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Raising the curtain on “Raising Helen”

Here’s another exclusive: A sneak peek at the new Gary Marshall comedy that Touchstone Pictures will be releasing later this year. More importantly, Jim Hill gives JHM readers an up-close look at how a Hollywood test screening actually works.



It’s supposedly one of Hollywood’s most closely guarded secrets: the test screening. That covert process whereby — months before a major motion picture is due to hit theaters — the still-unfinished film is quietly screened for a specially recruited audience.

Given the cloak-and-dagger atmosphere that typically surrounds a test screening (I.E. all the screening of prospective audience members that goes on prior to the actual screening), it’s really rare that a reporter ever gets to take part in the process. Let alone report on the event.

But last Tuesday night, yours truly took part in a really-for-real test screening. One that was held right on the Disney Studio lot. For a new Touchstone Pictures release, no less. And I lived to tell the tale. So what follows is my rather detailed report on this somewhat bizarre event.

This story actually starts Sunday before last, when Nancy and I — while on a break from “VES 2003: A Festival of Visual Effects” — were out exploring the Hollywood Farmers market. While strolling past the fresh produce & baked goods, the handmade arts and crafts, we chanced upon a man with a clipboard recruiting people for free movie screening.

Now longtime JHM readers will recall how I’m an absolute sucker when it comes to people who are carrying a clipboard. So I strode right up to this guy and asked what he was selling. He explained that he was recruiting audience members for a test screening on Tuesday night.

“What’s the film about?” I asked. With that, Bob (that’s what the guy’s name was, I think) shoved a green flyer in my hand. It read:

MOVIE VIEW invites you to a Private Screening
Raising Helen

You and a guest are invited to see RAISING HELEN, a new movie coming from a major studio. Helen Harris lives the exciting life of a young and carefree bachelorette in Manhattan. However, that life changes forever when Helen’s sister and brother-in-law pass away and their three children are left to her care. Now, through humor and heartbreak, Helen and this fragile new family must adjust to their new life together. And in the midst of her struggle to maintain a social life and love life while learning to be a single mom, Helen discovers that before she can raise a teenage daughter, an 11 year old son and a 5 year old daughter, she must first grow up herself. The cast includes Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack, Hector Elizando, and the Breslin kids – Spencer and Abby Breslin. RAISING HELEN is directed by Gary Marshall, who also directed THE PRINCESS DIARIES, RUNAWAY BRIDE and PRETTY WOMAN.

The screening — as it turns out — was to be held right on the Disney Studio lot. To be specific, inside the Main Theatre, just a couple of feet away from the corner of Mickey Avenue and Dopey Drive.

Now — given that I am a lifelong Gary Marshall fan (I’ve been systemically checking out Gary’s newest movies ever since I first caught his “Young Doctors in Love” back in the summer of 1982) and that I’ve always wanted to see what the inside of the Main Theatre on the Disney lot (this is where a lot of the final mix work is done for Disney’s major releases) looked like — this screening sounds like something that I really want to do. So I asked Bob how Nancy & I could go about securing tickets to Tuesday’s “Raising Helen” screening.

Bob quickly walked us through the process: In order to get tickets to that Tuesday’s test screening, we’d have to RSVP. Which meant that we had to call the toll-free number that was listed on the flyer and give our names to the “Movie View” representative. That way, when we drove up to the guard shack on the Disney lot early Tuesday evening, our names would actually be on the reservation list. Which would allow the Mouse House guard to just wave us through.

So — later that same day — Nancy and I actually called the Movie View reservation line. Which was an adventure onto itself.

Why For? Well, first of all, the Movie View phone rep wanted to know where we’d been recruited. More importantly, what the number was in the upper right hand corner of our “Raising Helen” leaflet. (41. Just so you know.)

Next came a flurry of questions:

How old are you?
Where are you from?
What ethnic group do you belong to?

All of which were designed to determine whether Nancy and I were the desired demographic for this particular screening. (According to the language used on the “Raising Helen” screening leaflet: “You and your guest should be between the ages of 15 to 54. No one under the age of 15 or infants will be permitted in the theater.”) Evidently, Nancy and I came through the initial screening process with flying colors. For we were told to report to the Disney lot Tuesday evening at 6:30 p.m. sharp, a full hour before the “Raising Helen” screening was supposed to begin.

Then — given that Bob had gifted us a few extra “Raising Helen” leaflets (so that we could bring a few friends along with us to the test screening) — we invited JHM columnist Chuck Oberleitner, as well as Jay (this friend of mine who works in theme park design) to come along with us on this adventure.

