Disney: It's time to give the people what they (really) want.

by Jeff McNeal, editor - The BIG Picture
April 21, 1999

I decided long ago that I wasn't going to try and write a new editorial on any special schedule. An editorial, in my view, denotes a topic of great personal interest and shouldn't be merely a promotional vehicle for the publication writing it. Besides, if you climb up on the soapbox too often, you're bound to hit a slick spot from some residual soap that's still left and fall on your rear end.

The last editorial I wrote for The BIG Picture was in November of 1998. Since then, I've occasionally pondered idea for new editorial topics, but nothing really came on strong. That is, until about 4:30 this morning -- when I awoke from a deep sleep with thoughts about Disney, A Bug's Life and 16 x 9 enhancement. Good gracious! I must be teetering on the brink of instanity to let such things disturb my sleep -- a precious commodity that I get far too little of these days. Still, the thoughts began to flow and I decided to lumber into my home office and share my thoughts on why Disney needs to really step up to the plate and make a greater effort for their customers.

This article isn't going to be another venemous bashing of Disney like we've seen so much of on the Internet for the last few years. Others, including yours truly, have expressed their frustration and disappointment at the Magic Kingdom's decisions towards DVD since day one, to varying degrees. Some of been outright offensive -- and I believe that approach to be counter-productive.

Is Disney really any different than the rest of the studios producing DVDs? Are their goals any loftier or their marketing zeal something different than their competitors? Of course not. So why is there so much anger and hostility directed towards a company that has brought so much joy to hundreds of millions of children for over three decades? Let's try to come up with a few answers:

When we were kids, Walt Disney's empire had a stellar, untarnished image in the public's view. The Wonderful World of Disney was a popular network mainstay each Sunday evening. Families gathered around the television to see a great Disney feature film like "The Swiss Family Robinson", "The Absent Minded Professor" or "Old Yeller". The image of Tinkerbell glittering across our televisions screens whether in black and white or in "living color" marked a special event. A visit to Disneyland took us to another world; a clean, safe world that brought families together and delighted everyone, young and old.

Was the Disney empire all about making money and turning a profit back then? Of course it was. But was the perception that the public had of Disney back then one of greed and arrogance? Not at all.

And that's the difference coloring today's dialog.

In the 1960's and 70's, Disney was perceived as the cutting edge champions of innovation and modern conveniences. Remember the videophones set up in Tomorrowland? What about the "Carousel of Progress" and the "House of the Future"?

The public looked to Disney as a corporation that could help bring America into the 21st century. We had no idea of the inner workings or business side of things -- and we really didn't care to know. As a nation, we weren't so jaded to every marketing scheme and promotion that by modern standards, has become so transparent to the consumers. We actually believed that Walt Disney really was our nation's benevolent "Uncle" who just happened to be earning a well-deserved fortune as a side benefit of creating such joy for us -- and our children. And maybe he was.

But along the way, the curtain was torn aside and we learned that the great and powerful Oz that was Disney, is really no more magical, noble or unique than any other corporate entity -- and that realization has taken some getting used to. Perhaps we measure Disney by a harsher standard than most other companies, because after all, they were the makers of our dreams. Once a bit of disillusionment sets in, what was once magic seems just a bit sullied. In short, the dream has been replaced by reality. The reality that Disney is in it for the money -- just like everyone else. And that's okay. Disney's biggest problem isn't that they're perceived as aggressive and profit-driven. Every studio producing DVD is. Disney's biggest problem in my view, is public relations.

Over the years, our society has changed, and so has Disney. The dark side of the Disney company has been exposed by disgruntled employees who have written tell-all books, combined with less-than-flattering newspaper articles. Who hasn't read the horror stories of suspected shoplifters being detained for hours on end, intimidated by Disneyland security, separated from their loved ones who had no idea what was going on? Recently, the theme park in California was fined by CAL-OSHA for the death of a guest who was killed when a metal cleat used to hold down a floating attraction struck him in the face. No one ever thinks about getting killed when they visit the "Happiest Place On Earth". Right-wing religious organizations have boycotted Disney products, accusing the company of pandering to homosexuals; others have said pedophiles have been discovered as being among the innocuous characters that we see roaming the theme parks, hugging our children, posing for pictures. We've all seen the news reports about the animated feature THE RESCUERS being recalled for containing obcene images hidden inside the frames. What!? This discovery only lends credibility to the other stories that have been circulating for years about the phallic symbols and so forth purportedly hidden in "The Little Mermaid" animation and perhaps others. All this information, whether or not substantiated, is disturbing to say the least -- and helps to color our collective view of the company as a whole.

In short, Disney has for years, been struggling with a public relations nightmare. Does that make Disney the enemy of the people? Of course not. Does it mean that anyone who works for Disney must be conspiring against the public in one way or another, simply to increase the bottom line? No, but unfortunately, it can certainly appear that way sometimes. Never mind the incessant merchandising that accompanies every new theatrical release. And forget about the dated, profit-driven strategy of making us wait every seven years to see an animated classic at the theaters or on home video again.

Disney's decision to embrace the Divx rental model over open DVD early in the game was the company's first major tactical mistake. Then, breaking their own promise of parity between Divx and open DVD titles was their next misstep after they finally announced in mid 1997 that they would support open DVD after all.

Many of us took the tiny footnote regarding DVD in Disney Chairman Michael Eisner's last, rambling letter to his shareholders as a slap in the face. Not only did the fledgling format appear to be receiving only minimal support from the family entertainment conglomerate -- the animated classics that we've all been waiting for were nowhere to be seen; just an oblique reference to some of them perhaps making it onto DVD sometime "in the next decade".

