Sunday, December 30, 2012

Jeffrey Katzenberg, Dec. 4, 1992

Standard·Examiner staff

Somehow, this fits: Walt Disney Studios Chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg is squeezing in a phone interview view while tooling through Los Angeles morning traffic, on his way to do more satellite interviews for and TV stations around the country. It serves to reinforce the popular image of Katzenberg, the mogul who is said to complete some 200 phone calls each morning -- after reading several newspapers during his daily rise-and-shine physical workout.

No time to waste. Literally.

And from a business standpoint, who could argue? Katzenberg and Team Disney, transplanted from Paramount Pictures in 1984, took the studio that Uncle Walt built from a dead-last 3 percent market share that year to a first-place 20 percent in 1988. And since then, his motion picture division – including movies released under the Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures banners -- has been hanging tough, never out of the race.

"Aladdin," Disney's newest release, is sure to keep the company's stockholders smiling; it grossed $25.8 million over the Thanksgiving holiday, about 2-1/2 times what "Beauty and the Beast" did during the same time period last year. And critics have lavished so much praise on the film, there's already talk Robin Williams may be nominated for an Oscar in an acting category -- for his voice performance.

Katzenberg, interviewed a few days before "Aladdin" opened, resisted making box office predictions or comparisons with the likes of "Beauty and the Beast" or "The Little Mermaid."

"These movies are so different from one another and really incomparable," he said. "All we can do is keep trying to do something that's unique and original and take some chances and be a little daring and as creative as we can."

"Aladdin" was conceived more than four years ago, before Disney realized what significant cash cows well-made animated films could be.

"It was the movie that it is today a year ago, before 'Beauty and the Beast' was ever in a movie theater," Katzenberg explained. Only now are filmmakers and studio executives able to begin planning future animated films based on knowledge gleaned from their last few hits -- and those films won't be coming along for two, three or four more years.

The 41-year-old Katzenberg is eager to proclaim his love for animation: "I adore it. I don't know how to explain it, but there is something so unique about an enterprise in which 600 people kind of become one in pursuit of a great piece of storytelling. … I'd rather do that than anything else. It's not even close. If I could get in my car and drive past the TV studio I'm heading off to and veer over to the Valley and head toward animation, I'd be much happier."

But he's willing to make the tough decisions a studio head -- even a studio head with an affinity for animation -- has to make. To wit: In April 1991, he didn't much care for the way "Aladdin" was shaping up, and instructed everyone involved to revamp the film, from the story on up.

"We didn't throw the whole kit and caboodle out," he recalled. "There were aspects of the story, primarily surrounding the character of Aladdin, that were not really strong enough -- they were not dramatic enough, they weren't thematic enough. So we went to work on that.

"Every one of these movies has had that equivalent moment. It came a little bit later in process in this movie than, say, 'Beauty and the Beast.' With 'Beauty and the Beast' we literally went to work on the movie and storyboarded the first couple of reels -- the first 30 minutes of the movie -- and literally threw that out and started over again."

Being forceful, opinionated and willing to make the Big Decisions is what it takes to be a studio chief. And Katzenberg, a New York University dropout, has never been accused of timidity. Under the direction of Katzenberg and associates, Premiere magazine reported, wags had dubbed Disney "Mauschwitz," claiming the movie factory was stingy with its money and dictatorial in its dealings with talent -- actors, writers, directors and so forth.

Furthermore, entertainment media enjoyed whacking Disney for pandering to mainstream tastes: Put rye bread in the Disney toaster and it'll pop up white. It didn't help when filmmakers such as director Joe Johnston (“Honey, I Shrunk the Kids," "The Rocketeer") publicly announced they'd never do another film for the studio. Johnson said he was irritated with Disney's bottom-line fixations -- both his films for the studio were heavy on costly special effects -- and the pressure to homogenize plots so as not to exclude any segment of the potential audience.

When asked if he got a bum rap, Katzenberg's candid reply was this: "Not necessarily," followed by a hearty laugh. "There were things we were doing that we could be doing a lot better, and a little more sensitively. I also think there were a couple of instances where people also got out of hand. So it was a little of both. But I think we've made some enormous strides; it's been a phenomenal year. I think most of the people in town who worked at the studio in the last year enjoyed themselves and have done good work."

That's more than he'll say for the industry as a whole. "Very few people will argue (against the notion) that there was and frankly still is something fundamentally wrong in the sort of balance between creativity and commerce that is unique to moviemaking. … There's no doubt that things cost too much money, but there's another equally big problem and that is that movies today seem to be for the most part unambitious. And that's a much more difficult thing to correct."

A 20-year veteran of the movie business, Katzenberg calls the approximately 150 films released by mainstream studios in 1992 "a pretty unimpressive group of films."

While it might be argued the Disney Studios' Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures divisions typically toss as much scrap on the cinematic heap as their competitors around town, the G-rated, family-oriented movies from Walt Disney Pictures have been more highly acclaimed by critics. And Katzenberg seemed optimistic for the future.

Keeping to the plan of one new animated film each year, Disney's 1993 offering is "Nightmare Before Christmas," a stop-motion project from the mind of Tim Burton, the director of "Batman," "Beetlejuice" and "Edward Scissorhands."

"It's not hand-drawn animation," Katzenberg said, clearly enthused. "It's characters, puppeting characters that actually move a frame at a time. If you remember the old original 'King Kong,' how he climbed up the building, I would give you this analogy: What 'Who Framed Roger Rabbit' was to 'Pete's Dragon,' 'Nightmare Before Christmas' is in stop-motion animation to 'King Kong.' It's a breakthrough, breathtaking, pioneering movie."

In 1994, there may be two hand-drawn animated films ready to release. The first is "The Lion King," in which there are no human characters, with songs by Elton John and lyricist Tim Rice ("Aladdin").

"Elton John was out here day before yesterday for a charity," Katzenberg said, "and he came by the animation studios and saw two of his songs up on storyboards for the first time and was just blown away."

Next comes "Pocahontas," a 17th century romance that Katzenberg revealed will not have a traditional happy ending. "It's not a tragic ending, it's reality."

Looking past 1994, "Fantasia Continued" [it actually was released as "Fantasia 2000" in 1999] may be ready for 1996. "Roy Disney is personally supervising the work on that and has an extraordinary team of artists who are, again, I think, doing some breakthrough pieces. They have homed in on four or five pieces of music, and, I think, some surprising and interesting things (that) are really going to have an incredible impact on 'Fantasia.' "