Animation is the heart and soul of the Walt Disney Co. -- or so say a thousand or more Mouse House press releases.
Well, if that's really the case, Mickey may have to learn to get by with a much smaller heart and a lot less soul.
Disney reportedly is considering severe staff cuts at the Mouse Factory. At the Burbank branch of Disney's Feature Animation operation alone, word is that some 300 artists -- one third of the staff -- may be targeted for dismissal. Then there's the fear of salary cuts that could hit not only the survivors, but also the 225 animators who work in Orlando at Disney/MGM Studios.
Feature Animation isn't alone, as Disney currently is working to eliminate 4,000 jobs -- nearly 3 percent of the company's workforce -- for an eventual savings of $300 million to $400 million. Witness the 1,400 Disney World employees offered voluntary separation and/or early retirement. Or the hundreds let go from Walt Disney Imagineering since the beginning of the year.
Whatever happens, animators see an auspicious deadline. They've been told the cuts will come in the third week of June. That's one week after Walt Disney Pictures' theatrical release of Atlantis: The Lost Empire, making it obvious to anyone that the film's success or failure could decide the animators' fate. Of added concern is that Atlantis goes wide in theaters on the very same day Paramount releases Tomb Raider, a live-action big screen version of the popular CD ROM game. Since Academy Award-winner Angelina Jolie stars as Tomb's big-breasted, pistol-packing heroine, Disney's animators fear their film may be in for a drubbing that could push many of them out the door.
Mind you, it's not just the Mouse House that's having tough times in Toon Town. The entire animation industry is in a panic. Reportedly 60 percent of the skilled artists who have trained to work in the field are out of work, the highest number since the mid 1970s. In recent years Fox shut down its animation unit. Warner Bros. has downsized. Even Dreamworks has cut back on the number of salaried animators it keeps on staff.
Still, it's the size and scale of the proposed rollback at Disney that has the industry talking. Among the ideas reportedly under consideration is the closure of Disney's Paris animation studio, which produced 90 percent of the work on the summer 1999 smash, "Tarzan." But their fabulous work and reputation still may not be enough to save their jobs.
Rumor has it that Disney's Feature Animation has been targeted because Mouse House management is mad that -- in spite of the nearly $500 million the company poured into developing new animated features in the late 1990s -- the animators have failed to produce another "Lion King"-sized success.
This particular charge of wastefulness infuriates senior Disney animators, who counter: How about the $100 million payout to make former Disney president Mike Ovitz go away? Or the $237 million former Disney studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg got in his out-of-court settlement? Or the $750 million Disney wrote off because Go.com never went anywhere?
The growing anger and frustration are easy to understand. After all, this guys have been hard at work -- trying to contain costs on upcoming animated films. They reduced the scope of several sequences proposed for "Atlantis," proving they were willing to play ball. Similar reductions reportedly were made to Disney's Christmas 2002 release, Treasure Planet, which lost several scenes originally thought to be crucial to the plot. Two films now in production -- "Lilo & Stitch" and "Brother Bear" -- avoided such cuts. But both are much smaller films, with fewer special-effects-laden sequences to bump up the budget.
Yet Disney's Florida animation operation also faces competition from an unlikely source: the folks who produce Disney's direct-to-video (DTV) projects. Given these DTV films' relatively low production costs ($10 million to $12 million, tops, versus the $80 million Disney spent on The Emperor's New Groove), these films have turned out to be a gold mine for the corporation.
Witness February 1999's release of "The Tigger Movie." This DTV project cost just $6.5 million to make, yet -- when shown on movie screens -- earned $45.5 million domestically and another $28.3 internationally. Then there's the $78.8 million it eventually earned when it finally came out in the format for which it was created: home video and DVD sales.
Disney proved that Tigger's success was no fluke when it released another DTV project, Recess: School's Out, this past February. This modest movie actually did better business on its opening weekend than "Groove," eventually grossing more than $40 million during its domestic release.
Wanting to keep the gravy train on track, Walt Disney Studios has officially picked February to release future DTV project to theaters. The downside for animators: With those films filling the holes in Disney's release schedule, the Mouse can easily scale back production of its more traditional animated features. And after work is completed on "Treasure Planet" in the spring of 2002, Mickey reportedly plans to really scale back.
So it won't just be "Atlantis: The Lost Empire" that will sink or swim come June. Disney's fabled feature animation department may also be going down -- awash in red ink.