In the day or so before the actual test screening, I carefully re-read my “Raising Helen” leaflet as I tried to get some sense of what to expect from this experience. I was somewhat amused to read the line that said “No one will be admitted who appears to be intoxicated, under the influence of drugs, or is dirty, unkempt, improperly dressed or who may interfere with the screening enjoyment of others in the audience.” Which — if this is the case at all test screenings — must have made it really difficult for Nick Nolte to attend any sneak previews at “The Hulk.” (Kidding. Just kidding.)

But there was another line on the leaflet that really did give me pause:

“No one from the entertainment industry or media will be admitted.”

Sh*t. Given that my website is actually called “” and — more importantly — given that I regularly write about the entertainment industry, I guess that means that I can’t really attend this test screening on the Disney lot.

But still … well, Nancy now had her heart set on attending the “Raising Helen” screening. And me personally, I’d always wanted to see what the inside of the Main Theatre on the Disney lot looked like. Plus this would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how the NRG (I.E. the National Research Group, the Los Angeles-based outfit that typically runs the test screenings for all the major studios) actually operates.

So I made a little deal with myself. If the crew at Movie View and/or NRG discovered — as part of their pre-test-screening screening process — that I wrote about the Walt Disney Company for the internet, I would quietly and politely bow out. Leave the screening. Even drive off the lot, if I had to.

And — given that I had actually given that Movie View rep my real name and address — I had to assume that they’d eventually find me out. And — given that the “Raising Helen” leaflet featured language like “Since this is a recruited audience, if you and your guest do not meet the audience criteria for this screening, you and your guest will not be admitted” — I felt that chances were very strong that I’d be turned away as soon as I arrived on the lot.

Well, imagine my surprise early Tuesday evening as I rolled up to the Buena Vista Avenue entrance to Walt Disney Studios and identified myself as Jim Hill. The guard checked his clipboard and — sure enough — Nancy, Jay and I are on the official reservations list for that night’s test screening of “Raising Helen.” He then handed us some bright red wristbands (which we were supposed to put on before we exited our car), then directed us into the visitor’s parking lot.

So Nancy, Jay and I put on our bright red wristbands. Then — after exiting the car — we wandered the lot for a bit. Checking out the Disney Studio Store (you should see the oversized versions of the Crush and Bruce plush that they have up for sale here). Reading the historic plaque on the Hyperion bungalows (these were the only buildings that Walt took with him when he relocated his animation studio from the old Hyperion Avenue operation to their new Burbank digs). Stopping to use the restrooms just outside the Disney Studio commissary … before we finally decided to get in line with all the other would-be audience members who were camped out along Mickey Avenue.

It was at this point that the NRG staffers finally began in-processing Nancy, myself and Jay. Checking our names off the official reservation list, collecting our bright green “Raising Helen” screening leaflets, and then issuing us all a light blue admissions ticket for that night’s screening. Each of which was numbered (mine was 0092) and stamped “PRIORITY.”

Eventually, Chuck also joined us in line. And — as we stood there in the sun, waiting to be admitted to the “Raising Helen” screening — the four of us tried not to give ourselves away as media dweebs. Which — given that 90% of our conversation centered on the Walt Disney Company, its theme parks and/or the internet — proved to be pretty damned difficult.

CHUCK: Did you have a chance to catch my story on the site today? The one about the “Pirates” premiere event at Disneyland this past weekend?

JAY: What was that like?

NANCY: (As a suspicious looking NRG staffer clutching a clipboard walks close by us) Shhhh! Will you two be quiet? You’re going to ruin this for all of us.

Awkward pause. Then ….

JIM: Soooo … How about them Red Sox? Do you think this might be the year?

Despite a series of close calls involving both National Research Group personnel as well as Disney Studio security, Nancy, Chuck, Jay and I WERE eventually allowed to enter the Main Theatre on the lot. But not before the four of us (as well as all of the other would-be members of the audience) were forced to walk through a metal detector.

Why a metal detector? Not for the reasons that you might expect. Not for security reasons or because Disney or NRG staffers were worried that someone would bring weapons on the lot. But rather, because the Mouse and the National Research Group wanted to make sure that no one was trying to sneak a video camera into the test screening on this still-unreleased Touchstone Pictures production.

To quote from the back on my “Raising Helen” leaflet:

“This screening will be monitored for unauthorized recording. By attending, you agree not to bring any audio or video recording device into the theater and consent to a physical search of your belongings and person. Any attempted use of recording devices will result in immediate removal from the theater, forfeiture of the device, and may subject you to criminal and civil liability.”

So the purses of every woman entering the Main Theatre were thoroughly searched. And each and every person with a ticket to the “Raising Helen” test screening had to step through a metal detector before they were allowed to enter the auditorium.

