One of the things that I am excited about in the near future is that Stephen Anderson, who recently retired from Walt Disney Animation Studios and most famous for directing "Meet the Robinsons" and the 2011 "Winnie the Pooh" film, is currently working on a brand new book about the history of the Walt Disney Studios, back when it was still called Walt Disney Productions, which takes place in-between the death of Walt Disney in 1966 all the way through the beginning of the Michael Eisner era of Disney and the rebranding of the studio in what is known today as the Walt Disney Company in 1986.
After Walt Disney died in 1966, the studio really struggled from both creative and financial difficulties throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, while at the same time, other rival entertainment studios were making movies that were appealing to all four quadrants of the traditional movie-going audiences. Disney was making live-action comedies like "The Apple Dumpling Gang", "Freaky Friday", and even sequels to their hit 1969 comedy, "The Love Bug". Disney was also attempting to make live-action / animated fantasy musicals similar to "Mary Poppins", which included "Bedknobs and Broomsticks" and "Pete's Dragon", both of which were underappreciated at the time of their original releases, but have since become cult audience favorites during the age of home video. Disney's animation department had yet to come out with animated classics like "The Little Mermaid", "Beauty and the Beast", "Aladdin", and "The Lion King", and computer animated classics from Pixar such as "Toy Story". Instead, audiences were treated to several decent Disney animated classics such as "The Aristocats", "Robin Hood" (one of my personal favorite Disney animated movies), "The Rescuers", and "The Fox and the Hound", but at the time, they were not quite necessarily the animated masterpieces that many critics and audiences were expecting. Disney did in fact stumbled a little bit when they released the dark epic fantasy adventure flop, "The Black Cauldron" in 1985, but they were able to quickly bounce back from the film's financial failure with two solid animated hits, "The Great Mouse Detective" and "Oliver & Company", before the beginning of the Disney Renaissance with "The Little Mermaid" in 1989.
While Disney was floundering in the 70s and 80s, other studios were flourishing, like Universal, 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros., Columbia, MGM, and United Artists. All of this was due to new talented young filmmakers bringing their own personal sensibilities to the big screen. Among them were two legendary filmmakers, Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. Steven Spielberg helped establish the summer blockbuster with "Jaws" in 1975. George Lucas on the other hand, changed the way special effects movies were made with "Star Wars" in 1977. Both filmmakers in particular were heavily influenced by the films of Walt Disney and apparently had even attempted to pitch projects that they felt had the potential to fit the Disney label. George Lucas attempted to pitch "Star Wars" to Disney after both Universal and United Artists turned it down, but at the time, Disney and various other studios didn't think that an epic space fantasy adventure would be possible, so George ends up giving the project to 20th Century Fox, which ironically, Disney now owns in addition to Lucasfilm and the "Star Wars" franchise. At the same time, Disney had been working on their own science fiction film called "Space Station One", which was designed as a disaster film similar to movies like "Earthquake", "The Poseidon Adventure", and "The Towering Inferno". But the project was put on hold, because Disney wasn't sure if a sci-fi movie would be worth seeing. That all changed when "Star Wars" became a smash hit and gave other studios confidence to jump aboard the sci-fi film wagon, including Disney, who reimagined the "Space Station One" project as "The Black Hole" in 1979. Unlike "Star Wars", "The Black Hole" was a massive flop, so Disney tried again with "Tron" in 1982, in which they hoped would cash in on the growing video game industry and revolutionize the world with it's groundbreaking CGI effects. But, once again, "Tron" failed to fill theatres in the same way that movies like "Star Wars" did, although both "The Black Hole" and "Tron" would both gain their own respective cult followings overtime. Both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg even attempted to pitch "Raiders of the Lost Ark" to Disney, but they and most of the other studios thought the project was too ambitious and expensive, so Lucas and Spielberg end up giving the project to Paramount.
