Wednesday, October 17, 2018

If I Were Disney CEO Part 26 - Walt Disney Pictures (Live Action Features)

"In live-action, you can take a mediocre story and put in interesting characters and personalities and have a good show.  We can't do that in cartoons.  We can't hire actors; we have to create them ourselves.  We have to make them interesting, or we're sunk.  I've had a lot of fun making live-action pictures, mainly because I can move so fast.  But I've learned a lot from them.  I've made mistakes, but now I can apply the lessons to cartoon."
Walt Disney

"One thing he may have contributed to live-action film that isn't widely recognized is the use of storyboards.  Directors today routinely storyboard either their entire films or all their action sequences.  Hitchcock did that very early on, because he had been an art director and he liked to visualize his films that way - but he was an exception to the rule.  Disney, of course, had perfected the storyboard process, first in his short subjects, and then in his animated feature films - but no one had really leaned on that technique for planning out a live-action film until he did."
Leonard Maltin

"Hollywood goes along its own way working for formulas and we have completely ignored them, and haven't even tried to be a part of them. We've just not cared to try to even compete with them, or think in the same way they do."
Walt Disney

As I transition to Walt Disney Pictures live action features, I  come to the hardest studio to develop.  For the hardest question to answer is "what is a Disney live action movie?"  They have been all over the map in terms of genre, content, and style throughout the years.  The one constant has been family-friendly, almost to the studios detriment, as it has created an image of lesser fare.  Walt, himself, even struggled with this.  After screening To Kill A Mockingbird, Walt would lament, "That's the kind of film I'd like to make, but I can't."

There are two things that I can point to that make a good Disney live action movie.  First, like animation, Disney live action movies focus on classic stories that are often well known.  If you look at a lot of the early Disney offerings in particular, the stories are all well known legends, history, or classic literature.  This gives the live action slate a slight overlap with the animated canon, but there are a couple distinctions between the two.  In my opinion, animated features should always be musicals; live action features do not necessarily need to be.  Further, animated features will incorporate something magical, something that needs to be animated.  Live action features can be more straightforward historical dramas and the like.

Second, I think there is another bit of guidance that Walt provided on the types of genres that work for Disney live action features: adventure, yesterday, fantasy, and tomorrow.  These categories worked for the theme parks and for the Disney television offerings.  And if you look at the classic Disney live action films, they can generally fit into these four large categories.  What's missing is today, that is a live action feature set in modern times that does not include fantasy or adventure.  And there are really only a couple of exceptions in Disney films that fit this narrow band.  With the current Disney structure, there are other homes for these type of films now.

Primary Goals for the Division:

  • Bring back the shorts - In my opinion, every Disney studio picture should have some kind of short.  These live action features could have additional animated shorts or even live action short films.  Shorts represent opportunities for new director and training and for further expansions of the brand. Like the Wedlocked short before a Pirates movie.
  • Keep it family friendly - Put another way, Walt Disney Pictures should not have a R rated film.  There are other brands for that kind of film.  Walt Disney Pictures should be something that everyone could, theoretically, enjoy.  G, PG, and PG-13 yes, but something that is swinging for a broader demographic.
  • Tone down the focus on live action remakes - Currently the main focus of the Disney live action slate includes several "live action" remakes of their animated classics.  Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, Mulan, etc. are all in production for the upcoming film slate.  Disney's offerings should include much more variety and new developments.
  • Mine the depths of great history and literature looking for untold stories - There are a lot of great stories that have not been turned into films.  A lot of very famous stories that have never been told in this way.  A great film epic of the life of King David.  Nostromo by Joseph Conrad.  Big River.  A film about the Culper Ring.  Many, many possibilities.
  • Look globally and source globally - There are also great opportunities to make films for specific markets.  Pirates of the South China Sea starring Chow Yun-Fat as Sao Feng, Pirate Lord of the South China Sea, made by a crew in Hong Kong in Mandarin and brought to the states with subtitles.  I envision expanding brands to other markets through appropriate extensions like this.
  • Disney icon specific title cards for each of the four genres - The current Disney live action title card is a pull-back on an image of Cinderella's castle with a shooting star going over it.  It has been adapted to various settings, but the castle has generally remained, regardless of the film's contents.  I would adapt four different cards for each of the film types addressed, adventure, yesterday, fantasy, and tomorrow.  For Adventure, a pull back through a jungle village with the Tree of Life.  For Yesterday, a pull back from the train station through Main Street.  For Fantasy, the castle remains.  For Tomorrow, a pull back through a Tron-like location with Spaceship Earth as the center.  Something that immediately sets the tone for the film you are going to see and plays with more of Disney's brands.
  • Remember, these are brand films - Disney live action films are "brand" films, meaning these are stories that will go through a story committee to ensure a basic level of story quality.  These are films that fit a particular vision for the film slate.  These are not auteur films for directors/filmmakers that need complete independence.  There are other studios for that.  These are places for directors that can work within the greater picture.  Room for flexibility, but tighter constraints than I would place on 20th Century Fox, for example.
With that, I want to now turn to a few specific film slate and sub-divisions I envision for Walt Disney Pictures live action features.

The following is just a small list of the type of films I would want in the Disney live action film slate.
  • Pirates of the South China Sea - Mandarin film, made in Hong Kong starring Chow Yun-Fat and telling the tales of his Sao Fen, Pirate Lord of the South China Sea.  This would be a great addition to the Chinese theme parks.
  • Big Thunder Mountain Railroad - this could be the new Pirates series.  Westerns with a slight touch of the supernatural, featuring Southern and character actors, including a diverse cast with immigrants of all kinds in Rainbow Ridge/Thunder Mesa.
  • Swiss Family Robinson - big, epic remake with a tighter focus on the survival of the family.  The pirates were a Disney addition, so they can be explored here to great effect.
  • Tron 3.0 - Garrett Hedlund versus Cillian Murphy as the new Master Control Program.  This time with a brighter looking Grid.
  • Expedition: Everest - tracking down the Yeti.
  • The Hunchback of Notre Dame - an adaptation of the musical picking the best parts from the animated feature and stage production and directed by Joe Wright.
  • An epic film of the life of King David
  • Biographies on Nellie Bly, Susan B. Anthony, George Washington Carver, Frederick Douglas, past presidents, etc
  • Peter & Alice by John Logan
  • Scripts from the Black List like:
    • Keeper of the Diary
    • Newsflash
    • One Thousand Paper Cranes
    • Escape from the North Pole
    • Liberation
    • George
    • Liberty
    • American Rebel
    • The Virginian
    • Battle of New Orleans
    • Treasure Island
    • Songs of Treblinka
Ideally, with these guidelines and examples, Walt Disney Pictures live action features could become a recognized and defined brand within the  company.


As always, thank you for taking the time to read.  Next in the series The Jim Henson Company and Muppet Studios.

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