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"What's New" Archives: February 2006

February 27, 2006:

Walt Disney Concert HallREMEMBERING 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 press—richly 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 himself—no 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.

"Anyone 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 clips—presumably 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 people—if 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 here. 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 acumen—defined in this case as knowing exactly when to sell—should skyrocket:

The Weinstein Company is proud to announce that it has acquired the North American distribution rights to Exodus Film Group’s CG-animated feature comedy “Igor.” Chris McKenna (Fox’s “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 scientist’s 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 filmmakers.”

“With such an incredible distribution and marketing track-record, we’re 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 link. 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 executives—I'm sure there are some—who 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 executive—John Sculley, a Pepsi-Cola marketing executive he recruited as CEO of Apple Computer—he 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 to me.