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Former Disney CEO Ron Miller recalls his own "TRON" legacy

Former Disney CEO Ron Miller recalls his own "TRON" legacy

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Without "TRON," there wouldn't be "TRON: Legacy," and without former Disney CEO and producer Ron Miller, "TRON" may have never been made. Writer/director Steven Lisberger's "TRON" project had been rejected by at least three other studios before he submitted it to Disney, hoping for the best but not really expecting the positive reaction he received.

Miller, Walt Disney's son-in-law, is listed as executive producer of "TRON" and, if you're in your 40s or older like me, you probably remember watching dozens of Disney movies that are part of the "RON: Legacy" -  animated films like "The Rescuers," "The Fox and the Hound" and "The Black Cauldron" as well as live-action films like "Never Cry Wolf," "The Shaggy D.A." "Tex," "Freaky Friday" and many others. But the movies represent just a piece of Miller's professional accomplishments.

Ron Miller in the story room for "The Small One" back in 1976.
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Miller started working on the Disneyland project in 1954, joined the Directors Guild in 1957 as a second assistant director on "Old Yeller," and continued to advance in the company. By the time of Walt's death in 1966, he was a key executive and part of the management team. It was Walt's team that worked to complete both Walt Disney World and EPCOT in Florida. Miller became president of Walt Disney Productions in 1980 and was named as CEO in 1983, before being replaced by Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in 1984 in a move orchestrated by Walt's nephew, Roy E. Disney. Miller was there when the company entered the home video market, launched its cable TV network, made its initial foray on Broadway and when it negotiated the deal for Tokyo Disneyland, the first Disney theme park outside of the United States.

Miller was also directly responsible for creating the "Touchstone" label to broaden Disney's appeal beyond the G-rated films branded by Walt's era.

As Walt's son-in-law and Disney Company staffer, Miller had a unique professional and personal relationship with the creative genius. He directed several of Walt's introductions to Disney's weekly TV shows and watched as Grandpa Walt enjoyed time with his growing family.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

I recently spent a few minutes with Miller discussing "TRON" in advance of Disney's huge reboot with "TRON: Legacy," a film that's been widely promoted at Comic-Con and elsewhere for nearly three years. "TRON: Legacy" opens Friday with expectations of a possible $1 billion worldwide box office gross.

In the case of 1982's "TRON," Miller says, he was the executive producer because "I was the individual who said 'Let's do it,' " based in part from a recommendation by a trusted Disney studio executive.

"God bless Tom Wilhite because he was the one who really took notice of it and felt very strongly that ('TRON') was something that time-wise was perfect for us. Which it was. Certainly it was something that we were looking for ... it was something unique. It was an area that hadn't really been explored before."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Still before committing to the production, the company had Lisberger complete a test scene to give Disney executives some idea of what "TRON" would look like.

"I would have to say that I was impressed with what I saw," Miller said. "I think everybody embraced it because it was so intriguing. We realized that it was a big challenge. We realized that it was going to be very expensive, which it turned out to be. But it was a gamble worth taking."

Wilhite would become the executive in charge of the production along with Lisberger's colleague Donald Kushner. Disney's Harrison Ellenshaw was tagged as the associate producer and praised Miller for his unyielding support of the project. You can hear a bit of Ellenshaw's interview along with highlights of my interview with Miller at Paul Barrie's latest WindowtotheMagic podcast ...

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

For "TRON," Miller oversaw "some of the production, but the producer - certainly - is more involved than the executive producer." Still, Miller says he approved the casting, visited the set, watched some of the dailies and kept finding the money as costs climbed.

I asked Miller if there was any point during the production that he considered pulling the plug on "TRON" or changing the approach on the film.

