On April 6, reporters from around the globe turned out for the grand opening of Walt Disney World's newest attraction, the "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire -- Play It!" show.
Disney had hoped that the press would keep their questions confined to the new attraction. The Mouse's marketing staff already had dozens of prefabricated answers at the ready to cover all of the anticipated questions. (Example: The Disney/MGM set is three-and-a-half times larger than the New York original. The arena-style seating area can hold more than 600 guests and is surrounded by 679 lights. And so on.)
But instead of oohing and aahing, the reporters kept hitting up their hosts with some pretty awkward questions. Queries like: Isn't Disney concerned by how much the TV ratings for "Millionaire" have slipped over the past year? Aren't they worried that reality-based shows like CBS's Survivor II, Fox's "Boot Camp" and NBC's soon-to-debut The Weakest Link have stolen "Millionaire's" thunder?
Poor Mickey. The once mighty Walt Disney Co. seems to have become the Rodney Dangerfield of the entertainment industry. The Mouse can't even get any respect from reporters who it has invited to schmooze with Regis.
Why does the Mouse suddenly find itself awash in a sea of bad press? The answer's simple. The media is usually quick to forgive one mistake (e.g., a single flop film). But when it's been months since a major entertainment conglomerate has had a noticeable success, the critics quickly move in for the kill.
Think about it. When was the last time you heard the name "Disney" and the phrase "good news" linked in the same sentence? After all, this is the same corporation that recently announced that it intended to reduce its workforce by 3 percent. That's 4,000 jobs.
And the immediate future doesn't look all that promising. Advance booking for the theme parks and resorts are reportedly very soft. Disney Cruise Lines recently announced that they will be offering severely discounted packages for travel on the company's ships from Aug. 30 through Dec. 15.
And the box-office prospects look pretty grim, too. For seemingly the first time ever, the soon-to-be-opening animated film that everyone wants to see isn't a Walt Disney Pictures project. This year's alleged top toon is Shrek, a computer-generated fantasy from Disney rival Dreamworks SKG.
Adding insult to injury, one of the reasons that "Shrek" supposedly has gotten such great buzz is the gleeful way the film repeatedly rips on the Walt Disney Co. The jokes range from good-natured pokes at "Pinocchio" and "Snow White" to reportedly downright mean attacks on Disney CEO Michael Eisner.
And what are people saying about Disney's own upcoming animated feature Atlantis: The Lost Empire? They're not talking about how it's a brave departure from the Mouse's standard formula. Rather, many Hollywood folks are asking: What marketing moron scheduled this animated adventure to open on the same day as Paramount Pictures' version of the CD-ROM sensation Tomb Raider?
Let's think about this, folks. You're a 13-year-old boy. Which film are you really going to want to see? The cartoon with the cool-looking submarine or the live-action adventure starring Angelina Jolie as Laura Croft, the cyber-babe with the big guns and the even bigger breasts?
It's not as if the Mouse has had nothing but bad news for the past few months. The Grand Californian Hotel as well as the Disneyland Resort's new shopping and dining district have already proven to be huge successes.
And the Mouse does have a hit movie in theaters right now. Sort of. It's Spy Kids, the family-friendly espionage adventure. What's not to like? Well, as it turns out, Eisner and his management team had little or nothing to do with this movie's production. It was mostly the work of Bob Weinstein of Disney's Dimension Film. So it's really kind of difficult for Eisner & Co. to get much satisfaction out of this film's success.
Furthermore, when it came time to buy TV-advertising time, Weinstein opted to go with the folks who he knew could reach the ideal "Spy Kids" target audience. He cut a deal with one of Disney's main competitors, CBS/Viacom. The flick got promoted almost exclusively on Nickelodeon.
Let's see. There must be something good to say about some Disney-related subject.
How about the upcoming Pearl Harbor? This could the big hit that turns everything around for the Disney Co.
Except that there are already critics carping about the Mouse's decision to open this film over the Memorial Day weekend. Some VFW officials argue that Disney is trivializing this national tragedy just so it can sell some movie tickets.
How about the corporation's theme-park division? Surely that's making money.
Well, thanks to last week's collision between the U.S. and Chinese spy planes, the Mouse is reportedly very concerned about the $3.1 billion Hong Kong Disneyland project, scheduled for 2005. What would happen if relations suddenly worsen between the two countries?
Sigh. Let's face it, folks. These days, it really is hard to use the name "Disney" and the phrase "good news" in the same sentence.