That may sound a bit extreme, I know. But — to be truthful — that’s nothing compared to what people reportedly had to go through before they were allowed to attend an advance screening of “The Matrix Reloaded” earlier this year on the Warner lot. A friend who attended this particular showing talked about how audience members were forced to go through three separate security points — walking through three separate metal detectors — before they were finally allowed to take their seats for this early screening of the “Matrix” sequel. So — taking this into consideration — I guess Nancy, Chuck, Jay and myself should consider ourselves fortunate that we only had to endure a single trip through the metal detector before we were allowed to enter the auditorium.

The Main Theatre on the Disney Studio lot — as you might expect — was fairly plush. An auditorium filled with big comfortable seats, it looked like the place could hold 500-600 people, easy. Halfway down along the raked auditorium floor was a low walled-off area filled with sound mixing boards and equipment. As I mentioned earlier, this is where a lot of the final balancing work is done on major Disney releases.

Chuck, Nancy, Jay and I moved around the hall a bit before we finally found seats that we all liked. Which were dead center in the third row of the hall. Which — as it turns out — was a pretty lucky place to be seated. (More on that later.)

Anyway … 7:30 p.m. finally rolls around. And a NRG rep (Andy, I believe his name was) steps up to the front of the hall and welcomes us all. He first thanks us for agreeing to take part in this test screening. He then went on to say that the print of “Raising Helen” that we were about to see wasn’t actually a finished version of the film. That the movie’s title sequence wasn’t complete yet. That we’d probably be seeing a few scenes featuring green screen (which meant that the special effects shot needed to complete that sequence hadn’t been finished yet).

But — baring these few quibbles — the Gary Marshall movie that we were about to see was fairly complete. Andy then went on to say that — after “Raising Helen” had finished screening — that he’d like all of us to remain in our seats. Beyond that, we were just supposed to sit back and enjoy ourselves.

His introductory remarks complete, Andy signaled to the projection booth. The house lights dimmed and then … “Raising Helen” hit the screen.

So what did I think of the movie? To be honest, I liked “Raising Helen.” Quite a bit. Me personally, I think that this is another good solid people-pleasing picture from Gary Marshall. One that skillfully mixes humor and heart with great performances by Kate Hudson, John Corbett, Joan Cusack and Helen Mirren. So if you’re in need a feel-good movie this fall, then — by all means — go check out “Raising Helen.”

Mind you, I was the only member of our little quartet who seemed to really enjoy “Raising Helen.” Nancy said that she liked the film, but had problems with the predictability of the plot. Jay had some concerns with Joan Cusack’s character, who — while funny — seems to be a different person every time she re-enters the story.

And Chuck … well, Chuck seemed to dislike everything about “Raising Helen.” The lack of heat between the two leads, the hackneyed aspects of the story … you name it; Chuck didn’t like it.

Anywho … once the house lights came up, the NRG staffers flew through the auditorium — handing out survey forms. Each of these double-sided questionnaires — which came with its very own little green pencil attached — was crammed with queries about “Raising Helen.” Essay questions like:

Would you tell your friends about this movie? Not just whether you liked it or not, but how would you describe it to them?
(Please be as complete as possible.)
What scene or scenes are the most emotional for you?
What scene or scenes are the funniest for you?
What do you like most about the Kate Hudson character, Helen Harris?
What do you like most about the character, Jenny (Helen’s sister, played by Joan Cusack_?
Was there a song or music you particularly liked in the movie?

These were accompanied by a series of multiple choice questions, where we were asked:

What was your reaction to the movie overall?

Excellent ………. ( ) 1
Very Good ……. ( ) 2
Good …………… ( ) 3
Fair ………………( ) 4
Poor ……………..( ) 5

We were also asked to rate the performances as well as the various elements of “Raising Helen,” indicating that we thought that Kate Hudson’s work as Helen was “Excellent,” “Very Good,” “Good,” “Fair” or “Poor.” We were asked to make similar value judgments on the setting of the film, the picture’s pace, not to mention the humor, romance and — most importantly — the ending of “Raising Helen.”

On the other side of this survey form, we were asked questions like “Were there characters [other than those listed already on the questionnaire] that you liked?” and “What, if anything, did you find confusing about the movie that was not cleared up by the end?” In both of these instances, we were asked to “PLEASE BE AS SPECIFIC AS POSSIBLE.”

This part of the survey was followed by a section where we were asked to check off various words and phrases that best described the movie. Among our 30 choices were “Too sappy / mushy,” “Nothing new / done before,” “Leaves you feeling good,” “Good for the whole family” and “Not romantic enough.”

After this came a section that tried to harvest hard data about the people who were actually taking this survey. This part was loaded with queries about the survey taker’s gender, educational level, marital status as well as questions about how often that person had attended the movies in the past two months.