"Never," Miller said. "Once we approved the story, once we approved the cast, once we approved all the special effects, it was go. And you don't stop in the middle of the river and try to back pedal. You've got to go forward."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

Still he admits, "TRON" was a "difficult picture to evaluate as it was being shot because the scene was not in front of you. You had all kinds of parts that came together that ultimately made the scene. But to sit through dailies - in my mind - was a little baffling. I didn't quite understand what was going on."

"TRON" reportedly cost about $17 million and grossed $33 million in its initial North American theatrical release. Worldwide box office figures were unavailable.

"I and a lot of other people were disappointed in the theatrical gross," Miller admitted. "I think that the film should have done at least 50 percent better than what it did. I thought it was going to be a much bigger picture because its freshness and uniqueness and all that. But maybe we didn't communicate what we had correctly, maybe we didn't market it correctly. ... We just missed the proper sales pitch on the film. I think people were a little bit confused with computer animation: What the hell is that, it was brand-new. Is it animation? Well, no. It's not animation as you know it."

Copyright 1982 Universal Pictures.
All rights reserved

"TRON" came out at the same time as "E.T. - The Extra-Terrestrial," which was in the cute-and-cuddly mode more common to Disney films. I asked Miller if he thought "E.T." hurt "TRON" or if he thought that maybe audiences were more interested in outer space than cyberspace.

"I don't think that one competed against the other. (They were) two totally different approaches to filmmaking," he said. "When you're up against (Steven) Spielberg, it's tough.  ... I elude back to something that I said before, that unfortunately I just don't think that we hit a home run with marketing and sales."

Still, Miller says, he considers "TRON" an artistic and commercial success. The film was a huge hit when it was released on home video. He also knows the film proved to be important and inspirational to several filmmakers, including a young Disney animator, John Lasseter.

John Lasseter when he first began working for
Walt Disney Animation Studios. Copyright
1979 Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved

Lasseter has said that "Without "TRON,' there would be no 'Toy Story,' " even telling the former Disney CEO that directly years later.

While at Disney, Lasseter "used to poke his head in ('TRON') dailes and see what was happening," Miller said. "He was very enamored with computer animation," even pitching "The Brave Little Toaster" as a computer animated film before he was dismissed from the company.

"... Yeah, John was let go shortly after that, (but) I had absolutely nothing to do with it," Miller said, wanting to set the record straight. Leslie Iwerks' documentary film, "The Pixar Story," said "that the CEO fired John. Well, I was the CEO and I would have never fired John," he said. "No, I think that Ed Hansen - who was the production manager - had nothing more for John and that was it."

(L to R) Diane Disney Miller, John Lasseter and Nancy
Lasseter at the Walt Disney Family Museum's opening
gala. Image courtesy of The Walt Disney Family
Museum. All rights reserved

Despite Lasseter's dismissal, Ron and Diane Disney Miller share a good relationship with him and his wife, Nancy. Both families have wineries in the Napa Valley and they see each other a few times a year. Lasseter has been one of several current Disney employees who have been very supportive of the Walt Disney Family Museum at The Presidio of San Francisco.

"I like John a lot," Miller says. "And we go all the way back to when Diane and I used to go to CalArts and there he was greeting us when we walked in. In fact, we thought that it was because of his affection towards Diane that he was there. But, we found out later, he was told to be there."

I asked Miller if at the time when "TRON" was pitched to him, if he or his children, some of them in their teens, played video games.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"... It's about 28 years later and I still don't play video games," he said, laughing. "But we did have one in our house, the 'TRON' game. In fact, my youngest son, Patrick, became very efficient at it and he went to the - I think - sixth or seventh stage out of 10, which was amazing. I could get to the second stage. That was a very popular game out there. We sold a lot of them and I think my youngest son still has his."

Miller also praised Disney's decision a few months ago to pull the "TRON" DVD off retailers' shelves with the new film coming out. "TRON" is reportedly being prepared for a Blu-ray release sometime in 2011.

