How it really all began (DeDisnification, Part 9C)
I only hope that we never lose sight of one thing—that it was all started by a mouse.Walt Disney
Once his company, poised on a razor’s edge financially for quite some time, finally found its footing, Disney began mythologizing the company’s origins. Mickey Mouse has become the company’s official mascot to reflect this myth, and “House of Mouse” is the company’s nickname and Mickey is now nearly synonymous with Disney. But if credit were given where it’s due, Walt Disney Animation Studios.
Walt’s business actually stayed on the raw edge of failure (and his previous two ventures, Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists and Laugh-O-Gram Studios actually did fail) right up through Cinderella, which one could therefore also argue for as the Disney watershed moment. The only real contender for what started the company, however, would be Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
In the mid-’20s, together with Koko the Clown, a pair of cats dominated the animated films of the day; Felix and Krazy. Felix in particular was a massive hit and Disney’s cat clone, Julius, had already begun appearing in Walt’s early works, including the Alice Comedies.
When Laugh-O-Gram went bust and Walt moved to Hollywood to start another business, he tried to avoid doing any type of animation at all because of the more well-established studios responsible for the cats, but couldn’t get anywhere with that, so he borrowed money from his Uncle Robert and brother Roy to finish up the first Alice film and send it to a distributor named Margaret Winkler, who said she’d take it. Mixed live action and animation was expensive to produce, however, and when Winkler married Charles Mintz, he took over the business and brought together Disney, all-animated shorts, and Universal Studios. Disney pitched a character to them, moving away from the cats—and potential lawsuits—to a rabbit.
The original model sheet for Oswald is Disney’s work, and it’s both derivative and poor, with some elements of each of the cats, and an overall lumpy and dumpy look. In fact, the first Oswald film, Poor Papa, was rejected by Universal because they thought the character looked “old, sloppy, and fat”. It seems the head-to-body ratio that creates the sense of cuteness was not so well known in those days. Ub Iwerks took on responsibility for adjusting the character to be both more appealing, as well as more animatable for the first public appearance of Oswald in Trolley Troubles.
Disney mythmakers will tell you he was a great artist or a storyteller, but his chief talent seemed to be an Edisonian one: he found people with an amazing knack for art and animation and took credit for their work. Iwerks was only the first of these. Hugh Harman and Rudy Ising, who were later to become well known as the duo who founded both the Warner Brothers and MGM animation studios, also worked for Disney in the Laugh-O-Gram days and followed him to California to work on Oswald. We shall also see that after some tough lessons, Walt also developed a nose for profit. Even Disney himself said:¹
Now, to tell you the truth, I was never a good artist. I was never satisfied with what I did, but it was a means to an end.
Oswald was a success, but with that success came trouble. First, they had sold the character, not just the films to Universal, and second, with the tight margins that animated shorts of the day entailed, Mintz started looking to cut the fat. He tried to negotiate a lower contract rate for the films when Disney was looking for more because of their popularity, and failing that simply did not renew. He didn’t need to: he simply stole the studio’s employees and opened his own shop. Mintz’ studio was given the boot in favor of an internal Universal studio only about a year later, an obvious next step.
The studio quickly developed Mickey Mouse as a replacement to which they retained all rights. The new character became popular, and despite the defections of Iwerks, Harman, and Ising, among several others, the team grew strong as well. Disney won every single Oscar for Short Subjects, Cartoons (now called Best Animated Short Film) in the ’30s. In fact, in only three of those eight years did they not have multiple nominated films.
However, the ’30s were also a time of peak funny pic: all the major film studios had built their own animation departments, and there was a plethora of indies as well. All this competition meant that studios had to keep costs low or risk being undercut. Additionally, even though the shorts had begun to draw audiences, the payment model was still based on a combination of the profitability of the features they were paired with and their running time.
The Three Little Pigs, a Silly Symphony short, in particular, was a case study for how the business model would not work: it was a hugely popular both in the US and overseas, scored an Oscar, and continued to play in first-run theaters for a year until it was supplanted by its own sequel. It cost $22,000 to produce and grossed $150,000 over the course of 15 months. Later rereleases tacked on another $100,000 to the gross. Sounds amazing, right?
But the gross isn’t what Disney got to take to the bank. As of four-and-a-half months into the film’s run, when theater owners were complaining about still having to pay full price to show the reel, Disney told the press that his share of the profits still hadn’t covered P&A.² That’s Hollywood jargon for “prints and advertising”, which together with actually producing the film makes up the bulk of costs that the gross dollars taken in by a movie have to repay before it becomes profitable. While The Three Little Pigs had another seven-and-a-half months to try to earn out, all this boils down to the fact that even a phenomenally successful short like this one had the potential to never get into the black. It also was clear that the film was making a lot of money for someone, it just wasn’t the studio.
Switching to feature films might seem like a brilliant flash of lateral thinking, but it was really the only choice for Disney, directly answering the issues I just discussed: bigger budgets, longer production times, a bigger share of the profits and, maybe more than anything, being top of the marquee, and therefore authors of their own box office fate. It’s hardly a coincidence that production on Snow White began in early 1934, the year after The Three Little Pigs’ release.
Nonetheless, Walt’s vision wasn’t an easy sell. Hollywood dubbed it “Disney’s Folly” and the fact that production ran to nearly four years with costs running to $1.49M—an enormous sum for the day—did nothing to diminish their derision. Roy Disney tried in vain to talk his brother out of it, but Walt instead proceeded to mortgage his house to help finance the effort. The studio continued to execute shorts, but they became proofs of concept for the feature rather than money-making ventures in their own right.
Snow White premiered on December 21, 1937. By May of the following year Disney was able to repay all the loans he had taken out to produce it. After six months, the film had grossed $2M, and by the May following that, it had become the highest-grossing US film ever at $6.7M. The studio became self sufficient and used the profits to put a down payment on 51 acres in Burbank and a purpose-built production facility for animated films.
In 1990, the Team Disney Building opened as the company’s new corporate headquarters. I’ve been a guest there on a few occasions, and depending which side you enter from, you will see an architectural tribute to the importance of Snow White in the studio’s history: the facade incorporates the Seven Dwarfs as caryatids. The decision to use them in this way was nonsensical since they rather obviously lack the stature to work well as pillars, not holding up the whole building but only the top few floors.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Read Previous Articles in This Series
- “Walt Disney and the Gift of Art”, Walt Disney Family Museum Blog, December, 2011.
- “Three Little Pigs-Big Little Picture”, J. B. Kaufman, American Cinematographer, November, 1988.