Thursday, November 12, 2015

Sticking to the Knitting

The 1970’s, in the immediate wake of Walt’s death, were lackluster years for the Disney Company. Most of the revenue was generated from the re-distribution of old films and attendance at Walt Disney World. Top animators defected in 1977 and subsequent efforts failed to capture the magic of the studio’s glory days.

In the early 80’s, Ron Miller began expanding the product line into films for “adult audiences”. Touchstone’s pictures were some of the most financially and critically successful films of the time. Although Disney was careful not to use its name on any Touchstone production in order to preserve its image as a creator of family entertainment.

Beginning in 1984, Michael Eisner continued to pursue a market segmentation and expansion strategy, adding two more film subsidiaries, one devoted to producing films for teenagers and young adults and the other for adult entertainment.

The 90’s were a breakout decade for Disney, primarily driven by a return to quality animation and storytelling. A sting of hits produced by both Disney and Pixar reminded us that great “family friendly” entertainment never really goes out of style.

Over last 20 years, Disney has expanded operations, adding theme parks, cruise ships, resorts, television and live theater, basically returning to Walt’s model of owing both the media production and distribution channels for high quality stories. The popularity of Disney franchises and animated features has funded further acquisitions; Pixar, Marvel and Lucas Film, adding more stories to the library, while renewing and expanding on updated versions of classic fairly tales.

There is no doubt that over the past 10 years Disney has been a rousing financial success. Since 2008, their market capitalization growth has bettered the overall market by nearly 3:1. In the midst of this fiscal fever, it’s important to not loose track of what made it all possible. Based on results, what works is when the company sticks to the four basic principles espoused by its creator; Safely, Efficiently and Courteously telling stories to the kid in everyone.

That may sound boring to some, but financially it appears to be pretty exciting and, so far, it seems to be working.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Over There a Little Late

Over There a Little Late
 Based on My Dad Walt Disney
by Diane Disney Miller

One day Uncle Roy came thru Chicago on his way to the Great Lakes Naval Training Station and Dad met him at the train station. A Chief Petty Officer thought Dad looked old enough to enlist. Dad went to the Navy recruiting office, but was turned down as under age. He heard about a Red Cross Ambulance Unit that didn't have an age limit, but had to get parental signatures. At first Grandfather wouldn't sign, but then he gave in  - only if Grandmother would sign - so she signed twice, once for herself and once for Grandfather. She turned her back while Dad changed the year of his birth to 1901.

"We were at a staging area in Sound Beach Connecticut when the Armistice was singed." Dad told me. We'd missed the war, and were disgusted. We weren't soldiers, but we had discipline and a guard house, and I was in it half the time for clowning."

In France, Dad drove everything up to five-ton trucks. One day he got into trouble. Three miles short of his destination, a connecting rod broke in the engine. His orders were "Never leave your truck," so he decided to camp in a nearby watchman's shanty, while his buddy went for help. Dad sat in that shanty for two days and nights, waiting for help to come. After three days he walked into town and found a bed.

When he got back, the truck and its cargo of beans and sugar were gone. He hopped a freight train and a coach for Paris. When he arrived he learned that his buddy had gotten drunk and wasted two days before reporting to headquarters. The men sent to help had found the truck, but not Dad, so they towed it. Dad was brought up before a board of inquiry, but was finally let off. "It would have been a disgrace to get kicked out of the Red Cross," Dad said. "If you couldn't make it in that easygoing outfit, you were considered hopeless."

At this time, Dad was drawing cartoons and sending them off to magazines, but not getting any sales, so he launched another money-making scheme - painting copies of the Croix de Guerre on leather jackets at $10 a piece. He also started painting German helmets for a soldier who was selling them to unsuspecting new troops just arriving with the occupation forces.

In the mean time, he was sending half of his Red Cross pay home to Grandma to put in the bank for him. One night he won over $300 gambling. All together Dad had over $500 when he came home. That money would help him get started on his next project - he wanted to become an artist. Grandfather argued that was too risky, but Dad wasn't impressed. He packed his suitcase and took off for Kansas City, where he promptly applied - and was turned down - for work as a cartoonist on the Kansas City Star.

Finally, Dad heard that an apprentice was wanted by a couple of men named Peskman and Rubin who handled art for the Gray Advertising Company. Dad got the job by showing samples of the cartoons he'd drawn in France. "We don't know what we can pay," Peskman said. "We'll have to see." They gave Dad a drawing board and he went to work. He loved it so much he hated to take time out to go to the restroom. At the end of the week Peskman said, "I don't know. How about fifty a month?" Dad managed to say "That will be p-p-p-perfectly O.K." He though it wonderful to be paid anything for drawing pictures. At first he did pencil layouts, which he turned over to other men for final inking-in and clean-up. He was learning the tricks of the commercial art trade.

