Monday, July 23, 2012

The Lost Ranger...

Hi ho, low thinking...

Today was an example of the repercussions of good/bad business...

Good for DreamWorks Animation and bad for the Disney corporation. Not totally bad for them, but an example of what can happen when you are short sighted in your business concerns. And to that I have to thank Michael Eisner for not being able to see over the next hill. Disney California Adventure's birth and squandered first decade for identity aren't the only mistake he made. Now, I'm not using this to say that he's wrong on everything (he wasn't), but I am using it to show how he lost the rights to something that he could have used to expand the already large collection of Disney properties. What am I blathering on about?

The Lone Ranger.

Sure, next year the Mouse will put out a film that will have cost around a quarter of a billion dollars on a property that it doesn't own, but once did. That's correct, the Masked Man was owned by Disney and was sold for a song. And it will now have to pay more for a license to a property that it could have used for free. If you've read Blue Sky regularly then you probably know this because I've mentioned it in the past.

Back in the late Eighties when the Walt Disney Company was looking to expand the Disneyland park into the Disneyland Resort, there were several things they had to do and wanted to do. One of those was reacquire the rights to the "Disney" name and property from those that owned The Disneyland Hotel. That's right, the Disney Company didn't own the rights to the hotel or the use of it's name until it bought them in the late 80's. Back when Walt Disney was planning on opening the park, he knew he would have to have a hotel for them to stay in, but being as he had all his money invested in building the park, he didn't have the cash to build it. So he turned to Jack Wrather, a friend and businessman to build it. In exchange for him building the hotel, Walt gave Jack the exclusive rights to build hotels in California with the name "Disney" for a 99 year lease. He only built one thankfully, or it would have been a much more tangled mess to unravel.

So back to the story. As Eisner and company moved forward to expand the park to a resort and add hotels, he wanted to purchase the Disneyland Hotel. The company played hardball with the company when they weren't really looking to sell. They were going to increase the lease for the Monorail stop at the hotel to a point where it would be excessively cost prohibitive for them to use. Can you imagine how angry guest would have been to stay there and see the Monorail go on by and not stop to allow guests to take it into the park. Well, the negotiations works. But in a different way, because the company that owned the hotel may not have been willing to sell the hotel back to Disney, but it was willing to sell itself to Disney: the entire company.

So, to get the property and name back, the Walt Disney Company agreed to purchase the Wrather Corporation. It was more than just that hotel you see. Now, being as Michael Eisner didn't like having to pay so much for other parts of a business he didn't want, he had the company get rid of part it didn't (he felt) need or want. There were good things that came from this, and bad things as well. You see, Tokyo DisneySEA's seed was planted when this happened, because one of the things that Wrather's company had the rights to was the Queen Mary. And when Disney was looking at making Disneyland into a resort, it also wanted to see what other opportunities were available as well. With this newly acquired area in the Port of Long Beach, Eisner set the Imagineers at WDI to task with finding a way to exploit it. And that is how "Port Disney" came to be. The Long Beach Project as it was known internally had a resort with 5/6 hotels, a shopping district, ports for the Disney Cruise Line and a theme park called Disneysea. Although it wasn't fully formed, it was the fetus that became Tokyo DisneySEA a decade after the American project was cancelled.

But there were other properties that Wrather owned also. And one was the Lone Ranger. It was sold in a fire sale to try to make back some of the millions that were spent on the purchase of the iconic hotel. No thought was given to mining the classic character for television like was done with the Zorro property that Disney didn't own. No thought was given to creating a movie for such a well known character. No thought was given to the merchandising profits that could have been had with Disney's marketing behind them. It was just something to get rid of. Granted, hindsight is 20/20, but fans of pop-culture would see the opportunity that this American character represented to an American institution like Disney. A company known as Classic Media bought the rights to Kemosabe. Let's hope that the rights to the character are locked for a long time if this film is successful. Perhaps Disney's lawyers were forward thinking and included the rights to possible television series as well, otherwise Jeffrey Katzenberg's company could have a DreamWorks television series up on Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon to take advantage of the new Disney film. Don't thing that could happen?

Then you've never heard the story of Antz...


Anonymous said...

From what it sounds they only hold certain film rights, but they had to buy the whole thing

Joe Shelby said...

Always remember, Hollywood (and Eisner is PURE Hollywood) hates to repeat a flop.

