Things have not been so wonderful lately in the Wonderful World of Disney.
Two Big Bad Wolves knocked at Walt Disney Productions' door with takeover threats. At Disneyland, striking union members turned the Seven Dwarfs' theme song into "Heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it's out of work we go." And major shareholders and Wall Street analysts insinuated that Disney was, in every sense of the word, a Mickey Mouse operation.
But like all good Disney sagas, the picture has now turned upbeat. The wolves, after much huffing and puffing, are gone. A strike at Disneyland has been settled. And a highly regarded new management team headed by Michael Eisner, a former Paramount Pictures president, has taken over the company with plans to put Disney back into the forefront of the entertainment business.
Since the death of founder Walt Disney in 1966, the company has fallen far behind the rest of Hollywood. It all but ignored the lucrative field of network television production, and its movie division produced exactly one major hit -- last year's mermaid fantasy, "Splash." The Disney name was perceived to be such poison at the box office that the company began releasing films -- including "Splash" -- under a different studio moniker, Touchstone.
Meanwhile, other moviemakers -- most notably George Lucas with "Star Wars" and Steven Spielberg with "E.T." and "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- have pushed Disney far down on the family film entertainment list.
About the only thing many observers believe Disney has done with any panache lately has been its theme parks -- Disneyland, Disney World, EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland -- and attendance even has shown signs of weakness at some of those lately.
Analysts saw the company trapped by the ghost of its founder, a company that seemed to preface every business decision by asking "What would Walt have done?" Often unsure of the answer to that question, Disney's leaders seemed usually to hew to the most conservative possible path -- probably just the opposite of what Walt the innovator would have done.
The situation was not helped by the fact that Disney's chief executives since Walt Disney's death have been either Disney family members or longtime associates of the founder. Even Disney's recently ousted president, Ron Miller, who is credited with trying to move the company forward only to fall victim to the wars over control of the enterprise, was Walt Disney's son-in-law.
In spite of Disney's lackluster recent history, however, it has remained consistently profitable, thanks to the theme parks, the licensing of Disney characters and periodic reissues of Disney classics such as "Fantasia" and "Snow White." But dissatisfied critics note that a more aggressive exploitation of those assets would sharply improve the company's financial position.
It was the potential of those assets that attracted corporate raiders Saul Steinberg and Irwin L. Jacobs, the two "wolves" who made separate passes at Disney earlier this year. First Steinberg, then Jacobs, challenged Disney's management and threatened to grab control of the company, break it apart and sell those attractive assets piecemeal. At the same time, the company's management came under siege from disgruntled members of the Disney family, also major stockholders.
But the company repelled the threats, and found a sympathetic new stockholder in the Bass family of Fort Worth. The Basses' nearly 25 percent holding in the company gives them effective veto power, under Disney's charter, over virtually any change in the company. The Basses have pledged to remain passive investors, a welcome relief after the past few months of contention among the company's owners and management.
But in the end, the tumult may turn out to have been very beneficial to the company. It culminated in the appointments of Eisner as chairman and Frank Wells, who was vice chairman at Warner Brothers, as president, with the backing of the Basses.
The worlds of Wall Street and Hollywood have embraced the new team as saviors of the company, savvy veterans of the entertainment business who can bring Disney up to date without sacrificing its reputation for quality.
"When you figure you take two guys like that and give them carte blanche at Disney with all those assets . . . it gets to be very exciting," said Lee Isgur, an analyst at Paine Webber. "It's like putting a kid in a candy store."
After a month on the job, Wells and Eisner are talking about increasing Disney's movie output fivefold or more, moving the company aggressively into network television production, cable and other home video fields, expanding and improving the theme parks, increasing the earnings flow of the company's vast Florida real estate holdings, and even bringing Lucas and Spielberg into the Disney fold (plans for a Disney World "Star Wars" thrill ride are already in storyboard form in the company's development studios).
"I've spent a lot of time trying to encourage people I know to come here and consider Disney a new company," said Eisner, a longtime friend and associate of Lucas, Spielberg and other major Hollywood names. He even borrows an analogy from Disney's glittering past to describe the task ahead, likening it to waking Sleeping Beauty. And Wells said, "There are some assets that just cry out for utilization, to be marketed and to see the light of day."
"We're going to try to be in the mainstream of American entertainment," Eisner said. "Given the nature of what this company is, I don't think we'll fail. There's a tremendous rooting interest around the world for this company."
Indeed, probably no company in the entertainment business, or perhaps any industry, has as identifiable a corporate stamp as Disney. "Disney is the only studio that has an actual product identification," Eisner said.
For the first two-thirds of the company's 61-year history, that meant first-rate family entertainment and many landmarks in animation. More recently, however, it has mostly meant bland G-rated fare that found tiny audiences at a time when movies were becoming much more sophisticated.