But, believe it or not, out of all of the projects that both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg attempted to pitch to Disney, only to be turned down, and one that Disney almost had was a little sci-fi family film called "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial". Now, this is a behind-the-scenes story that I heard about from entertainment writer, Jim Hill of Jim Hill Media, on some of his podcasts. According to Jim Hill, after Columbia rejected Steven Spielberg's idea of a family-friendly sci-fi alien movie, Steven had pitched Disney the story of a friendly alien who was accidently left behind on Earth and befriends a young boy and his family as they help him find a way back to his home planet. Disney, at first, was intrigued by the concept and had initially agreed to make the movie, but when Spielberg mentioned that he would also hire some of the employees who worked for George Lucas at Industrial, Light, & Magic to help work on the special effects, and that he was also going to have John Williams score the music, Disney instantly realized that there was a major flaw in Spielberg's proposal. Disney told Steven that every employee who works for Disney is an employee of Disney and that the employees who would normally work outside of the Disney Studios' boundaries, like the ILM employees, do not get a cut or fair share of the profits made off of the film. So, keep in mind, this was long before Disney had ever acquired Lucasfilm and all of it's divisions such as ILM, Skywalker Sound, and the THX digital audio and picture system. So, it wasn't so much that Disney did not want to make "E.T.", it's just that they don't like sharing the profits with the non-Disney employees involved in its production. So, Steven Spielberg ends up giving the project to Universal. Of course, the folks at Disney later regretted their decision after they eventually saw the movie and saw how it was being critically-acclaimed, breaking box office records, and becoming such a beloved family film. In fact, Ron W. Miller, who was Walt Disney's son-in-law and the head of Walt Disney Productions at the time, even admitted in an interview from 1982 in which he felt that "E.T." would have made a great Disney film for the entire family. However, he did go on to say that the only thing that they would've changed or at least toned down in order to make "E.T." into a Disney movie would be to cut out the one part where Elliott gets vulgar towards his brother. Like, if they cut out that one nasty insult that he used and maybe cut out some of the other language and other smart-aleck remarks that really don't fit in with Disney's clean family-friendly brand, then "E.T." is a Disney movie. So, I am assuming that since Disney missed out on the opportunity to make "E.T.", that ultimately became one of the key motivations for greenlighting their hit 2002 animated classic "Lilo & Stitch", which I always assumed was like Disney's answer to "E.T.", because it has a similar idea and concept without it feeling too much like a rip-off like I originally feared, but thankfully it was not and it became one of my favorite Disney animated movies.
So, with all of this in mind, I just can't help but have fun and speculate about what could have been if Disney played their creative cards straight throughout the 70s and 80s and took the opportunity to greenlight movies like "Star Wars", "Indiana Jones", and "E.T.", and made them all official properties of Disney in the first place. If Disney made "Star Wars" first, they would not only be made rich with a blockbuster hit franchise and even make millions off of the merchandise, but they would also make Lucasfilm a major division of the company right away rather than later and there probably would not be any need to acquire 20th Century Fox in order to buy all of the rights to a certain franchise. Disney, with a newfound confidence in the "Star Wars" brand, would no longer have any need for a movie like "The Black Hole" as they would already have a major sci-fi intellectual property that they can rely on. This would cause them to greenlight "Raiders of the Lost Ark" in an effort to make an edgier action-adventure movie that can appeal to teenagers and adults. Of course, there would still be concerns about the violent and scary tone of the "Indiana Jones" series, which still created the PG-13 rating, but they would have to make sure that they add that rating before the release of "Raiders" to let parents with young children know that this is not your traditional Disney family flick and that it is clearly for teens and adults only. The "Indiana Jones" series would have become another blockbuster franchise for Disney like "Star Wars". Then, "E.T." would also have been a beloved classic Disney family film and a major box office smash with merchandise of "E.T." selling out like hotcakes. Just imagine seeing plush toys of "E.T." on the shelves at the emporium on Main Street U.S.A. at both Disneyland and at the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World alongside plush toys of other Disney characters like Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh, instead of seeing plush "E.T." merchandise at the Universal theme parks.
So, what do you guys think? Do you think some of those movies could have helped turn the Disney Studio around during the dark times of the 70s and 80s? Let me know in the comments below.