It was the questions about age in this particular section of the “Raising Helen” survey that really intrigued me. Here, the survey taker had no less than 13 different age groups to choose from. Everything from “Under 12” to “60 & over.” Never mind that the initial “Raising Helen” leaflet specifically barred anyone who was under 15 or over 54 from attending this screening. If folks from either of these extremes in age were in the audience that night, the National Research Group wanted to know about it.

Speaking of the National Research Group … it was just about this time that the NRG crew began moving through the auditorium, scooping up our surveys. As they picked up the questionnaires, they’d quiz individual members of the audience — asking them what they thought of the movie. “Did you think that it was good? Very good? Excellent?” After a few minutes, I began to notice that those folks who had said “Very Good” or “Excellent” were the ones who were being culled out of the crowd and herded down to the first three rows of the auditorium.

That’s when I realized: These are the people who the NRG reps were selecting to be part of their after-screening focus group. The people whose opinions on the film would REALLY count.

Just at that moment, a National Research Group staffer stepped up to me and — as she was taking my form — asked what I thought of “Raising Helen.” I told this woman the truth. That I found this Gary Marshall movie to be highly enjoyable. Particularly Joan Cusask’s performance. And that I’d have no trouble recommending “Raising Helen” to my friends.

It was then that Chuck chimed in: “Are you crazy, Jim? This movie was awful. Incredibly predictable. And Kate Hudson’s performance was just … blah!”

The NRG rep — who had been smiling right up until Oberleitner interrupted — now narrowed her gaze at the both of us.

“Really?” she said to Chuck. “You disliked the movie that much?” Then — gesturing toward me — the woman continued “You two came to the screening together?”

JIM: (immediately interrupting) No! Chuck came in his own car. I actually came to this screening with Nancy (pointing to my ever-patient significant other). Who also liked this film quite a bit.

CHUCK: (To NRG rep) Nevertheless, I personally found “Raising Helen” to be very predictable.

JIM: (Voice sotto – To Chuck) Ix-nay on the “edictable-pray.” I’m trying to get into the inal-fay ocus-fay oup-gray.

Thankfully, Chuck understood pig latin while the NRG rep apparently didn’t. So Oberleitner piped down. And — eventually — after much consultation among the National Research Group staffers (“I got two 2s here. Do we still need some 4s?” “No, we’re fine for 4s. But what we really need is a couple of 3s.”), the post-screening focus group of 20 audience members was selected.

Luckily, Nancy and I both made the final cut. So — as the rest of the audience was dismissed and herded out of the auditorium — the chosen few were herded into the first three rows.

To be blunt here: Based on my own personal observations, I’m pretty sure that the entire “Raising Helen” post-screening focus group was made up of audience members who were seated in the front half of the auditorium. To be specific, the folks who were chosen all seemed to have come from seats close to the aisles or down by the screen. People who were that much easier for the National Research Group reps to get at, to talk with.

More to the point, the NRG people (at least according to what I saw) only seemed interested in recruiting audience members who had already indicated on their surveys that they thought “Raising Helen” was “Excellent,” “Very Good” or “Good.” Anyone like Chuck — who was very vocal about how this film was only “Fair” — was deliberately disregarded. Or so it seemed to me.

Anyway … the 20 of us were grouped in the first three rows of the Main Theatre. Then Andy — the NRG rep who had spoken to the audience prior to the start of the “Raising Helen” test screening — came down to the front of the hall again. He was carrying two small cassette recorders. Which — after testing to make sure that they were actually both recording — he placed the devices on either side of the post-screening focus group.

After that … well … I had always thought that a post-screening focus group would be something like MTV’s “The Real World.” You know, “When people stop being polite and start acting real?” Well — in this case, at least — the opposite was true. Andy from NRG didn’t really seem interested in gathering the post-screening focus group’s real opinions so much as he was interested in delivering a concise, upbeat report to his company’s client. Which — in this case — was the Walt Disney Company.

So using an extremely loud voice as well as a somewhat commanding presence, Andy rode roughshod over the “Raising Helen” post-screening focus group. Putting the recruited audience members through our paces like a bunch of trained poodles.

“Who liked this film? Really, really liked this film?” the NRG rep would ask. He’d then get a quick count of the number of hands that had been raised, say the number aloud (so that the recorders could hear him), then quickly moving on to the next question. “What were your favorite parts of the movie? Who were you favorite characters? Did you like the music?” Again only pausing a second or two to gauge our reaction before plunging into the next question.

The end result (I’m afraid) is that Andy, the NRG staffer, created a recording that would give Disney Studio executives the wrong impression. Mainly that nearly everyone in the post-screening focus group thought that “Raising Helen” was a very good movie.

By that I mean: If Gary Marshall were looking for good solid info about how he might fine tune his film … I’m afraid Gary didn’t get it. Based on what I saw, the National Research Group staffers who were running last week’s “Raising Helen” test screening were more interested in getting home early that night than they were in putting together a realistic accounting of what the audience actually thought of Marshall’s movie.