Under Miller, Disney had already begun moving toward a more modern view of the movie market, with the success of "Splash" proving that the course was correct. But Eisner and Wells want to accelerate. They may limit the Disney name to animated features, Eisner said, but under the heading of Touchstone or another name, the company will produce all kinds of movies. "I have no reservations about doing any kind of material under Touchstone," Eisner said.
Eisner hopes to increase the company's annual film output from two or three a year to 12 or 15 a year, nearer the industry norm. "We're going to make as many movies as we can that we think are good," Eisner said. Among other things, that will force Disney, pretty much for the first time, to turn to partnerships and other outside financing techniques to make its movies.
Eisner has similarly grandiose plans for television. The "Mickey Mouse Club" and "The Wonderful World of Disney" notwithstanding, Disney's participation in network television has been all but nil in the past two decades, something Eisner finds amazing -- and something he's moving quickly to correct.
It's too early to say when the first Disney show will pop up on a prime-time schedule, but Eisner already is courting some of the business' biggest names. "Disney must have the Disney name and the Disney kind of family entertainment back on network television," he said.
That kind of entertainment is comedy, he believes. And Eisner knows TV comedy. At Paramount, he oversaw production of such hits as "Laverne and Shirley," "Happy Days" and "Taxi."
"We have to get into the 'Cheers,' and 'Family Ties' and 'Webster' and 'Happy Days' and 'Laverne and Shirley' and 'Mork and Mindy' and 'All in the Family' -- whatever it is," he said. "I think this company is suited to do comedy television."
He also wants to get Disney into the Saturday morning kiddie television sweepstakes, another area Disney has missed, despite its fame as a cartoon maker. One problem has been that networks aren't willing to pay as much for Saturday morning cartoon shows as Disney spends for one of its top-quality cartoon productions, but Eisner believes that by cutting quality slightly and relying on character-merchandising opportunities and eventual syndication, the company can make a go of it, perhaps by next fall. "We just have to be there," Eisner said.
Eisner and Wells also want to start pushing some of those Disney classics out of the library and into the marketplace, through television syndication, cable and videocassette. Although Disney has its own cable network and has been involved in the videocassette market for some time, it has for the most part withheld the bulk of its huge library of cartoons, wildlife features and classic movies.
"We've started an intensive study of that film library," Wells said. "That's a classic business problem. . . . It's almost like having a plethora of riches."
To capitalize on those riches, Eisner and Wells probably will bend a longtime Disney commandment: Thou Shalt Not Overexpose. The company traditionally has held back its best-loved features, releasing them only every seven years to a new generation of moviegoers, feeling that any more exposure would dilute the value of the movies. But the new management believes that the company also can make "Snow White" and the other classics available briefly on videocassette, cable and even network TV on a similar seven-year cycle without hurting any of the demand for the films the next time they are released.
Even Disney's most successful businesses, the theme parks, will get the attention of the new management. "We would want to be as aggressive in the parks and attendance as we want to be in all other areas," said Wells, who will take direct responsibility for theme parks and real estate, while Eisner concentrates on movies, television and related fields.
The new management hopes to stem weakness in attendance at the company's American theme parks by putting in new attractions -- particularly thrill rides -- that will offer more appeal to young fans. In addition to the possible "Star Wars" ride at Disney World, the company's WED Enterprises development center is working on plans for an expansion for Disneyland called "Discovery Bay," developing new international pavilions for EPCOT, and redesigning some of the parks' older attractions to make them fresh.
In addition, Eisner and Wells plan to mount advertising campaigns for the Disney theme parks -- for the first time, believe it or not. Previously, the parks have piggybacked on advertising by partners such as Eastern Air Lines or relied on free publicity.
Disney also hopes to begin reaping the benefits from its extensive land holdings, including 43 square miles around Disney World in Florida. Helping this along will be a highly regarded real estate development subsidiary acquired with Arvida Corp. earlier this year -- part of a defensive tactic in the battle against Steinberg that coincidentally wound up giving the Basses, Arvida's previous owners, their first stake in Disney.
Disney's new leaders have carved out a tough challenge for themselves -- even by the standards of Wells, who took two years off from Warner Brothers in an attempt to become the first person to climb the highest mountains on all seven continents (he made six of seven and just missed the top of Mt. Everest, which he plans someday to climb again).
What Disney needs most of all right now is a big hit, a "Star Wars" type of winner that will create new characters and ideas for movies, TV projects, merchandising and theme park attractions, as well as giving the company new credibility as one of the industry's leaders. For all his plans for the company, even Eisner concedes that that kind of success usually has more to do with serendipity than even the meeting of George Lucas and Mickey Mouse. "I suspect it's not just another movie, I suspect it's not just another thrill ride," he said. "It will fall out of the sky. . . . And people will say, 'Oh my God, Disney's back in play.' "