My friend Ken Levine has a terrific website, which is well-worth checking out here. Ken is a remarkably talented and versatile fellow -- including writing extensively for M*A*S*H, Cheers, and Frasier, as well as many other TV series, co-creating a couple of sitcoms, Almost Perfect and New Wave Dave's, writing several films with his partner David Isaacs, among them Volunteers with Tom Hanks and John Candy, directing, writing plays and even being a major league baseball announcer for the Baltimore Orioles, San Diego Padres and Seattle Mariners. (Really. He wrote a wonderful funny book about that experience, called, It's Gone!...No, Wait a Minute..., which you can get here, among his other books. )
Ken devotes Fridays to Question Day from his readers. It's very entertaining and informative, with great inside insight to Hollywood and especially TV. This past week, someone posed a number of questions that included, "Why do many people in Hollywood hate Disney?" Ken noted that he wasn't certain though postulated a few reasons, all which tended to center on them being so big and successful and being an easy target. I do suspect that's involved, but I think he's being too kind here.
For starters, it's important to know that "many" doesn't mean all. Nor does it necessarily mean most. There are a great many people in Hollywood who have long adored Disney Studios. Or tolerate them, or see them as just another studio, no worse or better. But for those "many," I think the question being asked only landed on the surface. Many people don't just hate Disney, they've called it Mouschwitz. That speaks to something other and deeper than being an easy target for its success. To be fair, much of the reaction to Disney comes from many decades ago, under different regimes than today. It's still not beloved, to be sure, though I think the Mousewitz past has at least lessened.
Two stories that speak to people's response in Hollywood to Disney. This in no way is even remotely a definitive view on the subject. But it does offer a primer on the subject.
Back in 2007, there was a WGA informational meeting about a contract offer the studios had just made to writers during the Guild strike. It was held in the Writers Guild Theater, and there as a panel of members from the Negotiating Committee on the stage. One member of the committee gave his reasons for accepting the offer, noting that he thought it was the best one the Guild would get. When it came time for the opposing argument, a fellow looked out at the auditorium of writers, and began his explanation of why people should turn down the offer and wait for a better deal, asking with great certainty a very basic question -- "This is a negotiation. That was their first offer. When was the last time you were in a contract negotiation and someone offered you a worse deal when they came back to you the second time?!" It seemed a reasonable position...but then from the very back of the theater came a shout from someone, "DISNEY!!!"
Since it was in the rear, most people couldn't hear it. There was laughter back there, and what was said got passed along to the rows in front of it. More laughter erupted, and it got passed down again. Then more laughter, and what was said kept getting sent down the rows of the theater. The poor fellow on stage couldn't hear what was being passed along, and had no idea of why there were gales of laughter at something he said, rolling down the theater like a wave. Eventually, the laughter reached the first row. He leaned over to ask what people were laughing about. Hearing the answer, a big smile broke out across his face, and he sat back, leaned into the microphone and said, "Okay, I'll grant you that one exception..." And again the room broke out into roars.
Now, that's a studio with a reputation.
The second tale is a more personal one. It took place during my dark days of being a movie unit publicist. Back in 1992, Disney was preparing to make the sequel for Sister Act, and I had applied for an interview to their PR department. The interview went fine, and near the end they asked me what my weekly rate was. I told them -- it's what I'd been getting paid for several years, a bit more than the Publicist Guild basic minimum but notably less than some of my far-more experienced friends. It was a very fair and reasonable rate. They said, "We only pay..." whatever the amount, was, which was a whopping $50 less a week. I smiled, and said something along the lines of, "Well, I assume my rate is okay then." And without an ounce of flexibility, they replied that, no, THAT was their rate. Period. They didn't negotiate. They didn't pay more. Not even a mere $50 a week more. Again, keep in mind, this was Disney Studios. They really could have afforded the $50 more.
To be clear, this meant a couple of things. One is the obvious that they were egregiously parsimonious skinflints. But the other is more subtle and probably more important. It meant that the very best unit publicists who got paid (and deserved) a great deal more money than Disney ever paid were unlikely to take such a big cut from their standard rates and therefore never worked for the studio. And so, Disney got good, but second tier talent. (I include myself in that later category as a publicist.)
P.S. I didn't get the job, but that's okay. The point here is -- if they had wanted me, if I was the person they thought was best, they were nonetheless willing to go with someone else who wasn't their first choice over $50 a week. They wouldn't have even split the difference for $25 a week.
What these stories speak to is not just being pathologically cheap, but a reputation the studio had all around, not being willing to pay for the best. As a result, most of the best best talent avoided them. And so a lot of their product was solid and professional but not always the most vibrant. To be clear, they got some highly talented people for turning out Disney Product, who knew how to do that inside-out, better than anyone in the industry. And that's no small skill, and something not everyone can do. But when it came to branching into other areas, the studio didn't go there. That's in part why for several decades Disney put out product that was profoundly mediocre and bland and the studio was floundering, succeeding mostly are its past. Finally, they had some changes in management over the years, and things changed.
Not everything. They still were tightfisted with a nickel, though less so, and still had more overlord overseeing than most other studios, having to do everything The Disney Way. That didn't always work, but with the new changes, it at least finally worked a lot better than in the past, and they've developed some strong material in more recent years.
The Mousewitz attitude was another matter, and is much too long and involved to get into in full. But the short version is that...well, let's just say that Disney had fewer people working there who practiced the Jewish faith and were of color than the other studios. Was the reputation as deeply deserved over the decades as some felt? Perhaps not -- or perhaps so at least in the earlier years of the studio. I couldn't say with certainty. But whether it was "as deeply deserved" or not, there most definitely was a different atmosphere when you walked on the Disney lot than elsewhere. In many ways it was a wonderfully charming place to visit (and still is), but it felt more like you were visiting fraternity row on a 1950s college campus than a working studio.
As I said, much of this is from the past. Some of it the very distant past. But not all of it was from another era, just some years before. And they've largely gotten beyond that. But -- that history is very much part of the attitude towards Disney that takes a long while for an industry to get over. And requires an effort by the studio itself to get over. And much of it is over. But not all, some remnants of tight fiscal control, tight management control, tight creative control, and even still a touch of the "We're Disney, so we can do what we want, and if you don't like it you can go anywhere" attitude. By the way, not all of that is a bad thing. Some of it's smart, and a very good way to run a major corporation, which shows in a great deal of their often excellent product -- when kept in perspective. And in control. But there are aspects of it that can also be draconian and short-sighted, especially when tied to a history.
The point being that there are actual substantive reasons people "hate" Disney. More so in the past, but still today. Some of that is because they're so big and successful and an easy target. Some is unfair. But some of it is specific and valid, which they brought on themselves.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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