Are risky movies difficult to make? Sure they are. Just not at movie studios like Disney.
Disney? Well, yes. Not the Sneezy-Dopey-Happy Disney that you remember from . . . March ("Doug's 1st Movie") or even . . . February ("My Favorite Martian"). Not the Disney that recently distanced itself from "Dogma," an irreverent take on Catholicism that the Disney-owned art-house studio, Miramax, felt compelled to jettison.
No, there's another Disney. Lately the most image-conscious of all studios suddenly finds itself with a list of edgy projects more often associated with scrappy independent distributors.
Surprise: Disney had three films (most of the major studios had none) at the Cannes festival this year: There was a black comedy about the McCarthy era by director Tim Robbins ("Dead Man Walking") called "Cradle Will Rock," to be released in the fall. There was a $5 million feature by the quirky David Lynch ("Blue Velvet," "Twin Peaks") called "The Straight Story," about a man who rides his lawn mower halfway across the country to see an estranged, sick brother. There was also director Spike Lee's racy drama "Summer of Sam," about a group of streetwise friends in the Bronx in 1977, which had been threatened by the ratings board with an NC-17 until Lee recut it to an R. (It opens at the end of July.)
Disney also has a movie being written by newcomer Wes Anderson, who came up with last year's off-the-wall comedy "Rushmore," about a feisty high school nerd, and is shooting a movie based on Homer's "Odyssey" directed by Ethan and Joel Coen ("Fargo," "Barton Fink"). That one is called "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?" and it definitely will not have any cuddly Cyclops tie-in toys. (In the Coens' hands, Cyclops becomes a Klansman with a one-hole hood.)
What's going on? Could a nose ring for Mickey Mouse be far behind?
As Disney has reduced its movie production slate to about 20 per year, the house that Walt built has also taken some risks on modestly budgeted, unusual fare. With the moviemaking business in a slump, one way to get through it is to take a chance on talent, says studio chief Joe Roth.
"What you're seeing is the proportion of these movies being greater because we're making fewer large dramas. Frankly, those movies end up costing too much money," says Roth, a former filmmaker himself. He forged relationships with quirky directors like the Coen brothers while an executive at 20th Century Fox, but insists that his choices are financially sound.
"It's hard to find good, young filmmakers whose work you think is great," he says. "And if you can make these movies for a price they can be financially responsible moves."
Even prickly directors like Lee seem to feel comfortable with the artistic freedom at a place sometimes referred to as "Mauschwitz" for its severe work ethic and penny-pinching ethos. He told reporters in Cannes that Roth "has been supporting me from the get-go."
Similarly, other Disney directors hardly fit the conservative mold. Anderson is a 27-year-old geeky intellectual with thick glasses and a severe, introverted personality; critics showered his "Rushmore" last year with praise. Robbins is a leftist filmmaker who doesn't take kindly to studio interference. Oddly enough, Walt Disney was an unapologetic commie-basher.
"This is not exactly the image you would have of a Disney filmmaker. The traditional image of a Disney filmmaker is someone who's invisible," says Richard Jewell, a film history professor at the University of Southern California. "Think of the late years of Walt Disney, of movies like 'Flubber'; do we remember any filmmakers who made those? They're Disney--not auteur--films." Even in the period just before Roth's tenure, when former studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg tried to revive the company with animation hits and mid-range-budget movies, Disney was not known as a place that nurtured cutting-edge talent.
Most ironic is that Disney chooses this route just as the trail-blazing Miramax, owned by the corporate parent Walt Disney Co., is distancing itself from controversy. As rumors leaked a month ago that the still-unfinished "Dogma," from writer-director Kevin Smith ("Clerks," "Chasing Amy"), was anti-Catholic, Miramax decided to save Disney the headache. Studio chiefs Harvey and Bob Weinstein bought the film themselves for $14 million and are now negotiating with independent distributors.
(Reviewers who saw "Dogma" in Cannes concluded that the film, while not an advertisement for the Vatican, was basically pro-Catholic.)
To be sure, Disney is still in the business of kids' entertainment, and has its highest hopes for the summer pinned to its animated "Tarzan." But Roth says he has every intention of continuing to seek out non-mainstream projects that appeal to him, whatever the Disney image may be. That's a strategy that can work as long as the movies succeed at the box office.
"If some of these films take off, as sometimes smaller, unusual films do, he'll be a genius," says Jewell. "If they don't, and they embarrass the company, he'll have problems."
CAPTION: From left, Al Palagonia, Ken Garito, John Leguizamo, Michael Rispoli and Adrien Brody in Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam," one of three Disney films at Cannes.
CAPTION: Susan Sarandon and John Cusack in Tim Robbins's "Cradle Will Rock," well received at Cannes and now scheduled for a fall U.S. release.
CAPTION: New Mouseketeers: There's nothing Mickey Mouse about upcoming Disney films like "Summer of Sam," about the impact David Berkowitz's 1977 killing spree has on a New York neighborhood, slated for July; or "Tim Robbins's" McCarthy-era comedy "Cradle Will Rock," due in the fall.