Just like Pirate movies prior to Depp and Gore making the PotC success, The Lone Ranger was a dead property. The 1981 flop was SO bad that it was a Hollywood hot potato, something to be dumped as soon as you got it.*

He probably had that attitude to ALL westerns, which had been a dead scene fit only for low-budget tv movies until Young Guns and Unforgiven.

* I can say that my own reaction to hearing that Lone Ranger was being done was part of the problem: I really could only remember the flop and it really does taint my feelings towards the name.

Pelter Unbleat said...

I think this is a bit harsh- saying Eisner should have held onto the Lone Ranger because someday they could have made a movie based on it, and assuming that that film will be great, is a big leap. He did what he thought was right at the time. This whole post could read very differently if the film comes out and bombs, in which case we can all question Iger on his decision to invest in making it.

Honor Hunter said...

The Lone Ranger is a character with a long, and rich history. I wasn't saying that Eisner should have held on to it for the hope of a movie being successful. I was saying he should hold on to the character because it was a valuable property that could be used in multiple areas of the company (theme parks, television, film, games, clothing, ect.).

I don't know if the film will be a success, but I hope it is. But I would treat this property as a jewel that can have great opportunities for the company. If the character of Zorro were available, he too would be a valuable property for the Mouse to purchase, despite the tepid box office that it received. That didn't mean the character was unworthy, it meant they did a bad interpretation of a great character.

The same could be said of the 1981 film.

The potential was there, but Eisner was too blind to see it.

This is not to casts total blame on him for his entire tenure (although I have been critical), because I feel that he has contributed much to the company that is positive.

But the opposite of your worry that the Lone Ranger could fail should also be taken into account. If the film is a success then we will always wonder why they didn't keep the character? It would be a Disney property, developed from the inside. Not one someone else owned and someone else would ultimately be responsible for...

Joe Shelby said...

Ah, but again, all of the side items (merchandise, especially) all only mean something if a film is a hit. You ride a hot property into theme parks and games, and only a film or a really huge TV show make a hot property.

Lone Ranger was not a hot property, it was a hot potato, and at the time *nobody* had really successfully rebooted a property such that it was bigger than its last version. Batman (the Tim Burton film with Keaton) was treated as an oddity by the media and by wall street (who are the most important 'customers' in everything Eisner was doing at the time), not a trend-starter.

Seriously, every attempt to reboot a 50s through 70s franchise in the 80s flopped except Batman, and every hollywood exec (except Warner, obviously) knew that. Not only would Eisner have not seen the potential to change that trend, nobody under him would have gone along with it even if he had expressed such a vision. Hollywood was (and generally still is) a very conservative, reactionary world, and Wall Street expectations (especially then) aligned with such an approach.

Things changed, but much later.

Jay Silverheels said...

Everything doesn't and shouldn't have to be based on the success of a film.

The Long Ranger could have been adapted for a tv series. It could have been made into a series of novels or comics. It didn't have to hinge on making a film. I'm sure Honor wasn't talking about them acquiring the character just to have a film. The Disney company is made up of many divisions and that means many possibilities.

Elite Medium said...

The last Zorro film was a bust. Should they not make anymore films based on that character because of it?

Simplistic thinking.

If a film fails it could be the fault of the film makers, not the film or the characters portrayed.

Sometimes the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

Welcome to a straight line.

Anonymous said...

Disney should never sell the rights to characters, movie libraries etc.

They also sold the Miramax library and the rights to Power Rangers.
One day they will probably kick themselves when one the titles is reinvented into a blockbuster.
Of course these were not ideal Disney properties but they should have held onto them nevertheless.
Content is king.

Anonymous said...

I remember back in 98 when President Clinton loved Spielberg's first Zorro movie. You would think Steven had invented Zorro before Disney's back in 57. The second movie didn't have the same magic and had that bad model train sequence. 88's Young Guns was followed by Costner's bigger hit,Dances with Wolves in 90. Eisner should have submitted Disney's big hit Tombstone to the Academy in 93 after Unforgiven had done so well in 92 for Clint. I love Geronimo also of 93, which is said to be the best Indian movie from their point of view. Ry Cooder scored on that one. Disney has made quite a few Westerns since then and loved Billy Bob Thorton as an older Davy Crockett fidel player in the Alamo. Of Course Disney's 1955 Davy helped make Disneyland Fronteirland a hit and the biggest land. Johnny Depp has done much for the Adventureland Pirates legacy and hope with Tonto he does as well for Western expansion. PD

Anonymous said...

Can you tell us the story of Antz? I've heard bits and pieces of it and it fascinates me