"What's New" Archives: February 2006
February 27, 2006:
WALT DISNEY: Phyllis and I spent a couple of nights in downtown
Los Angeles on our trip to the coast earlier this month. Downtown
L.A. is a much livelier and more attractive place than it was a
few years ago, thanks in large part to the new Walt Disney Concert
Hall designed by Frank Gehry. The new hall has drawn a lot of admiration
from the architectural pressrichly deserved, I think. It's
a stunning building, an amazing piece of modern sculpture (my accompanying
photograph doesn't do it justice, but it was hard to take a picture
from a better angle without getting run over). It's also a keen
place to hear music, as we learned the evening we attended an L.A.
Philharmonic concert conducted by Christoph von Dohnànyi,
the former leader of the Cleveland Orchestra. His account of Stravinsky's
Firebird was full of color, a glorious audible bouquet; I
can't remember hearing another live performance where so much of
so familiar a work seemed like such a surprise. As everyone says,
Disney Hall is an acoustic as well as architectural marvel.
The hall is also a memorial to Walt Disney, of course, paid
for in large part with Disney family money. With my all-but-completed
biography in mind, that was the strongest reason I wanted to see
the place and attend a concert there. But even though Walt's name
is on it, there's little or nothing of the man in the Walt Disney
Concert Hall, nothing recognizably "Disney." Nowhere did
I see any nod toward Walt himselfno bust, no bas relief, no
statue, no plaque. "Disney" was prominent among the inscribed
names of the donors, and there is, I understand, a garden somewhere
honoring Lillian Disney, but otherwise, nothing.
Probably that is the way the Philharmonic and the Walt Disney
Company, and perhaps the Disney family, too, want it. There is nothing
"Mickey Mouse" about Walt Disney Concert Hall, in any
sense; it is strictly a memorial to the man, who has been separated
firmly from all of his works. The line has been so clearly drawn
that the Philharmonic need not worry about being dragged down by
difficult-to-manage associations with Disney cartoons. Likewise,
the Walt Disney Company need not worry (at least not much) about
the public's confusing the hall with Disney-owned facilities. Everyone
benefits if there are no costumed characters greeting concertgoers
in the lobby.
The problem is, the memory of Walt Disney the man is inextricably
bound up with the films and theme parks and other such things that
bear his name. Separate the name completely from those things, as
at the hall, and the effect is less to remember Walt himself than
to render the name as impersonal as the most arbitrary corporate
logo. Walt Disney Concert Hall is a wonderful building, but as a
memorial to the man, it might just as well be called Exxon Hall
or Microsoft Music Center.
I felt closer to the man Walt Disney a couple of days later, when
I fulfilled a long-held ambition and finally had a sandwich and
a glass of ale at the Tam O'Shanter, an 80-year-old restaurant on
Los Feliz Boulevard, not far from the site of the long-gone Hyperion
studio. "The Tam" has no doubt changed since the time,
fifty years and more ago, when Walt's employees might see him sitting
alone in a booth, but it can't have changed a lot. In keeping with
its name, the Tam is "themed," with an antiquated mock-Scottish
décor and waitresses in kilts, and its menu speaks of a much
earlier time, too. I loved everything about it, including the food.
I don't know when I last ate a prime rib sandwich, but the Tam's
couldn't have been better. When you next have the chance, eat a
meal at the Tam and, as we did, raise a glass to Walt. You should
attend a concert at Walt Disney Concert Hall, too, but it's at the
Tam that you can most readily imagine that Walt is nodding to you
from the booth across the way.
February 25, 2006:
BOB CLAMPETT RULES ON IPOD: From today's Wall Street Journal:
One of the most popular podcasts currently online was made 63 years
ago and stars Bugs Bunny.
On iTunes this past week, beating out ABC's podcast for
"Lost," in which the show's stars are interviewed, was
a video podcast called Vintage ToonCast. It's a free weekly posting
of cartoon shorts from the 1930s and '40s, with adventures of Bugs
Bunny, Elmer Fudd and Woody Woodpecker. The first, in December,
of the 1943 short "Falling Hare," has been downloaded
close to 50,000 times.