"I think that it's a fairly interesting move ... I like it," he said. "Let's get ('TRON') off the shelves, let's concentrate on ('TRON: Legacy'). When people see this, they'll want to see the original if they haven't seen it already."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"TRON: Legacy" is certainly shining a blue laser light on Miller's period at Disney and reminding people that he laid the foundation for several changes that helped fuel the growth of the company in the late '80s and beyond. I asked him if he feels some vindication for what's going on, that more people are taking a look at the things he accomplished that other people seem to have gotten credit for over the years?

"Oh, I don't know," he said, displaying a sense of modesty. "I think that Michael (Eisner) deserves the credit that he rightfully has. He brought a certain vitality to the company. The earnings every year went up and up and up. He hit some really big blockbusters early on. Though 'Roger Rabbit,' we were developing that ..."

And, I interjected, "Splash" was yours.

Copyright 1984 Touchstone Pictures. All rights reserved

"You know, 'Splash' is interesting. I told the gentleman from 'Variety' that it's something that I lived with for a long time," Miller said. "A G-rated film and you can't go beyond that because what ... are you going to do with the image that we have?"

Miller recalled watching "To Kill a Mockingbird" with Diane, Walt and Lilly in the projection room of Disney's Holmby Hills home. When the film was over and the lights came on, Walt pounded his hand on the armrest of his chair and said "Damn, I wish I could make a film like that." But Walt, Miller said, "was caught in his own web. He couldn't broaden. He couldn't go beyond what he had established as good Disney material or entertainment."

Still Walt was most proud of "growing his company." In multimedia clips at the Walt Disney Family Museum, you can hear him discussing branching out from the Mickey Mouse shorts to the Silly Symphonies, moving into full-length animated features, then tackling live-action films, TV and creating Disneyland. With every step forward, Walt was met with some nay-sayers.

Copyright Touchstone Pictures, Inc.  All rights reserved

"He always kept growing," Miller said. "There was always a curiosity with the man: What was on the other side of the hill? And that's what drove him. I mean, look, he was willing to drop motion pictures when he came out of the hospital, he had just had lung surgery, and he sat there and he said, 'You know, I've got to concentrate on EPCOT. That's the most important thing in the company's future right now. And you guys have done a good job. So I'm confident that you can go out and make motion pictures and all. I've put a good team together.' But my point being that his next project was EPCOT. And beyond that was another project. ... He was fascinating in that way."

I asked Miller if he simply was following Walt's philosophy and trying to grow the company while he was CEO by doing things like creating Touchstone.

"But we had to ... . The question became - do we continue making G-rated films which we had lost our younger audience because they wouldn't be caught dead going into a G-rated film. So - I'll never forget - it's interesting that, with 'Splash,' I just hired Richard Berger. And somebody put 'Splash' on my desk and I read it and I liked it. And I also liked that it was connected with Ronnie Howard. You know, good chemistry.

Ron Howard and Tom Hanks take part in a "Splash" publicity shoot in
the Spring of 1984. Copyright Walt Disney Productions.
All rights reserved

"So I went to Berger and I said, 'You know, Richard. I've got something here that I think we should consider. Because now I had made the decision to go with Touchstone. And he said 'What is it?' And I said that 'It's a Ronnie Howard project and it's called 'Splash.' "

Berger told Miller that he turned "Splash" down when he was at 20th Century Fox. Miller had Berger reread the script and they made a decision to go forward with it.

Eventually Miller screened the film to about 3,500 people after a shareholders meeting at Walt Disney World. Miller warned them that "Splash" was not a G-rated film, that it was "a bit more mature, a little bit more adult."

(L to R) Disney CEO Bob Iger, Walt Disney Family Museum executive director
Richard Benefield, Ron Miller and Diane Disney Miller. Image courtesy of
The Walt Disney Family Museum. All rights reserved

He told them that after the screening there would be a cocktail reception and he was going "to be there with all my armor on and everything else so you can take shots at me. And I sat through the showing of the film and you could tell that it was very well received," Miller said. "And afterwards, we met later on and I think everyone except two people that came up to me and said 'You're on the right track.' "

A few months later, Miller's Hollywood career came to an abrupt end leaving only the "RON: Legacy." But the Disney Company continues its global growth, even revisiting films from Miller's era, such as "Freaky Friday," "Escape to Witch Mountain," "The Absent Minded Professor" and others.

