The Disney Renaissance Didn’t Happen Because of Jeffrey Katzenberg; It Happened In Spite of Him

     May 20, 2020

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Last week, the New York Times ran an interview with executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, whose most recent venture is Quibi, a watch-on-the-go platform for streaming movies (broken into chapters) and episodic television whose bite-sized installments typically run less than 10 minutes. Since its launch during the pandemic, the app has dropped off the 100 most-downloaded-apps list on the Apple Store, has seen a number of key personnel leave, has already endured a data breach scandal and is about to face a fast-approaching lawsuit over the technology that powers Quibi. In the interview, Katzenberg referred to “hundreds” of people using the app (oof) and blamed its initial shortcomings on the coronavirus. Keep in mind that a few days earlier he talked to internet personality Lights Camera Jackson and said that the launch had been “incredible.”

The failure of Quibi shouldn’t be much of a surprise to anyone who has followed Katzenberg’s career. From his early days at Paramount to the foundation of DreamWorks SKG, few modern executives can share his utter fearlessness and his willingness for experimentation. But with oversized ambition just as often comes historic failure, something that Katzenberg has been faced with time and time again, from the deterioration of DreamWorks and his eventual fire sale of the animation unit to Universal to his latest folly, his dreams are often met equally with bitter disappointment.

And perhaps the brightest spot of his career, that he will, undoubtedly, be the first to point out to anybody that questions him, was his decade-long run at Disney. In particular, Katzenberg’s involvement in the resurrection of Disney’s fabled animation department. (At the time it was on life support and in very real danger of being closed completely.) And it’s true – Katzenberg came in and shook things up. But at the same time a major clarification needs to be made: the so-called Disney Renaissance succeeded in spite of Jeffrey Katzenberg, not because of him.

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Image via Beuna Vista

A former political aid for New York mayoral candidate John Lindsay (who gave him the nickname “Squirt”), he’d risen in the ranks at Paramount, starting as Barry Diller’s assistant and ending up as president of production under President Michal Eisner. When Eisner was brought over to Disney following a lengthy and protracted greenmail attempt by corporate raiders, he brought Katzenberg along. At the time Disney wasn’t even considered a “major” studio, although they seemed to be turning a corner. The year that Katzenberg, Eisner, and Frank Wells (who served as president and COO) gained control of the company, Touchstone Pictures had been founded by then-CEO (and Walt’s son-in-law) Ron Miller to release more mature content that sat comfortably outside of the “Disney” branding. Touchstone’s first release was also the biggest hit in the studio’s history – Splash.

Katzenberg was used to being handed tough assignments; he had successfully brought the Star Trek franchise back from beyond the stars, gamely navigating the actors’ giant egos and the tempestuousness of creator Gene Roddenberry. But returning Disney Animation to its former glory was a different kettle of fish. In the terrific documentary Waking Sleeping Beauty (now streaming on Disney+), Katzenberg recounts how, on his first day at Disney, Eisner pointed him to the Ink & Paint Building and said, “That’s where they make the animated films. That’s your problem.”

Katzenberg first asked to see the studio’s latest animated feature, The Black Cauldron. It was hugely expensive and just as ambitious; pre-production began a decade earlier and it was the first 70mm animated feature since Sleeping Beauty. But it was also, in Katzenberg’s mind, in rough shape. “It was way too dark and violent and scary,” he said in Waking Sleeping Beauty. He asked to see outtakes, unaware that animated films don’t have outtakes. Katzenberg battled producer Joe Hale, replacing songs he considered “old fashioned” and personally removing several minutes of the film. It didn’t matter. The Black Cauldron was the costliest animated film of all time; it made half of what was spent. The Care Bears Movie beat it at the box office.