While big entertainment companies are focused on charging
viewers to download TV shows and music videos, this podcast and
others like it are a reminder that there's plenty of competition
online from free media. The early animation clips shown by Vintage
ToonCast are no longer protected by copyright and can be freely
distributed by anyone. Any money made by podcasts usually comes
from ads on the podcasts' Web sites, or occasionally, product mentions
in the podcasts themselves.
could be doing what I'm doing," says Vintage ToonCast creator
Josh Cuppett, a 25-year-old chemical engineer at an environmental
services contracting company, who is also a budding filmmaker. Mr.
Cuppett gets the clips from Internet Archive (archive.org) a nonprofit
"Internet library" offering free access to historical
digital materials. The classic cartoon collection was provided to
the archive by Film Chest, a company that collects old film clips
and stock footage.
The clips, which have been transferred from 35mm film and digitally
remastered, may be well suited for portable devices -- only a few
minutes long, they're quick to download and watch. Disney also began
offering some of its classic cartoon shorts on iTunes last month
for $1.99 each, and says they've sold well. Surprisingly, the Vintage
ToonCast carries an "explicit" rating on iTunes usually
reserved for hard-core rap songs, because some of the early cartoons
contain racial stereotypes.
February 23, 2006:
COASTING: I'm back from ten days on the West Coast, and I'll be
posting observations from my trip over the next few days.
I roamed in and out of WonderCon in San Francisco for a
couple of days, my first comic-con and probably my last. Too many
geeks and fan-boys, too many people taking too much crud too seriously.
I was most interested in the Pixar panel and the clips from Cars,
the Pixar feature to be released next summer. The crowd was not
much interested in the panel and so made it hard to hear what anyone
was saying. As for the clipspresumably Pixar was putting its
best foot forward, and if so, I am impressed again with Steve Jobs's
sagacity, that is, his instinct for picking just the right moment
to sell. The clips from Cars reminded me powerfully of Robots,
another CGI film with machines as characters, too-cute movie-star
voices, and lots of lame jokes. If the clips are any guide, and
I have to assume that they are, Pixar has taken a big step down
from The Incredibles. Cars will be a big success at
the box office, I'm sure, but it may pave the way for future disappointments.
It'll be Disney that's disappointed, though, and not Steve Jobs.
The Pixar presentation followed an extended and extremely
foul-mouthed stand-up routine by the filmmaker and comic-book writer
Kevin Smith, who can't seem to take a breath without exhaling "fuck."
The fan-boys loved him, of course. (To be overweight and ordinary-looking
and shouting dirty words from a stage at thousands of adoring peopleif
that's not wish-fulfillment for the average comic-con attendee,
I can't imagine what is.) Smith's turn on stage was running late,
and so the small children who had come with their parents to see
the Pixar clips got a forced education in just how small a vocabulary
suffices in today's world if you're prepared to plug any gaps with
a loud obscenity. I hope at least a few parents expressed their
appreciation to the con's clueless managers.
EMAIL OF THE DAY: "You are a misserable shit who should see
these films as childrens films and not as a personel veiw. Get a
life or look deeper in side if you want to carry on in this job.
Your veiws on Brother Bear made me write this."
One of the nice things about getting insulting messages from illiterate
morons is that I'm encouraged to go back and read what I've written,
perhaps years before, to see what provoked such crude hostility.
Often, I'm pleasantly surprised by how well my writing holds up.
I think that's true of my review
of Brother Bear. But read it yourself and decide if I'm
really a misserable shit.
VISIT DENMARK: That's one way to express an opinion of the manufactured
mobs that have been raising hell about those Danish cartoons. Denmark
is a lovely, thoroughly civilized country, a striking contrast to
the rotting societies where so much synthetic outrage has been vented
in recent weeks. I visited Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen (a prime
inspiration for Disneyland) in 2004; you can read my report by clicking
And this is the link for the official
Danish tourist site.