And given that "TRON: Legacy" director Joseph Kosinski's next project for Walt Disney Studios may be a reimagining of another Miller era sci-fi adventure, "The Black Hole " ...

Copyright 1979 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

it looks like we're far from the "end of (the) line" when it comes to the "RON: Legacy."

Copyright 1982 Walt Disney Productions. All rights reserved

Your thoughts?

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  • Great article Jim! As a teenager, I wanted to be a film director at Disney. I wrote Ron about my interests, and he provided me an opportunity to tour the Disney Studios. We didn't go into many of the sound stages because they were working on at top-secret movie, later to be known as The Black Hole. But I remember visiting the animation studios and a junkyard of Herbie car parts. I never became a film director, but I have always continued with my love and passion for all things Disney. Thanks Ron!


  • Fantastic interview by Leo Holzer!!! Some truly wonderful insights from Ron Miller into the Tron project and many more. Credit where due!

  • More please!  The Miller years deserve a serious, in depth examination and reappraisal.  While a lot of the films might not have been successes, in multiple ways, there was a definite attempt at "something more", that deserves to be acknowledged.  Tron, Black Hole, Never Cry Wolf, Watcher in the Woods...

    And talk about a class act!  How easy would it have been to take credit for almost everything from the first few years of Eisner's reign?  

    Someone, please, write a book about Ron Miller's time running Disney!  A long one!

  • This may be the best article all year on JHM! Ron Miller certainly deserves some vindication. That era wasn't perfect, but he was certainly willing to do things differently, as Tron proved. The fact that it's back is fascinating.

    There should be a book about - or by - Ron Miller. Even prior to his executive position, he worked first-hand on nearly all the TV shows in the 60s and most of the movies. I think he would have some first-hand anecdotes about production, the personalities, how engaged Walt was. I'd love to hear his memories on Mary Poppins and the rest.

    Great article!

  • Thank you SO MUCH for giving Ron Miller his proper due. I have ALWAYS thought that Ron got a bad deal and he never got the props for his time as CEO. Card Walker has always gotten accolades (and I think a Disney Legend) and Card was the one that did the whole "what would Walt do" thing and made all those lame movies in the 70s.

    We need to start a campaign now to make Ron a Disney Legend. The man isn't getting any younger and it would be nice if he got it while he was still alive.

  • I was curious. You said that Disney on Broadway began back during this time period, but Beauty & the Beast didn't come out until the 90s. I'm sure you know something I'm missing.

  • Matt, I think the Broadway reference is the Live Snow White stage show that was done at Radio City Music Hall in 1980. It was successful enough that it was filmed for HBO, I think, with a cast album and released to VHS. It's sometimes considered Disney's real first foray into the NY theatre scene.

  • Saw the new Tron movie.  Thankfully, for free.  It is truly awful, the worst film I've seen in years.  And it looks ugly, too.

    So unimaginative.  The original Tron was pretty bad, but at least was clear in it's intent.  

    Some of the other Ron Miller films were "Take Down (their first PG film)" "Amy On The Lips," "Midnight Madness," "Popeye," and "Night Crossing."

  • I just want to thank Didier G., Jim K., Jim H., Paul B., and Roger, my colleague at the Facebook friends of the Walt Disney Family Museum site, for their help and encouragement as I pursued this story. Special thanks to Harrison Ellenshaw who planted the seed during a wide-ranging interview I had with him months ago and to Ron Miller for his participation.

  • Once upon a time there were no parking structures on the Walt Disney Studio lot. The under and above




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