We heard it reported that Disney wasn't releasing animated classics on DVD because they were having trouble with transferring process itself, yet other studios displaced that excuse by issuing gorgeous animated transfers. This only served to remind consumers that Disney isn't the only animation player on the block anymore. Other studios have shown a great interest in serving family needs for entertainment -- and the competition is only going to intensify now that the baby-boomers are having their own babies -- the so-called "echo-boomers". Has Disney/Buena Vista miscalculated their strategies for maintaining their stranglehold on the lucrative family market? It's too soon to tell.

One thing is for certain. In many ways, Disney has been its own worst enemy, slow on the uptake that the age of instant information is here. Consumers are better informed and more savvy than ever before. This hold especially true for early DVD adopters, thanks largely to the Internet.

In some ways, Disney/Buena Vista has repeated the same mistake that Circuit City's chairman has, but in a more subtle way. They have chosen, whether intentionally or not, to bypass the wishes of the early adopter market in favor of what they perceive will be the most profitable path to take for their DVD marketing plans. How else could you explain the studio's refusal to issue 16 x9 enhanced titles when the market has so cleary demands it? This refusal has been perceived as arrogant -- and rightly so. The prevailing attitude that is reflected, in effect, becomes: "You (the consumers) don't know what's best for you, we know what's best for you." And that kind of corporate policy can only breed discontent and resentment. Just ask the parents of any teenager.

As if it hasn't been enough to be battling all the negative PR over Divx, lack of animation titles and just about everything else that critics can lob at the beleaguered giant, Disney/Buena Vista has also earned the dubious distinction of being the only major studio to steadfastly ignore the demand for widescreen, anamorphic transfers, having not issued a single enhanced title thus far. A regrettable decision.

Paramount stumbled at first. They started with -- and quickly abandoned 16x9 enhancement early on, but responded to their consumers by going back to anamorphic transfers when the market clearly demanded it. Fox is also heading down the anamorphic path after starting out with the straight letterbox approach. They are responding to the desires of their consumers.

So why not Disney?

Throwing aside all the compelling arguments in favor of anamorphic transfers for a moment -- like 33% increased vertical resolution -- Disney should heartily embrace 16x9 enhancement because by doing so, they will be telling their customers: "We want to provide you the very best quality that current technology will allow -- both today and in the future, no matter what aspect ratio your television or projector is". Not to mention that having a unified widescreen format can only strengthen the DVD market and make it less confusing for new consumers. The built-in upgrade path that 16x9 enhancement creates clearly appeals to almost everyone.

Without question, anamorphic transfers are the hands-down preference of DVD-buying consumers. Our own polls -- and others conducted independently -- have proven time and time again that although the vast majority of consumers do not yet own 16:9 display devices, a whopping 93% would prefer that all widescreen transfers be 16x9 enhanced. How any DVD producing entity can ignore this compelling statistic defies all logic and reason.

I'd like to remind you that DreamWorks SKG was the last studio to embrace DVD. However, that company shrewdly put their consumers first once the decision to enter open DVD had been made -- and have you noticed that the once vitriolic and intense criticism of DreamWorks has all but disappeared from the Internet? Consumers are a forgiving bunch, once you give them what they want. It's been a long-standing joke that as a country, we Americans have a short collective memory -- a quality that someone like O.J. Simpson is counting on. Who knows, he might even be elected Mayor of Brentwood someday.

My point is this: All the interviews, all the spin, all the goodwill, all the PR in the world, can't make up for not giving consumers what they ask for. And for Disney, that can be boiled down, quite simply, to two things: Anamorphic transfers and animated classics on DVD.

In my recent interview with Pixar, I was told in a nutshell -- at least, as best as I can understand their answer -- that the reason an anamorphic widescreen version was not included, was so consumers could switch back and forth between the two aspect ratios on the fly, without having to readjust their monitors. Well, guess what? When I popped A BUG'S LIFE into my Sony DVP-S7000 last night for the first time -- I wasn't given the choice of which aspect to watch! The decision was based internally on my DVD output selection of 16:9. Only after I changed the DVD output to 4:3, was I given the ability to watch the "re-framed" version. But again, no switching effortlessly between the two aspects was allowed. My DVD-ROM device gave me the choice of which aspect to watch, but software switches in the disc prevented me from having the same options on my standalone DVD player. So much for the rationale for passing over 16:9 enhancement -- again.

You might wonder how The BIG Picture can award A BUG'S LIFE a five-globe rating for image quality. Well, there are greater and lesser degrees of each globe, folks. The sun only shines on one side of the globe at a time. The widescreen side of A BUG'S LIFE is on the shady side of five. It could have been a lot brighter.

Come on Disney/Buena Vista. It's time.

Will producing anamorphic transfers from hi-definition D1 masters cost a bit more? Sure they will. But you can't put a price tag on consumer good will. Give the people what they want and the profits will follow. Profits that everyone, including your consumers, can feel good about.

Don't get me wrong -- I like Disney and Buena Vista. Some of there transfers have been remarkable! But they can -- and should, provide the very best that current technology will allow to please all their consumers and help to standardize the widescreen format in a way that extends benefits both now and into the future.

I'd think to think that Walt Disney would have agreed.

That's my opinion. What's yours?

Jeff McNeal, Editor & Publisher
The BIG Picture

Note: On May 19, 1999, we received an e-mail from Disney stating: "Stay tuned for the anamorphic titles - you will see the first ones sooner or later."

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Copyright 1999, by Jeff McNeal Productions. Click here to see our legal notice.