MIYAZAKI: My Feedback
page on the celebrated Japanese director includes some exceptionally
interesting comments by Andrew Osmond, but I've been late in reading
and recommending the excellent article on Miyazaki that Andrew wrote
last year for the British Film Institute's magazine, Sight and
Sound. It was still available on the Web, the last I looked;
you can find it at this
link. Andrew is especially illuminating as to Miyazaki's sources,
some of which seem most surprising.
OH MIYAZAKI!: Geoff Blum asks, "Did you hear about Miyazaki's
new adaptation of Ibsen? He shows the cartoon in one room and makes
his audience view it through holes drilled into the wall from an
adjoining room. He calls it An Anime of the Peephole."
February 9, 2006:
HIATUS: I'll be away the next couple of weeks, in San Francisco
and Los Angeles, so there'll be no new posts until late this month.
See you then.
February 5, 2006:
MYRON WALDMAN: Michael Dobbs has posted word on his blog
of the veteran Fleischer and Famous animator's death at the age
of 97. Mike's posting includes a full account of the life and career
of this very nice man.
February 3, 2006:
THE COMING CGI GLUT: The following emailed press release says it
all. Read this and your respect for Steve Jobs's business acumendefined
in this case as knowing exactly when to sellshould
The Weinstein Company is proud to announce that it has acquired
the North American distribution rights to Exodus Film Groups
CG-animated feature comedy Igor. Chris McKenna (Foxs
American Dad) wrote the screenplay and John D. Eraklis
is set to produce. Seasoned animation executive Max Howard, who
has collaborated on such animated blockbusters as The Lion
King, Aladdin, Space Jam and The
Iron Giant, will executive produce Igor. The announcement
was made today by The Weinstein Company co-chairman, Harvey Weinstein.
A playfully irreverent comedy with a new twist to the classic
monster genre, Igor is the story of a mad scientists
hunchbacked lab assistant who has big dreams of becoming a scientist
in his own right and winning the coveted first place award at the
annual Evil Science Fair.
Harvey Weinstein stated, On the heels of the great success
of Hoodwinked, my brother and I are thrilled to be involved
with another exciting independent animation project with outstanding
With such an incredible distribution and marketing track-record,
were excited to be working with the Weinsteins, said
Exodus president John D. Eraklis.
Other Weinstein Company CG-animated projects include the hilarious
family film Hoodwinked, which opened in theaters nationwide
on January 13th, 2006, Doogal, which is being released
in theaters nationwide on February 24th, the fourth installment
to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle franchise, Opus,
Cricket in Times Square, and Hood vs Evil,
the sequel to Hoodwinked.
Exodus upcoming animated short Igor: Unholy Frijoles
features Christian Slater voicing the title character, Igor, along
with Jay Leno as Brian the Brain, Steve Buscemi as Scamper the Lab
Rabbit, and John Cleese as Dr. Glickenstein. There is no cast or
director attached to the feature yet. Igor is currently
in pre-production. Exodus CG-animated slate also includes
The Hero of Color City and Amarillo Armadillo
with Howard set to executive produce.
February 1, 2006:
DISNEY AND PIXAR, CONT'D: CBSMarketWatch called me late last week
to ask for a few thoughts on the Disney-Pixar marriage. Some of
my observations were still online, the last time I looked, at this
In brief, I think the acquisition makes sense for both parties,
for Disney by giving it the strong animated films it couldn't produce
in-house, and for Pixar by assuring it of the marketing muscle it
will need to weather the inevitable flops. For both parties, joining
forces means eliminating a potentially troublesome competitor. Pixar
in particular had a lot to lose if shoddy Disney-made sequels with
Pixar characters muddied the public's perception of Pixar as the
classiest of the animation producers.
