Disney, fending off corporate sharks, sees clearer sailing ahead

Disney: Just the name evokes a whole vision of postwar American life - not just Mickey, Minnie, and other characters more familiar than many real-life, next-door neighbors, but a sweet and sterilized set of middle-American values - family, patriotism, small-town life, optimism, and technological progress.

Yet if Walt Disney Productions has been a major force in popular culture for most of its 61 years, it is also a business.

Since 1980, the company has survived falling motion-picture revenues, faltering attendance at its parks, and flagging morale in the Disney ranks. And just when it seemed to be forging a new corporate direction this year, especially in the movies, it was set upon by financial sharks threatening to merge or dismantle the company.

Now, despite a walkout by one-third of Disneyland's workers over a pay dispute, the Disney picture has improved sharply. Late last month, Disney named two major Hollywood studio chiefs, Michael Eisner of Paramount and Frank Wells of Warner Bros., to head the company. Mr. Eisner is Disney chairman and chief executive officer; Mr. Wells is president.

The new executives had been campaigning hard for the Disney jobs and are immediately setting forth to turn Disney into a major film studio - something it has never been - producing 12 to 15 movies a year rather than the current two or three.

But will Disney remain Disney?

As a business, Disney should be safe now from corporate raiders. Fending off investor Saul Steinberg cost the company $325 million last June to buy his shares. This was money Disneyland engineers hoped would renovate Tommorrowland, last refurbished in 1967.

Then in late September, just before the new Disney executives came on, Irwin Jacobs of Minneapolis, a major stockholder, gave notice that if he gained control of Disney he might sell off its assets.

But Eisner and Wells have vowed to keep Disney intact, and they have support of two key families: the Disney family, which owns about 13 percent of Disney stock, and the Bass family of Fort Worth, Texas, who upped their share to 16 percent last week. Together, the families can probably keep the company in one piece.

But Disney is changing in other ways.

After more than half a century of moviemaking, Disney is the only studio that commands brand identification in the public mind. A Walt Disney production, unlike movies by Twentieth Century-Fox, Universal, or any other major studio, is expected to be a certain kind of motion picture.

''With Disney, it's almost brand loyalty,'' says Art Murphy, professor of film management at the University of Southern California (USC) and an industry analyst. ''Before 'Star Wars,' people left A-quality family movies to Disney. No one else had the magic.''

But movies like George Lucas's ''Star Wars'' series and Steven Spielberg's ''E.T.'' moved into the family market with a vengeance, while Disney audiences have perhaps been limited by its reputation for making children's movies.

Disney's answer was to create another film label, Touchstone, early this year so it could produce movies that didn't fit the Disney mold, movies for more adult audiences, without weakening the Disney image. The first Touchstone film, ''Splash,'' was a box-office hit this spring.

At the same time, ''Never Cry Wolf'' was released under the traditional Disney label, and also did well.

Ron Miller, the chief executive officer who Disney directors recently ousted (and son-in-law of Walt Disney), has said that eventually he hoped to merge the two labels. The Disney image, in other words, would expand to include earthier - though not too earthy - PG-rated pictures like ''Splash'' and the just-released ''Country.''

Frank Wells, however, says that he and Mr. Eisner have a different idea. While Touchstone aims at different audiences, the Disney label will be kept separate, he says, and Disney will try to win back its share of the family market - perhaps by enlisting filmmakers Lucas and Spielberg into joint Disney projects.

''There certainly is still a very deep segment of the American public that responds to those (traditional Disney) values - many in the youth market, but not just in the youth market,'' says Wells.

Disney film classics, which are re-released every seven years to reach a new crop of children, are still popular. ''Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,'' in 1937 the first feature-length animation film and long since paid for, can still pull in $15 million at the box office with each re-release.

Eisner and Wells also are determined to get Disney back on network television , where for years the ''Wonderful World of Color'' was a Sunday evening staple. Meanwhile, the Disney Channel on cable television, established last year, airs 16 hours a day of its own programming to a million subscribers. It needs 2 million to break even.

And by the end of the year, Disney will announce the location of its first theme park in Europe.

Taken altogether, says Steven Ross, history professor at USC, ''Disney is one of the most pointed aspects of popular culture since the turn of the century.'' Disney worked, he says, to instill ''basically a white, middle-class vision of American culture.''

Where Coney Island was for an aspiring middle class at the turn of the century, full of farce and noise, says historian John Kasson of the University of North Carolina, Disneyland was created for an established middle class, stressing order and family values.

''Disney tried to iron out any contradictions between the past and the future ,'' says Dr. Kasson. Thus Disneyland, he explains, combines nostalgia for a mythical past with futuristic technology.

''There is a curiously adult quality to Disney attractions,'' notes Michael Real, a film professor at the University of San Diego. ''They are overtly for children, so adults don't have to take them seriously.'' But adults actually outnumber children at Disneyland 3 to 1, he says.

Arthur Asa Berger, a pop culturist and visiting professor at USC's Annenberg School of Communications, offers a more theological view: ''It's quasi-religious. ... Disneyland is sacred space. Muslims go to Mecca; Americans go to Disneyland.''

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