Retaliation was swift. Hale was fired and the animation department was bumped off the lot and squeezed into a low-hanging building in Glendale (“a gutted wretch of a building,” according to animator Mike Gabriel), near the Walt Disney Imagineering campus. Katzenberg was befuddled by the storyboarding process. At a meeting an animator told Katzenberg they didn’t think he knew what he was doing. Katzenberg was said he was happy to learn. A notorious workaholic, he began scheduling meetings at 6:30 am, sometimes on Sundays. Roger Allers, who would later co-direct The Lion King, recounts in Waking Sleeping Beauty that Katzenberg proclaimed, “I’m not interested in the Academy Awards. I’m interested in the Bank of America awards.” Roy Disney, Walt’s nephew and the technical head of the animation unit, installed Peter Schneider as vice-president, who looked to make the division leaner and more technologically savvy, and aligned himself with Katzenberg.

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Disney

1986’s The Great Mouse Detective was warmly received but 1988’s Oliver & Company was the film from that period that really bears Katzenberg’s fingerprints. He came up with the idea of doing Oliver Twist in modern day New York and its emphasis on big movie stars, edgy humor and a sense that its general attitude could overcome the film’s technical shortcomings would become the de facto ethos of DreamWorks Animation. It wasn’t a blockbuster but it was an important film in the history of the company since it announced that Disney Animation could be hip, cool, and now. At the press junket for the film, Disney and Katzenberg announced that the studio would be releasing a new animated movie every year. Animator Glen Keane later said in the documentary that the department seemed like it was “being driven by a maniac at the wheel with his foot on the accelerator, driving full speed in a very crowded city.”

The first film of this ambitious plan was The Little Mermaid, a project that Katzenberg had initially rejected, at one of his infamous “Gong Show” Pitch meetings where animators would pitch three ideas and if one of them was “gonged” would have to leave the room, for being too similar to Splash. The company’s first fairy tale in 30 years, it featured music from Howard Ashman (who had provided lyrics to the best song in Oliver & Company) and Alan Menken, a suggestion from Katzenberg confederate David Geffen. In one of the more famous conflicts, Katzenberg took on directors Ron Clements and John Musker, as well as Ashman and Menken, when he wanted to cut “Part of Your World.” It stayed in and was the heart of the movie. The Little Mermaid was a smash.

The studio’s next movie, The Rescuers Down Under, produced using a revolutionary system that replaced the ink and paint department, was placed into development because it was a sequel to the only post-Walt hit, 1977’s The Rescuers. After a disappointing opening weekend, Katzenberg pulled the advertising for the movie. While technically released in the halcyon days of Disney Animation’s resurgence, The Rescuers Down Under was considered a bust. But its technological breakthroughs were widely embraced.

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Image via Buena Vista Pictures

Early in 1991, Katzenberg fired off a memo that would cloud the rest of his career and forever change his relationship with Disney: inspired by the major disappointment of Disney’s costly Dick Tracy, the memo was called “Some Thoughts on Our Business.” It was meant to be internal but was widely circulated and ridiculed. Eisner was furious, both because of the hubris and because of the plagiarism – Eisner had sent a nearly identical manifesto many years earlier while at Paramount. (Years later, Cameron Crowe would say that the memo inspired Jerry Maguire.) A few months after the memo was sent, in a May 1991 article about the making of Disney’s live-action The Marrying Man for Entertainment Weekly, Ryan Murphy (yes, that Ryan Murphy) would talk to Alec Baldwin about the situation. Murphy describes the memo as “gleefully parodied” and Baldwin said a Disney movie “is cheap and looks cheap” (a reference to Disney’s strategy of hiring slightly unpopular talent). Baldwin saved the best dig for Katzenberg: “He’s the eighth dwarf — Greedy.”

The films that followed Rescuers Down UnderBeauty and the Beast and Aladdin, went through major (and majorly painful) creative overhauls. Like The Little Mermaid, these movies would both be Oscar winners and Beauty and the Beast would become the first animated feature ever nominated for the Best Picture Academy Award. Katzenberg might not have been interested in the Academy Awards but he got them along with the Bank of America awards (they were huge hits). He also got something else he had been dying for – credit. He was a shameless self-promoter, appearing at press junkets and sitting down for interviews. “As long as he promoted himself around an animated movie, I let it happen,” Eisner said in Waking Sleeping Beauty. “But Roy went nuts.”