Hard Times and Long Hours

14 Year old Walt

Hard Times and Long Hours
 Based on My Dad Walt Disney
by Diane Disney Miller

Recently I opened one of our quiz sessions like this: "Dad, think way back. Way back before you created Mickey Mouse. What was the first character you drew? If you can remember."

"I remember perfectly," Dad said. "It was Rupert, a horse." Rupert, he explained, was not a cartoon invention. He was a real horse. His owner paid Dad to draw Rupert's portrait in colored pencil. Dad was eight years old a the time and his sketch brought him the first artist's fee of his career - five cents.

Dad was born in Chicago on December 5th 1901, the fourth child in a family of five. He was christened Walter Elias Disney - Elias after his father, Walter after the Congregational minister who baptized him. His father, Elias Disney, was a hard-working and moderately prosperous house builder. Grandfather Elias left Chicago in 1906 because he wanted his sons, Herbert, Raymond, Roy and Walter - and a young daughter Ruth, to grow up in the country. So the family moved to a 48 acre farm near Marceline, Missouri.

My father was four years old when he first saw the farm and he lived there until he was ten. After Chicago, a place where there were cows and horses and pigs and chickens was wildly exciting to a small boy. Dad says he can still draw a mental map of the farm as it existed then. The old house and the read barn with lean-to's on either side are gone, but my sentimental father built a copy of that barn  on the back of the lot in Holmby Hills.

In the end, hard times forced Grandfather to sell the farm and auction his stock. Things were so bad that Dad had no toys so speak of. If he had a five cent toy, that was a big deal. The presents his parents gave him for Christmas and birthdays were practical things he needed, like shoes and underwear. Uncle Roy saw to it that Dad and his sister Ruth got a toy once in a while. Roy didn't have much money, but he made it a point of buying his kid sister and brother a plaything now and then.  "Roy is one of the kindest fellows I've ever known," Dad says, "although at times he can be mule-headed too." Then Dad smiles. "that's when he doesn't agree with me."

Grandfather moved the family to Kansas City where he bought a paper route with the Kansas City Star. There were about 2000 customers on that route and the price was three dollars a customer. Grandfather hired boys to deliver the papers and paid them three dollars a week, except Dad and Uncle Roy. They got nothing. At the start Dad delivered papers to 50 houses. He was between 9 and 10 years old and had to get up at 3:30 in the morning to meet the delivery trucks. He did that for six years.

Dad will never forget those days when he was a delivery boy. Even now he has nightmares in which he has missed one of the customers on his route. He dreams; I'll have to go back and leave them a paper before father finds out.

[Because of  his Grandfather's political leanings, Walt was exposed to a weekly publication called The Appeal to Reason, which featured political cartoons. The paper's popularity was powered by its folksy style of writing and articles by literary luminaries of what was then called the Socialist Movement, including Upton Sinclair, Jack London, Mary "Mother" Jones, Eugene Debs, and Helen Keller. By 1910 it had a weekly circulation of 550,000 and a subscription base of 450,000. -df]

Dad talked his father into letting him go to art school. Dad said; "He watched expenses like a hawk, but would go for anything that was educational. He was determined to improve his sons, whether we liked it or not."

Dad told Uncle Roy everything that happened to him. One day that led to a showdown between my Dad and Grandfather. Dad had done something that annoyed Grandfather who said; "Son, you are insolent. You need a strapping. Go to the basement." Dad was well grown, but he was still taking whippings from his father, to humor him. But this time, as he started down into the basement, Uncle Roy said, "He has no reason to do this to you kid. Don't take it." When Grandfather came down he began to whack Dad with a leather strap, but Dad reached out and grabbed Grandfather's hands. Once it dawned on him that he was helpless, Grandfather broke down and cried. He never touched Dad after that.

Dad is just the opposite of the stern school <of discipline> and Sharon and I have never once thought of running away or have said to ourselves, "He'll be sorry when we're gone." they way most kids have. I've heard other girls talk about ways of "working" their fathers when they want something. Persistence is one way, but my sister Sharon and I don't have tricks we use on Dad. He's really a pushover for girls, which is why we don't take advantage of him. Sometimes I'm almost afraid to go up and kiss him for fear he'll give me a present or slip a five-dollar bill into my hand.