After ten minutes or so of this, Andy scooped up and shut off the two tape recorders. He thanked us again for our time and opinions, then said “Good night.” So Nancy and I got up, exited the Main Theatre and joined Chuck and Jay outside. Where we discussed our up-close view of how Tinsel Town actually operates.

Me personally? This whole experience kind of left me with kind of a bad taste in my mouth. I mean, is this is really the way that the majority of Hollywood’s motion pictures are test screened nowadays? If so … well, no wonder so many movies suck. After all, how can directors or producers be expected to fix their films when NRG hands them information like this?

Look, maybe all test screenings aren’t run like this. Or maybe I just caught this bunch of National Research Group staffers on a really bad night.

And it’s not like Nancy, Chuck, Jay and I actually had a bad time. I mean, we really enjoyed getting on the Disney lot. Not to mention getting the chance to look behind-the-scenes at how a real motion picture studio actually operates.

But after watching up close how NRG supposedly works … you know who I really feel bad for? Gary Marshall. Here’s a guy who’s just trying to make a half-way decent movie for the Walt Disney Company. But he’s getting this somewhat bogus info from National Research Group about what a test audience supposedly thought of his “Raising Helen.” Again, based on what I personally saw last Tuesday night, the test results that Gary was handed from that particular post-screening focus group just had to be skewed. It had to be.

Anywho … just to review here: I think that “Raising Helen” looks like it will be a really fun film. Be sure to check out this Touchstone Pictures release when it hits theaters sometime later this fall.

On the other hand … if you really love movies and ever get the chance to take part in a test screening … I’m suggesting that maybe you should take a pass of being part of that process. Watching those National Research Group staffers work up close — particularly as they seemed to be massaging the results of that “Raising Helen” test screening right in front of our focus group — was just depressing beyond words.

Which is really NOT how you’re supposed to feel as you exit a feel-good comedy.

Your thoughts?

Jim Hill is an entertainment writer who has specialized in covering The Walt Disney Company for nearly 40 years now. Over that time, he has interviewed hundreds of animators, actors, and Imagineers -- many of whom have shared behind-the-scenes stories with Mr. Hill about how the Mouse House really works. In addition to the 4000+ articles Jim has written for the Web, he also co-hosts a trio of popular podcasts: “Disney Dish with Len Testa,” “Fine Tooning with Drew Taylor” and “Marvel US Disney with Aaron Adams.” Mr. Hill makes his home in Southern New Hampshire with his lovely wife Nancy and two obnoxious cats, Ginger & Betty.

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Seward Johnson bronzes add a surreal, artistic touch to NYC’s Garment District



Greetings from NYC. Nancy and I drove down from New
Hampshire yesterday because we'll be checking out
Disney Consumer Products' annual Holiday Showcase later today.

Anyway … After checking into our hotel (i.e., The Paul.
Which is located down in NYC's NoMad district), we decided to grab some dinner.
Which is how we wound up at the Melt Shop.

Photo by Jim Hill

Which is this restaurant that only sells grilled cheese sandwiches.
This comfort food was delicious, but kind of on the heavy side.

Photo by Jim Hill

Which is why — given that it was a beautiful summer night
— we'd then try and walk off our meals. We started our stroll down by the Empire
State Building

Photo by Jim Hill

… and eventually wound up just below Times
(right behind where the Waterford Crystal Times Square New
Year's Eve Ball
is kept).

Photo by Jim Hill

But you know what we discovered en route? Right in the heart
of Manhattan's Garment District
along Broadway between 36th and 41st? This incredibly cool series of life-like
and life-sized sculptures that Seward
Johnson has created

Photo by Jim Hill

And — yes — that is Abraham Lincoln (who seems to have
slipped out of WDW's Hall of Presidents when no one was looking and is now
leading tourists around Times Square). These 18 painted
bronze pieces (which were just installed late this past Sunday night / early
Monday morning) range from the surreal to the all-too-real.

Photo by Jim Hill

Some of these pieces look like typical New Yorkers. Like the
business woman planning out her day …

Photo by Jim Hill

… the postman delivering the mail …

Photo by Jim Hill

… the hot dog vendor working at his cart …

Photo by Jim Hill

Photo by Jim Hill

… the street musician playing for tourists …

Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention the tourists themselves.

Photo by Jim Hill

But right alongside the bronze businessmen …

Photo by Jim Hill

… and the tired grandmother hauling her groceries home …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there were also statues representing people who were
from out-of-town …

Photo by Jim Hill

… or — for that matter — out-of-time.

Photo by Jim Hill

These were the Seward Johnson pieces that genuinely beguiled. Famous impressionist paintings brought to life in three dimensions.