In the midst of the success and recognition Katzenberg’s relationship with Eisner and Roy was deteriorating swiftly. At the cast and crew screening of Beauty and the Beast, Eisner had announced that he and Roy were building the animators a brand new, state-of-the-art facility at the lot in Burbank. Katzenberg had never been told of the plans.

The one-movie-a-year mandate that Katzenberg had so bullishly promoted was starting to wear thin. Keane said that animators were developing carpal tunnel syndrome, and everyone was exhausted. Animators told management that they couldn’t successfully maintain families because there was no way to have kids and work at the studio. There was a brain drain but Katzenberg was voracious. There were studios in Florida, Paris, and Burbank. And the executive was working, for the first time, with outside companies to make a pair of oddball experiments – Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas and Pixar’s Toy Story.

And there were two hugely ambitious animated features barreling towards release – The Lion King and Pocahontas, a movie that was famous for getting the quickest-ever greenlight at one of those gong show meetings. Mike Gabriel’s pitch was simply an image of Tiger Lily from Peter Pan with the words “Walt Disney’s Pocahontas” stenciled at the top of the image. It was an immediate “go.” At a breakfast meeting with the teams from both films, Katzenberg made it known that even though they were being produced concurrently, Pocahontas was more important. Lion King, to him, felt iffier. Pocahontas was big, emotional, drama, like West Side Story or Romeo & Juliet. Even though it was about lions, The Lion King was the scrappy underdog.

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Image via Disney/Pixar

Around the same time, Katzenberg was pushing the talented animators at Pixar, then housed in a dumpy building in Point Richmond, California, to make one of the lead characters in Toy Story edgier. He wanted the humor to be more adult, sarcastic and barbed; this would be different than the squeaky-clean movies that Disney Animation produced. (Katzenberg’s attitude seemed to many like an about face given his reaction to The Black Cauldron and his cancellation of the original version of Beauty and the Beast.) In a story reel screened in November 1993 what would eventually be known at the studio as “Black Friday,” Woody intentionally shoved Buzz out of Andy’s window. Woody, who would become one of the most universally beloved characters in cinema, was an asshole. (Ham wasn’t very pleasant either.) Everyone was aghast. The film was temporarily shut down. Katzenberg’s instincts, which many thought were razor-sharp when he arrived, had either a) dulled or b) never been there in the first place.

A few months before The Lion King was released, tragedy struck when Frank Wells died tragically in a helicopter accident. If Katzenberg’s memo sent shockwaves through the company, Wells’ death would irrevocably tear everything apart. Long regarded as the peacemaker and the mediator, Wells kept a close eye on the competing egos and oversized personalities at the studio. Now the only man who could keep Roy, Eisner, and Katzenberg happy and working, was gone. While Katzenberg told Eisner that he wanted Wells’ job, Roy refused and threatened a proxy vote if Eisner awarded him the position.

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Image via Disney

Still, Katzenberg remained at the studio, steadfastly selling their upcoming feature The Lion King. One of the pieces, written by Richard Turner in The Wall Street Journal, supposedly chronicled what life was like at Walt Disney Feature Animation (as it was known then) and the instrumental role of its fearless leader Jeffrey Katzenberg. Animators claimed that much of what Turner saw was staged; in James B. Stewart’s Disney War, he claims that the start of the article, a conversation between Katzenberg and composer Hans Zimmer, was actually a reenactment. They had the conversation earlier. Turner couldn’t tell and his piece was effusive. “Prominent in the Disney formula is Mr. Katzenberg, who, if not exactly the reincarnation of Walt Disney, brings his own blend of passion and obsession to Disney’s mission of creating animated classics,” Turner wrote. In Waking Sleeping Beauty, Katzenberg remembers reading the article, turning to his wife, and saying, “Well, this is over. This is the nail in my coffin.”