In 1917, just as the United States was getting into World War I, Grandfather sold the newspaper route and moved back to Chicago. He invested all his money into a jelly factory and went to work as the boss of construction and maintenance there. Dad stayed in Kansas City to finish the school term. Then he took a summer job as a news butcher on the Santa Fe Railroad. He was just 15 and easily cheated by the people who supplied him with the fresh fruit, candy and soda pop, but he got a kick out of riding the trains and took extra runs for the other boys who had time off.

At the end of the summer Dad headed for Chicago where he worked in the jelly factory after school washing bottles, capping and mashing apples to make pectin. In the summer of 1918, he got a job with the Post Office, sorting and delivering mail from 7 AM to 3:30 PM. He'd try for fill-in jobs on mail pickup routes. If that dried up, he'd ride out to Elevated Railway terminal to pick up rush hour work at 5PM.  Dad says; "The wage was 40 cents an hour. I was working twelve to fourteen hours a day. I thought it was a gold rush."

Next: Walt goes to war; Over There a Little Late

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Dad Walt Disney

Beginning with the November 17, 1956 issue, The Saturday Evening Post ran a series of eight articles, retelling stories Diane Disney Miller told to Pete Martin about her famous father. Out of print for nearly sixty years, full of personal insights, beautiful full color photographs and illustrations. They paint a very intimate picture. The next series of posts will focus on life events that helped shape Walt into the Man Behind the Mouse.

The Disney Family; Ron Miller, Sharon, Diane and her daughter Joanna; Lillian Disney and grandson Chris

My Dad Walt Disney

as told to Pete Martin

The daughter of one of the most famous Americans tells the surprising, unknown story of his private life.

Part One

Until I was six years old I didn't realize what it was that my father did for a living. The news was broken to me by a playmate at school. That night, when Dad came home from work and flopped into his easy chair, I approached him with awe. Then doubt crept in. He didn't look famous to me, he just looked tired. So I asked a crucial question; "Daddy, are you Walt Disney?" "Yes, honey," he replied. "I mean, are you the Walt Disney?" He nodded. So it was true! "Daddy," I said, "please give me your autograph."

That scene was played out many years ago, my father still recalls it with enjoyment. "It gave me a thrill," he says now. "I had fought for recognition at home, with your mother and your sister and nurses and all the aunts. When I finally got it - even if it was from a six year old - it was a triumph. I mean, a man has to put up a fight when he's surrounded by females."

I've heard dad go into that surrounded-by-females routine many a time. He likes to pretend that he's victimized at home because he's the only male in residence. "Even our dogs have been females." he reminds us. When he gets that far, we know that Dad is secretly enjoying his household, with a lot of women fussing over him. He's very sentimental. I even suspect that he's sentimental about his famous brain children - Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, and all the rest.

The story of their creation is a large part of the story of my Dad's father's life. Dad has been asked to write it, but he won't. Years ago he put together a skeleton outline for an autobiography, but that's as far as he ever got. Since then a lot of writers have used that outline as a frame on which to hang their own stories about him. When Dad read what they wrote, one of his eyebrows would go up and the other eyebrow would go down, in a way he has, and he'd say, "That didn't happen to me."

So, one of my reasons for telling this story is to get the facts straight. Another reason is that Dad recoils from the thought of writing about himself. He tells me that I'm elected. "Honey," he says, "you can say things that I can't."

I've got a lot of ground to cover, Dad started making animated cartoons when he was nineteen years old. That was in February, 1920, thirty six years ago, a long time before I was born. So, I'll have to interview my parents at length. Luckily, Dad has practically complete recall. "I even remember things people don't want me to remember, " he's told me,

"There are several Walt Disney stories," he went on. "Everybody in the Disney Studio could tell one, and each would describe me in a different way. One of them would characterize me as a bogeyman, who roars into the shop and tears up things other people have been working on for weeks. But someone has to say 'Yes" or 'No,' and stick to it, and that's my job."

I can't see my Dad as bogeyman at all. If it's true that there are several Walt Disneys, I'll start with my favorite: Walt Disney, Poor But Bound to Rise.

We'll recount that in the next posting Hard Times and Long Hours. - df

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Turn of a Phrase

Over the past three days, movie critics have been having a field day labeling Tomorrowland's box office performance as "lackluster" and "disappointing." Even this morning's article in Variety revealing that Tomorrowland is now at the top of the charts sounds cynical.  Something really interesting starts to happen when you remove the emotionally laden adjectives and simply report the facts, which sounds more like this:

LOS ANGELES - "Tomorrowland" opens with a $32.2 million debut. The Disney release is expected to pull in $40.7 million for the four-day Memorial Day weekend. That's would be good enough for a first place finish. The film had been projected to generate $40 million over the three-day period and $50 million over the four-day stretch. Overseas figures thus far have been $26.7 million, for a global three day total of $58.9 million, roughly 1/3 of the film's $180 million production cost. This years' Memorial holiday ticket sales have been 20% below the same period last year.