Note the out-of-period water bottle that some tourist left
behind. Photo by Jim Hill 

Some of them so lifelike that you actually had to pause for
a moment (especially as day gave way to night in the city) and say to yourself
"Is that one of the bronzes? Or just someone pretending to be one of these

Mind you, for those of you who aren't big fans of the
impressionists …

Photo by Jim Hill

… there's also an array of American icons. Among them
Marilyn Monroe …

Photo by Jim Hill

… and that farmer couple from Grant Wood's "American

Photo by Jim Hill

But for those of you who know your NYC history, it's hard to
beat that piece which recreates Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photograph of V-J Day in Times Square.

Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, a 25-foot-tall version of this particular Seward
Johnson piece ( which — FYI — is entitled "Embracing Peace") will actually
be placed in Times Square for a few days on or around  August 14th to commemorate the 70th
anniversary of Victory Over Japan Day (V-J Day).

Photo by Jim Hill

By the way, if you'd like to check these Seward Johnson bronzes in
person (which — it should be noted — are part of the part of the Garment
District Alliance
's new public art offering) — you'd best schedule a trip to
the City sometime over the next three months. For these pieces will only be on
display now through September 15th. 

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Wondering what you should “Boldly Go” see at the movies next year? The 2015 Licensing Expo offers you some clues



Greeting from the 2015 Licensing Expo, which is being held
at the Mandalay Bay
Convention Center
in Las

Photo by Jim Hill

I have to admit that I enjoy covering the Licensing Expo.
Mostly becomes it allows bloggers & entertainment writers like myself to
get a peek over the horizon. Scope out some of the major motion pictures &
TV shows that today's vertically integrated entertainment conglomerates
(Remember when these companies used to be called movie studios?) will be
sending our way over the next two years or so.

Photo by Jim Hill

Take — for example — all of "The Secret Life of
" banners that greeted Expo attendees as they made their way to the
show floor today. I actually got to see some footage from this new Illumination
production (which will hit theaters on July 8, 2016) the last time I was in Vegas. Which
was for CinemaCon back in April. And the five or so minutes of film that I viewed
suggested that "The Secret Life of Pets" will be a really funny
animated feature.

Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, Universal Pictures wanted to make sure that Expo
attendees remembered that there was another Illumination Entertainment production
coming-to-a-theater-near-them before "The Secret Life of Pets" (And
that's "Minions," the "Despicable Me" prequel. Which
premieres at the Annecy International Animated Film Festival next week but
won't be screened stateside 'til July 10th of this year). Which is why they had
three minions who were made entirely out of LEGOS loitering out in the lobby.

Photo by Jim Hill

And Warner Bros. — because they wanted "Batman v
Superman: Dawn of Justice
" to start trending on Twitter today — brought
the Batmobile to Las Vegas.

Photo by Jim Hill

Not to mention full-sized macquettes of Batman, Superman and
Wonder Woman. Just so conventioneers could then see what these DC superheroes
would actually look like in this eagerly anticipated, March 25, 2016 release.

Photo by Jim Hill

That's the thing that can sometimes be a wee bit frustrating
about the Licensing Expo. It's all about delayed gratification. You'll come
around a corner and see this 100 foot-long ad for "The Peanuts Movie"
and think "Hey, that looks great. I want to see that Blue Sky Studios production
right now." It's only then that you notice the fine print and realize that
"The Peanuts Movie" doesn't actually open in theaters 'til November
6th of this year.

Photo by Jim Hill

And fan of Blue Sky's "Ice Age" film franchise are in for an even
longer wait. Given that the latest installment in that top grossing series
doesn't arrive in theaters 'til July
15, 2016.

Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, if you're one of those people who needs immediate
gratification when it comes to your entertainment, there was stuff like that to
be found at this year's Licensing Expo. Take — for example — how the WWE
booth was actually shaped like a wrestling ring. Which — I'm guessing — meant
that if the executives of World Wrestling Entertainment, Inc. didn't like
the offer that you were making, they were then allowed to toss you out over the
top rope, Royal Rumble-style.

Photo by Jim Hill

I also have to admit that — as a longtime Star Trek fan —
it was cool to see the enormous Starship Enterprise that hung in place over the
CBS booth. Not to mention getting a glimpse of the official Star Trek 50th
Anniversary logo.

Photo by Jim Hill

I was also pleased to see lots of activity in The Jim Henson
Company booth. Which suggests that JHC has actually finally carved out a
post-Muppets identity for itself.

Photo by Jim Hill

Likewise for all of us who were getting a little concerned
about DreamWorks Animation (what with all the layoffs & write-downs &
projects that were put into turnaround or outright cancelled last year), it was
nice to see that booth bustling.