And it’s true. The Lion King would open and become a phenomenon; it would become the highest grossing animated movie of all time. It might have been a “B” movie but all of the most exciting young talent at the studio had flocked to it, thanks to its idiosyncratic, Shakespearean storyline and the chance to spend all day drawing animals. But by the end of 1994, Katzenberg would be gone. Pocahontas, the movie Katzenberg had so passionately proclaimed the more important film of the two, was released in 1995 and under-performed, especially in the long, cat-shaped shadow of The Lion King. But Toy Story, released later in 1995, with much nicer characters, was huge.

After he left, he’d still managed to find ways to piss off Disney – as one of the founders of DreamWorks SKG, he created an arms race for talented animators and pouched many of Disney’s top artists. He fast-tracked Antz to come out before Pixar’s A Bug’s Life and left Pixar head John Lasseter incensed. (Later, he would order animators to model Lord Farquaad in Shrek after Eisner.)

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Image via Walt Disney Pictures

Years later, when Katzenberg fought Disney for his rightful share of profits (his contract had an insane clause that guaranteed him 2% in perpetuity for all the films he worked on), the extent to which Katzenberg actually cost the company would have been revealed. As Chairman of Walt Disney Studios, Katzenberg was responsible for overseeing all of the studio’s filmed entertainment, including live-action movies and television. It was Katzenberg who pushed for the acquisition of Miramax, which added prestige to the studio but would up being a costly black-eye, and it was Katzenberg who saw pricey bombs from the studio get released with startling regularity. For every Pretty Woman there was a Billy Bathgate, Dick Tracy, The Distinguished Gentleman or The Rocketeer. That’s what people fail to realize about his time at Disney: while he was making animated hits he was also overseeing complete live-action disasters. In Kim Masters’ great Keys to the Kingdom, she quotes an unnamed executive at the time who said, “Part of the problem is Katzenberg’s taste.” Another executive said, “Jeffrey was involved on a micromanagement level in the movies.” This executive remembers a screening of Straight Talk, where he commented that he didn’t like James Woods’ tie. During the trial, Disney’s lawyer presented documentation that suggested that the live-action films, under Katzenberg, had lost a whopping $231 million for the company. Katzenberg claimed they were all profitable.

In the end, Disney wound up paying Katzenberg (at least) $250 million and Katzenberg got to walk away with the money and the assumption that he was the one who turned around Disney Animation and engineered the films that now carry the title of the so-called Disney Renaissance. He got it all.

The truth, of course, isn’t as easy to explain – the animated films released from the late 1980s to the late 1990s were in part bolstered by Katzenberg’s presence, for sure. But they were also the product of a group of filmmakers that had finally been empowered to create stories of their own, after serving as apprentices to the older animators who worked with Walt and who were still at the studio. (By the early 1990s most had either retired or passed away.) That combination of classical training and new ideas made the movies what they were, and the involvement of overlooked creative principles like producer Don Hahn and songwriters Howard Ashman and Alan Menken cannot be overstated. Eisner and Wells’ shrewd decision to release many of the Disney animated classics on video and show some of them on television at around the same time also energized the medium, as did their investments in the theme parks and television animation (particularly on the burgeoning Disney Channel). And many of the achievements of the division happened in spite of Katzenberg’s demands and input – the early meetings, the jam-jacked schedule, the physically grueling hours that endangered animators and threatened families. (For some reason his micromanaging and second-guessing took a bigger toll on the live-action features, which faltered more often and more spectacularly.) This was the guy that nearly ruined Toy Story and pushed for the marquee value of Bette Midler and Billy Joel. When he left the studio, the animators redesigned the hero from Hunchback of Notre Dame. Katzenberg forbade facial hair on animated characters, so the animators gave Phoebus a golden goatee. It was one of Eisner’s favorite movies.

If the recent Quibi debacle has shown anything, it’s that Katzenberg still pursues his dreams with an unmatched level of determination and aggressiveness. When he was at Paramount he got the nickname “the golden retriever.” It’ll be fascinating to see what he comes back with next.

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