“We are not trying to entertain the critics. I'll take my chances with the public.”

Even if you aren't a fan of Walt's vision of an Experimental Prototype City of Tomorrow, which one film critic has now called "dystopian" and "Orwellian", there is one Walt Disney quote that pretty much summed up his position on film critics.

By the way; on Friday Disney was valued at $181 Billion, with a stock price of $110 per share, which reflects a nearly 700% gain since 2008.

So, if you are looking for something good to do today, use the film review section of your local paper in the bottom of your hamster cage and take your family or a friend to see Tomorrowland.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Walt's Shadow

What's Shadow

There's a bit of a buzz going on in one of the online forums about a change to the storyline in Tomorrowland which eliminated a direct reference to Walt Disney in the film. The scene appeared one minute and twenty six seconds into the Japanese Trailer, which appeared on YouTube April 3, 2015.

In his book Creativity, Inc. Ed Catmull observes that almost all projects go thru phases and sometimes things get thrown out because the concept isn't working. That "working" thing can be a very tricky place. It's where the "magic" happens. It's where the guests willingly suspend their disbelief, allowing themselves to become immersed in the show to the point that it becomes reality. That is where Tomorrowland sets a very high bar. Athena's introduction to the website makes it clear; "If you are ready to change the world, and it looks like you are, then all you need to do is turn around."

After having viewed a dozen trailers and exploring the Take Me to Tomorrowland website, I have to admit that it has worked for me so far. I want Tomorrowland to be real. That is the truly unique aspect of this film. It wants to extend your experience beyond the theater. It wants you to believe Tomorrowland's message completely enough that you will actually go out and change the world for the better.

That is a very lofty goal and accomplishing it will require a great deal of sensitivity and finesse. I suspect that's also why Walt ended up on the cutting room floor. Introducing him into the story broke the spell, reminding you that it is "just" a movie - a little bit about Walt - made by the company that still bears his name, but don't tell anybody..."wink-wink".

He's been gone nearly 50 years. Disney's Land has changed in millions of ways, but his untimely death didn't have to be the end of what Walt wanted to accomplish. This is where things start to get really interesting, because now things are moving out of a land of fantasy and entertainment and into the land of faith and belief and action where personal, even global, salvation and redemption becomes part of the conversation.

In a previous post I mentioned how every little girl - including the ones inside grown up women - want to have the experience of wearing Cinderella's dress, looking perfect, and being treated like a princess. Tomorrowland has an even loftier goal. It wants to make everyone care about, and have the courage to try and fix, what's wrong in the world - regardless of their physical condition or circumstances.

In that way, Tomorrowland has the potential to be the most powerful story Disney has ever tried to tell.

Personally, I hope it works.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

The Disney Land Challenge

Back in 2010,'s Bob Hill wrote an article called Walt Disney's 8 secrets to success. In it, he summarized what he felt were the "eight principles that made Walt Disney one of the greatest icons of the 20th century." I've summarized and annotated them here;
  • Focus on “the experience” as a key component to increasing value.
  • Exceed customers’ expectations with relentless attention to detail and personalized service that is designed to revolutionize the industry.
  • Passion; Disney films and theme parks are labors of love.
  • Stay true to Disney's values.
  • Hire reliable people who understand the vision and trust them to transfer it to others.
  • Defy convention: Buck the odds and ignore the critics. Trust your instincts.
  • Leave behind something to grow.
When I hear concerns and complaints people have about the company, or their experience in the parks, I try to frame them in the context of Walt's goals and vision. For example; I ask myself if the cause of a complaint is the result of failing to exceed expectations. I also ask if those expectations were realistic and if there was a fair exchange of value - including travel time. This helps take the conversation outside of individual preferences for one attraction or another and places it in the context of a proven set of values which are the historical foundation of the company's success.

On a related note; I believe that responsibility for preserving and improving the park experience is not one sided. I think we - as Guests - have a responsibility to play by Walt's rules when in his Kingdom. The "Magic" flourishes best when both everyone willingly suspends their disbelief and embraces the possibilities of a having a mutually magical experience.

“Disney Land is something that will never be finished, something I can keep ‘plussing’ and adding to. I just finished a live-action picture. It’s gone. I can’t touch it. I want something live, something that will grow. The park is that.” - Walt Disney