Photo by Jim Hill

Every so often, you'd come across some people who were
promoting a movie that you weren't entirely sure that you actually wanted to
see (EX: "Angry Birds," which Sony Pictures Entertainment / Columbia
will be releasing to theaters on May 20, 2016). But then you remembered that Clay Kaytis
who's this hugely talented former Walt Disney Animation Studios animator — is
riding herd on "Angry Birds" with Fergal Reilly. And you'd think
"Well, if Clay's working on 'Angry Birds,' I'm sure this animated feature
will turn out fine."

Photo by Jim Hill

Mind you, there were reminders at this year's Licensing Expo
of great animated features that we're never going to get to see now. I still
can't believe — especially after that brilliant proof-of-concept footage
popped up online last year — that Sony execs decided not to go forward
with  production
of Genndy Tartakovsky's
"Popeye" movie.  But that's the
cruel thing about the entertainment business, folks. It will sometime break
your heart.

Photo by Jim Hill

And make no mistake about this. The Licensing Expo is all
about business. That point was clearly driven home at this year's show when —
as you walked through the doors of the Mandalay
Bay Convention Center
— the first thing that you saw was the Hasbros Booth. Which was this gleaming,
sleek two story-tall affair full of people who were negotiating deals &
signing contracts for all of the would-be summer blockbusters that have already
announced release dates for 2019 & beyond.

Photo by Jim Hill

"But what about The Walt Disney Company?," you
ask. "Weren't they represented on the show floor at this year's Licensing
Expo?" Not really, not. I mean, sure. There were a few companies there hyping
Disney-related products. Take — for example — the Disney Wikkeez people.

Photo by Jim Hill

I'm assuming that some Disney Consumer Products exec is
hoping that Wikkeez will eventually become the new Tsum Tsum. But to be blunt,
these little hard plastic figures don't seem to have the same huggable charm
that those stackable plush do. But I've been wrong before. So let's see what
happens with Disney Wikkeez once they start showing up on the shelves of the
Company's North American retail partners.

Photo by Jim Hill

And speaking of Disney's retail partners … They were
meeting with Mouse House executives behind closed doors one floor down from the
official show floor for this year's Licensing Expo.

Photo by Jim Hill

And the theme for this year's invitation-only Disney shindig? "Timeless
Stories" involving the Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm brands that
would then appeal to "tomorrow's consumer."

Photo by Jim Hill

And just to sort of hammer home the idea that Disney is no
longer the Company which cornered the market when it comes to little girls
(i.e., its Disney Princess and Disney Fairies franchises), check out this
wall-sized Star Wars-related image that DCP put up just outside of one of its
many private meeting rooms. "See?," this carefully crafted photo
screams. "It isn't just little boys who want to wield the Force. Little
girls also want to grow up and be Lords of the Sith."

Photo by Jim Hill

One final, kind-of-ironic note: According to this banner,
Paramount Pictures will be releasing a movie called "Amusement Park"
to theaters sometime in 2017.  

Photo by Jim Hill

Well, given all the "Blackfish" -related issues
that have been dogged SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment over the past two years, I'm
just hoping that they'll still be in the amusement park business come 2017.

Your thoughts?

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It takes more than three circles to craft a Classic version of Mickey Mouse



You know what Mickey Mouse looks like, right? Little guy,
big ears?

Truth be told, Disney's corporate symbol has a lot of
different looks. If Mickey's interacting with Guests at Disneyland
(especially this summer, when
the Happiest Place on Earth
is celebrating its 60th anniversary), he looks & dresses like this.

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
All rights reserved

Or when he's appearing in one of those Emmy Award-winning shorts that Disney
Television Animation has produced (EX: "Bronco Busted," which debuts
on the Disney Channel tonight at 8 p.m. ET / PT), Mickey is drawn in a such a
way that he looks hip, cool, edgy & retro all at the same time.

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights

Looking ahead to 2017 now, when Disney Junior rolls out "Mickey and the
Roadster Racers
," this brand-new animated series will feature a sportier version
of Disney's corporate symbol. One that Mouse House managers hope will persuade
preschool boys to more fully embrace this now 86 year-old character.

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

That's what most people don't realize about the Mouse. The
Walt Disney Company deliberately tailors Mickey's look, even his style of
movement, depending on what sort of project / production he's appearing in.

Take — for example — Disney
California Adventure
's "World of Color:
" Because Disney's main mouse would be co-hosting this new
nighttime lagoon show with ace emcee Neil Patrick Harris, Eric Goldberg really had
to step up Mickey's game. Which is why this master Disney animator created
several minutes of all-new Mouse animation which then showed that Mickey was
just as skilled a showman as Neil was.

