Wednesday, October 24, 2018

If I Were Disney CEO Part 26 - The Jim Henson Company/The Muppet Studio

"This new and very important relationship will enable our two companies to combine our respective talents and resources in ways that will fully realize the tremendous potential of the Muppet and Bear franchises.  Michael Eisner's long-standing passion and respect for the Muppets gives me and my family even more confidence in Disney as a partner."
Brian Henson, February 16, 2004

"In the months before his death in 1990, my father Jim Henson pursued extensive discussions with the Walt Disney Co. based on his strong belief that Disney would be a perfect home for the Muppets.  As such, the deal we announced today is the realization of my father's dream...My brothers and sisters -- Brian, Cheryl, John, Heather -- and I are so proud to have the Muppets living under the same roof as Walt Disney's own timeless characters.  We could not possibly be more pleased."
Lisa Henson, February 16, 2004

In 2004, Disney was finally able to complete a 14 year long negotiation process and successfully acquire the Muppets and the Bear in the Big Blue House from the Jim Henson Company.  In doing so, Disney created the Muppet Studios LLC to run their future Muppet films, television specials, television shows.  Since then, there have been a television movie and two television specials, two theatrical feature films, and two television shows (The Muppets and Muppet Babies), to mixed effectiveness and acclaim.

Personally, I am a huge fan of the Muppets and the Jim Henson Company in general and believe they have a great untapped potential in many areas of the Disney company, including theme parks, television, and film.  And judging by the response to the Muppets live events, there are lots of people out there that feel the same way and have a great nostalgia for these characters.  There simply needs to be a greater focus and intentionality with regard to what makes the Muppets special in the first place.

Primary Goals for the Division:
  • Appoint a figurehead - To me, one of the reasons that the Muppets have been floundering within the Disney company lies with the lack of a figurehead/advocate for the studio.  Muppets do not have a John Lasseter or Kevin Fiege who can shape what Muppet films and projects are supposed to be and fight against projects that might run counter to the sensibilities of the characters.  That plays into point number two.
  • Acquire and bring in the full Jim Henson Company under the Disney banner - when the Henson children sold to the Disney company, they only sold Muppets and the Bear in the Big Blue House.  Seasame Street was previously sold to Children's Television Workshop/Seasame Workshop and would not be part of any deal.  But, the Jim Henson Company still has Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, Fraggle Rock, Farscape, Emmett Otter, and the Creature Shop, to name a few recognizable intellectual properties.  This would additionally allow Brian Henson to serve as the gatekeeper, the advocate for the unified Jim Henson Company.
  • Lean into Jim Henson's Creature Shop - One of the greatest groups in puppetry, creature effects, and digital puppetry.  This alone would be an Industrial Light and Magic level acquisition for the Disney company and should be a great partnership to be played up.  I've stated before with Walt Disney Feature Animation that I want Disney to be at the forefront of all forms of animation.  I would love to see them there with puppetry and practical effects as well, with benefits cutting across studios.
  • Schedule a diverse slate from the Jim Henson Company - There is no need for a Muppet film every year or even every other year.  Plus, The Jim Henson Company has other intellectual properties that could be explored.  They have had plans for a Flight of the Navigator reboot, a Labyrinth sequel, a Dark Crystal sequel, a Fraggle Rock movie, etc.  There are plenty of properties that can be used to present a Jim Henson Company once every other year or so. Including the Henson Alternative properties.  An Avenue Q movie by the actual Jim Henson Company, anyone?
  • Remember the Muppets should skew a little older - I know they are characters that are being currently used for toddler programming.  I have two that love them.  But, the original Muppet programs, while family-friendly, did not play down to the lowest possible age groups.  They were loud, occasionally crass, weird, sarcastic, deadpan, etc.  Their original program was even called Sex and Violence and had running appearances on Saturday Night Live.  It's okay to be a little outside the box with them.
  • Have the Muppets Host the Oscars - I'm going to keep at this one.  If you want to make the awards show entertaining, why hire just one comedian to keep the show moving when you could hire a gaggle of them.  Seriously, the Muppets hosting an event like this would be so similar to the old Muppet Show and would be a perfect example of corporate synergy.
With that, I want to now turn to a few specific film slate and sub-divisions I envision for The Jim Henson Company.

From the Broader Jim Henson Company:
I would envision the following motion pictures:
  • Labyrinth sequel
  • Dark Crystal sequel - to follow the Netflix series
  • Fraggle Rock movie
  • The Land of Gorch movie
  • Pinocchio
  • The Flight of the Navigator
  • The Musical Monsters of Turkey Hollow
  • a Storyteller movie series - could be used to tell lesser known fairy tales from around the world as the television show was.
From the Muppet Studios:
I still want to see the Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.  The one where Gonzo blows all the money on the trailer and then they have to complete the movie on a shoestring budget.  From there, I'd like to see the Muppets in different genres.  This concept was used in The Muppet Show to great effect, parodying popular television programs of the day.  I would expand that and have the Muppet movies be parodies of popular film genres that they are doing somewhat poorly at aping.  A Muppet noir, a Muppets super-hero epic.  A Muppet "found footage horror" movie.   The Muppets are great characters to satirize popular culture, so the possibilities are endless.

From Henson Alternative:
I would keep the Henson Alternative imprint open for more adult, more outside the box programming.  This would include films like the following:
  • Avenue Q the movie - working with the musical to create an authorized "adult" Seasame Street
  • Adaptations of Jim Henson's more personal and avant gaard work including Tale of Sand, The Cube, and Time Piece
  • I know The Happytime Murders did not do well, but I still think there is a much better version of that concept out there.  Something closer to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  If not as a crime story, perhaps as a straight up horror with puppets, something closer to Angel's Smile Time episode or Caesar and Me or The Dummy from The Twilight Zone.
I have many more thoughts on the television implications for both the Jim Henson Company as a whole and for the Muppets, and look forward to discussing those at that time.

As always, thank you for reading.  Next in the series, PIXAR Animation studios.

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