But did Disney overpay for Pixar? Not much doubt about
that. One of my correspondents, who has a keen awareness of such
business matters, offers this definitive summary: "$7.4 billion
to buy a company that's at the top of its valuation, a company that
recently lost its main storyman [Joe Ranft, who was killed in an
auto accident], a company that, coincidentally, has previously and
repeatedly acknowledged its success is due mainly to story, not
production or technology, and a company of which Disney already
owns all present sequel rights. Jobs is truly a genius!"
James Stewart (author of DisneyWar) examines Disney's overpayment
in today's Wall Street Journal:
"Disney is paying $7.4 billion to buy Pixar, $1.2 billion
in cash and the rest in Disney shares. What's it getting in return?
Pixar's most recent balance sheet shows just $1.38 billion in total
assets, and $1 billion of that is cash. Pixar shares were trading
at an all-time high in anticipation of such a deal, with a forward
price/earnings ratio of 51. (Disney, by contrast, trades at a P/E
of just under 18, while rival DreamWorks Animation is at 44.) Analysts
estimate that the deal, even with the aggressive share buyback Disney
also announced, will dilute earnings by about 5% next year and 3%
the year after that. And that's assuming the rosy predictions for
Pixar's future slate are borne out.
"I don't think Mr. [Robert] Iger [Disney's CEO] had much choice
but to pay Mr. [Steve] Jobs's asking price. If I were in his shoes,
I'd probably have done the same thing for the long-term benefit
of Disney. I stress 'long-term' because in the short term I believe
Disney is paying too much, what amounts to over $6 billion for the
creativity of the Pixar team, a quality that can be as quixotic
as synergy. It's hard to put a price on that kind of asset, but
I can't think of a comparable talent deal. By contrast, top Hollywood
stars earning $20 million a picture are being paid a pittance."
The most interesting question is what the consequences of that
unavoidable overpayment might be, and in particular whether they
could undermine the compelling rationale for the acquisition itself.
We've been reading stories about how John Lasseter, Pixar's creative
head, has swept into various Disney offices and ordered quivering
"suits" to clean out their desks. The artists are back
in charge! However fanciful or exaggerated such stories may be,
there's the undeniable fact that under a document titled "Policies
for Management of the Feature Animation Business," filed with
the SEC, Lasseter reports directly to Iger and has "greenlighting"
authority for Disney and Pixar animated features. Lasseter's authority
over animated features and theme-park attractions is so broad, in
fact, as to invite comparison with Walt Disney's. Lasseter is not
Walt Disney, however; for a few years, at least, the control he
exercises will rest on a much weaker foundation than Walt's ever
did. A string of successes will surely cement his authority, but
by the same token, an early stumble or two could embolden those
Disney executivesI'm sure there are somewho already
fear that their company has been bled dry to no good purpose.
I don't think we can assume that Steve Jobs's new position as
Disney's largest shareholder will translate automatically into protection
for Lasseter and his colleagues in such circumstances. The last
time Jobs allied himself with a career corporate executiveJohn
Sculley, a Pepsi-Cola marketing executive he recruited as CEO of
Apple Computerhe wound up being pushed out of the company
he founded. Jobs emerged on top, but only after spending years in
the wilderness. He's twenty years older and, from all appearances,
much wiser now, but he's still going to be part of a huge company
whose corporate culture differs immensely from Pixar's. We don't
know yet how quickly he'll master that culture's complexities, much
less take the lead in transforming it into something more Pixar-like.
One thing I remember from my days as a business writer is how chancy
acquisitions and mergers are, and how few of them work out as planned.
AOL-Time Warner comes first to mind, of course. So often, combining
two companies into one is so difficult that it eats up a lot of
money and energy that could have been put to better use in growing
separate enterprises. And sometimes, as in the AOL case, it eventually
becomes clear that the combination was a terrible idea to begin
with. The Disney-Pixar combination makes much more sense than most,
but it's no sure thing. A few years from now, Disney animation may
have entered a golden age under Lasseter's tutelage, or Jobs and
Lassseter and a few other refugees may be licking their wounds at
a new boutique animation studio. Either outcome seems entirely plausible