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
All rights reserved

Better yet, let's take a look at what the folks at Avalanche Studios just went
through as they attempted to create a Classic version of Mickey & Minnie.
One that would then allow this popular pair to become part of Disney Infinity

"I won't lie to you. We were under a lot of pressure to
get the look of this particular version of Mickey — he's called Red Pants
Mickey around here — just right," said Jeff Bunker, the VP of Art
Development at Avalanche Studios, during a recent phone interview. "When
we brought Sorcerer Mickey into Disney Infinity 1.0 back in January of 2014,
that one was relatively easy because … Well, everyone knows what Mickey Mouse
looked like when he appeared in 'Fantasia.' "

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"But this time around, we were being asked to design
THE Mickey & Minnie," Bunker continued. "And given that these Classic
Disney characters have been around in various different forms for the better
part of the last century … Well, which look was the right look?"

Which is why Jeff and his team at Avalanche Studios began watching hours &
hours of Mickey Mouse shorts. As they tried to get a handle on which look would
work best for these characters in Disney Infinity 3.0.

Copyright Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"And we went all the way back to the very start of Mickey's career. We began
with 'Steamboat Willie' and then watched all of those black & white Mickey shorts
that Walt made back in the late 1920s & early 1930s. From there, we
transitioned to his Technicolor shorts. Which is when Mickey went from being
this pie-eyed, really feisty character to more of a well-behaved leading
man," Bunker recalled. "We then finished out our Mouse marathon by
watching all of those new Mickey shorts that Paul Rudish & his team have
been creating for Disney Television Animation. Those cartoons really recapture
a lot of the spirit and wild slapstick fun that Mickey's early, black &
white shorts had."

But given that the specific assignment that Avalanche Studios had been handed
was to create the most appealing looking, likeable version of Mickey Mouse
possible … In the end, Jeff and his team wound up borrowing bits & pieces
from a lot of different versions of the world's most famous mouse. So that
Classic Mickey would then look & move in a way that best fit the sort of
gameplay which people would soon be able to experience with Disney Infinity

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"That — in a lot of ways — was actually the toughest
part of the Classic Mickey design project. You have to remember that one of the
key creative conceits of  Disney Infinity
is that all the characters which appear in this game are toys," Bunker
stated. "Okay. So they're beautifully detailed, highly stylized toy
versions of beloved Disney, Pixar, Marvel & Lucasfilm characters. But
they're still supposed to be toys. So our Classic versions of Mickey &
Minnie have the same sort of thickness & sturdiness to them that toys have.
So that they'll then be able to fit right in with all of the rest of the
characters that Avalanche Studios had previously designed for Disney Infinity."

And then there was the matter of coming up with just the
right pose for Classic Mickey & Minnie. Which — to hear Jeff tell the
story — involved input from a lot of Disney upper management.

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"Everyone within the Company seemed to have an opinion
about how Mickey & Minnie should be posed. More to the point, if you Google
Mickey, you then discover that there are literally thousands of poses out there
for these two. Though — truth be told — a lot of those kind of play off the
way Mickey poses when he's being Disney's corporate symbol," Bunker said.
"But what I was most concerned about was that Mickey's pose had to work
with Minnie's pose. Because we were bringing the Classic versions of these
characters up into Disney Infinity 3.0 at the exact same time. And we wanted to
make sure — especially for those fans who like to put their Disney Infinity
figures on display — that Mickey's pose would then complement Minnie.

Which is why Jeff & the crew at Avalanche Studios
decided — when it came to Classic Mickey & Minnie's pose — that they
should go all the way back to the beginning. Which is why these two Disney icons
are sculpted in such a way that it almost seems as though you're witnessing the
very first time Mickey set eyes on Minnie.

Copyright Disney Enterprises,
Inc. All rights reserved

"And what was really great about that was — as soon as
we began showing people within the Company this pose — everyone at Disney
quickly got on board with the idea. I mean, the Classic Mickey that we sculpted
for Disney Infinity 3.0 is clearly a very playful, spunky character. But at the
same time, he's obviously got eyes for Minnie," Bunker concluded. "So
in the end, we were able to come up with Classic versions of these characters
that will work well within the creative confines of Disney Infinity 3.0 but at
the same time please those Disney fans who just collect these figures because
they like the way the Disney Infinity characters look."

So now that this particular design project is over, does
Jeff regret that Mouse House upper management was so hands-on when it came to
making sure that the Classic versions of Mickey & Minnie were specifically
tailored to fit the look & style of gameplay found in Disney Infinity 3.0?

Copyright Lucasfilm / Disney
Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

"To be blunt, we go through this every time we add a new character to the
game. The folks at Lucasfilm were just as hands-on when we were designing the
versions of Darth Vader and Yoda that will also soon be appearing in Disney
Infinity 3.0," Bunker laughed. "So in the end, if the character's
creators AND the fans are happy, then I'm happy."

This article was originally posted on the Huffington Post's Entertainment page on Tuesday, June 9, 2015

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