Just how hard is it for a company to maintain focus and a quality internal culture? Hard.
The Walt Disney Company is a prime example. Disney has been challenged many times to maintain its greatness. Leadership and competition changes have led to a few slumps at Disney. The unreleased documentary “The Sweatbox” (linked to below) is a unique peek into the internal struggle of Disney Animation studios in 2000.
I’ll provide some context on Disney’s history and point out interesting snippets from “The Sweatbox” that demonstrate how hard it is to maintain a quality culture in a “hot” or popular industry.
The Disney company had been treading water for years after Walt Disney’s passing in 1966. New management – Donn Tatum, Card Walker and Ron Miller – were not able to maintain Disney’s creative spark. A number of long-time Disney animators left the company led by Don Bluth who would successfully out-compete with Disney in the early to mid 1980’s.
It wasn’t until the late 1980’s that the Walt Disney Animated Feature Animation experienced a creative resurgence. The “Disney Renaissance”, as it was called, started with the theatrical release of the Little Mermaid and lasted into the late 1990’s. Part of the company’s success was it’s unique focus on animated musicals with a Broadway feel.
The resurgence was led by Walt’s nephew Roy E. Disney. Roy led a group of white investors to fend off takeover attempts. Reappointed as vice-chairman in 1984 he enacted a “Save Disney” campaign. Michael Eisner and Frank Wells were brought into Disney to reorganize the animation department. They rightfully allocated the right amount of capital to the animation business. Artists were given back ownership with freedom to do whatever they wanted to help shape the story. The animation department’s structure was ripe to bring out the type of creativity found under Walt Disney’s original leadership.
Hot, popular industries bring the best minds and significant competition. Companies operating in these industries have to out-innovate everyone else. Disney would fail.
Disney’s feature animation department would face another slump from 2000-2006. Pixar and Dream Works Animation were innovating a new form of 3D animation feature story-telling that Disney could not compete with. The reason? Disney’s internal structure had deteriorated as bureaucracy entered. The leadership and cultural decline didn’t allow the company to keep up with competitors.
The artist Sting had been originally brought in to sing on Disney’s production of Kingdom of the Sun(later named Emperor’s New Groove). Sting’s wife Trudie Styler, a documentarian, was also allowed to film and document the production. What was captured was the struggle and troubles in making the picture. It is a great first person look at Disney’s internal culture at the time.
The Kingdom of the Sun was rife with problems. There was no real leadership or creative direction. The production’s internal communication was terrible. Sting stated, “The only problem was that they hadn’t really settled on a script.” This meant that Sting had to write his songs in the dark on what he heard from others the film was going to be. He said he felt as if he was a minion not a valued partner of the film.
Since there was no real clear vision espoused to others, the director leaned on micromanaging. At 1:09:27 in “The Sweatbox” the director is found micromanaging Sting.
Disney’s group of creatives – similar to Pixar’s Brain Trust – at the time was chaotic. Instead of working out the full details of the structure of the story in development, they were fighting to rewrite the film after it had started in production. The film should have been cut or reworked much earlier. It is another reminder to cut your losses as quickly as possible.
The poor communication and execution led to animators gossiping on what was going to happen. Some of the rumors were:
All the voice casting is changing.
Oh my god, my character might not be in the movie anymore.
I hear it might not take place in Peru but in Nebraska. The story will have sheep instead of llamas.
A strong culture with a clear vision, ownership and communication doesn’t have any gossip. Intelligent fanatic leadership gets full buy in from the employees leading to better execution.
Corporate leadership, under Michael Eisner, had been poor as well. Disney executives had scheduled to have the film to be released in the summer of 2000 as crucial promotional deals with McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, and other companies had already been inked. Poor production led to significant delays. By 1998, the project was considered dead with roughly 25% of the film animated at a cost of $30 million.
After significant reworks to Kingdom of the Sun’s production, the film was re-named Emperor’s New Groove and released in the winter of 2000. The film was only moderately successful. At a cost of $100 million, the film brought in the lowest box office total for Disney during the 1990’s.
Roy E. Disney again campaigned to save Disney. Bob Iger replaced Michael Eisner and Disney would purchase Pixar Animation Studios in 2006. Disney’s acquisition of Pixar and Bob Iger’s leadership has again brought another renaissance in Disney’s animation creativity.
The Emperor’s New Groove – Wikipedia
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