly called "Rise of the Elderwitch?" Because the producer of this project reportedly wanted to hire the then-white hot Betty Witch to come play the previously unknown fourth Sanderson Sister. Who was then allegedly going to try & use her magic to bring her three bumbling sisters back from the dead.

    Kind of an interesting premise, don't you think? At the very least, it would have been interesting to see White (on the heels of her super-popular "Snickers" ad for the Super Bowl) working with Midler, Najimy and Parker.

    So will this ever actually happen? This is Hollywood we're talking about here. Where genuinely crazy projects get greenlit all of the time (Hell, I keep hearing from friends at Disney that "TRON 3" really is chugging along the Studio's development track and could be officially announced as a go-project in less than six months or so). More to the point, let's remember that Disney owns ABC Family. Which makes a very big deal of its "13 Nights of Halloween" programming event.

    So given that "Hocus Pocus" originally started out life as a TV movie that was supposedly going to air on the Disney Channel (That is until Jeffrey Katzenberg got wind of the project and then -- after reading this teleplay and seeing its potential -- shifted "Hocus Pocus" over to the Walt Disney Pictures side of the operation), could a "Hocus Pocus" sequel then go the TV movie route? Maybe popping up as something for ABC Family?

    I know, I know. That sounds kind of unlikely. But remember that White, Midler, Najimy & Parker have all done television projects. And given that the original "Hocus Pocus" wasn't exactly a big budget movie (Can you believe that this Kenny Ortega film only cost $28 million to make?), it might be indeed be possible to transition the Sanderson Sisters to the small screen. Especially if Disney were willing to then follow its old "High School Musical" playbook and then leverage this TV movie across every broadcast platform that the Company has at its disposal for maximum exposure & profitability (i.e., the Disney Channel, Disney XD, ABC Family, ABC and then -- finally --  as a Blu-ray & DVD sold through retail outlets by Walt Disney Studios Home Studio Entertainment as well as a pay-per-view title made available through Disney's ongoing arrangement with Starz). Going that route -- as opposed to a theatrical release -- would then allow the Company to lessen its risks as well as maximize its profits.

    Or maybe a "Hocus Pocus" sequel could be one of those projects that Disney could only make available to Netflix & Amazon subscribers through that original content deal that the Company supposed has in the works. I mean, you saw that 60-episodes-of-Marvel stuff story that surfaced earlier this month, right? Where Marvel was supposedly looking to create four different series & mini-series that was deliberately bypassing network television entirely and then heading for Amazon, Netflix or a cable giant like WGN America.

    Long story short: Disney's business model -- at least when it comes to theatrical releases  -- has changed significantly over the past five years. And with so many spots of the Studio's release schedule now reserved for event films, tentpoles and sequels, a theatrical release for something relatively low budget like a "Hocus Pocus" sequel really seems unlikely. But if you then start looking at the Disney / ABC Television Group and the various cable channels that that business unit has at its disposal (Not to mention how much the Mouse love programming events that it can then leverage across multiple platforms), suddenly a "Hocus Pocus" sequel seems like something that could genuinely take flight.

    So let's see what happens over the next month or two. Given all of the good will (more importantly, all of the great press coverage ) that the 20th anniversary celebration of "Hocus Pocus" has been generating, I honestly wouldn't be surprised to hear about Disney executives -- sometime over the next few weeks or so -- circling back on the idea of maybe doing a "Hocus Pocus" sequel. Or at the very least having someone in Legal pull the contract that David Kirschner signed with Disney to find out what sort of sequel rights the Studio actually does have at this moment.

  • Hocus Pocus doesn't hold up that well (especially compared to another Halloween film released the same year The Nightmare Before Christmas). The ending clearly rips off E.T. (even down to the "I'll be right here"). The acting of the lead boy really brings it down as well. Middler, Najimy and Parker are great but there isn't much for them to do overall.

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