The Walt Disney Studios
is an American film studio, one of the four business segments of The Walt Disney Company. The studio, one of the “Big Five” major film studios and best known for its multi-faceted film divisions, is based at the eponymous Walt Disney Studios in Burbank, California. Founded in 1923, it is the fourth-oldest among the major studios.
There are prominent film production companies within the Walt Disney Studios division. They include Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar, Blue Sky Studios, Marvel Studios, Lucasfilm, 20th Century Studios, and Searchlight Pictures. Films produced by these studios are released and distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. In 2019, The Walt Disney Studios posted an industry record of $13.2 billion at the global box office. The studio has six of the top ten highest-grossing films of all time at the worldwide box office, and the two highest-grossing film franchises of all time.
The Walt Disney Studios is a member of the Motion Picture Association (MPA).
Walt Disney Productions began production of their first feature-length animated film in 1934. Taking three years to complete, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, premiered in December 1937 and became the highest-grossing film of that time by 1939. In the 1940s, Disney began experimenting with full-length live-action films, with the introduction of hybrid live action-animated films such as The Reluctant Dragon (1941) and Song of the South (1946). That same decade, the studio began producing nature documentaries with the release of Seal Island (1948), the first of the True-Life Adventures series and a subsequent Academy Award winner for Best Live-Action Short Film.
Walt Disney Productions had its first fully live-action film in 1950 with the release of Treasure Island, considered by Disney to be the official conception for what would eventually evolve into the modern-day Walt Disney Pictures. By 1953, the company ended their agreements with such third-party distributors as RKO Radio Pictures and United Artists and formed their own distribution company, Buena Vista Distribution.
Disney History – 1980s
By the 1980s, The Walt Disney Company’s collection of film units emerged as one of Hollywood’s major film studios, mostly due to newly designed efforts in branding strategies, a resurgence of Walt Disney Pictures’ animated releases and unprecedented box office successes, particularly from Touchstone Pictures. The Walt Disney Productions film division was incorporated on April 1, 1983 as Walt Disney Pictures. In April 1983, Richard Berger was hired by Disney CEO Ron W. Miller as film president. Touchstone Films was started by Miller in February 1984 as a label for their PG-rated films with an expected half of Disney’s 6 to 8 films yearly slate would be released under the label. Berger was pushed out as a new CEO was appointed for Walt Disney Productions later in 1984, as Michael Eisner brought his own film chief, Jeffrey Katzenberg and film studio president, Richard H. Frank. Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures were formed within that unit on February 15, 1984 and February 1, 1989 respectively.
Organized in 1985, Silver Screen Partners II, L.P. financed films for Disney with $193 million in funding. In January 1987, Silver Screen III began financing films for Disney with $300 million raised, the largest amount raised for a film financing limited partnership by E.F. Hutton.
In April 1988, Touchstone became a unit of Walt Disney Pictures with newly appointed head Ricardo Mestres. With several production companies getting out of film production or closing shop by December 1988, Walt Disney Studios announced the formation of Hollywood Pictures division, which would only share marketing and distribution with Touchstone, to fill the void. Walt Disney Television and Touchstone Television were grouped together under Garth Ancier as president of network television for the Walt Disney Studios on April 18, 1989.
Late in the 1980s, Disney purchased a controlling stake in one of Pacific Theatres’ chains leading Disney’s Buena Vista Theaters and Pacific to renovate the El Capitan Theatre and the Crest by 1989. The Crest was finished first while El Capitan opened with the premiere of The Rocketeer film on June 19, 1991.
In September 1990, The Walt Disney Company arranged for financing up to $200 million by a unit of Nomura Securities for Interscope films made for Disney. On October 23, 1990, Disney formed Touchwood Pacific Partners I to supplant the Silver Screen Partnership series as their movie studios’ primary funding source. In 1992, Walt Disney Studios agreed to fund a production company, Caravan Pictures, for exiting 20th Century Fox chairman Joe Roth. In 1993, Miramax Films was purchased for $60 million by Disney.
On March 30, 1992, Disney Studios agreed to sell KCAL-TV to Pineland, Inc. for a 45% ownership stake in Pineland, so as to have interest in TV stations in both large markets, Los Angeles and New York City, allowing for increased original programming. Instead, Pineland agreed to an unsolicited bid in May from Chris-Craft Industries thus ending the planned business merger with Disney’s KCAL.
David Hoberman, president of Walt Disney Pictures and Touchstone Pictures, was promoted by Katzenberg to the president of motion pictures at Walt Disney Studios in April 1994, while Ricardo Mestres was forced out as president of Hollywood Pictures in exchange for a production deal.
On August 24, 1994, with Katzenberg’s resignation, Walt Disney Studios was reorganized by spinning off a new TV group. Richard Frank became head of the newly-formed Walt Disney Television and Telecommunications (WDTT). Roth moved in from Caravan Pictures to helm the remaining Walt Disney Studios as chairman. Hoberman stepped down as president in January 1995 to take a five-year, multi-film deal for his production company, Mandeville Films.
Roth was appointed as chairman of Walt Disney Studios in 1996. In April 1996, due to ongoing post-Disney-CC/ABC merger realignment and retirement of its president, WDTT group’s division were reassigned to other groups with most transferred to the Walt Disney Studios or CC/ABC. Units returning to the studio were Walt Disney Television, Disney Television Animation, Touchstone Television and Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Buena Vista International – Latin America and two other companies became owners of Patagonik Film Group, an Argentina-based production company, in 1997. In late 1997, Disney bid on CDR’s Epic movie library but lost to PolyGram Filmed Entertainment.
Disney’s Buena Vista Distribution and Cinergi Pictures had a 25-picture distribution deal, with Disney taking a 5% stake in Cinergi stock. After nine films were delivered under the agreement, Cinergi sold its 12-film library (except for Die Hard With a Vengeance, co-financed with 20th Century Fox) to Disney on November 22, 1997, for $20 million in exchange for Disney’s Cinergi shares, production advances of $35.4 million and other loans.
In 1998, the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group was formed by Roth to unite the Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood film production units with leadership under David Vogel. This was in order to centralize the various production units and to make live-action film production within Disney more cost-efficient. Roth also determined that the studio’s year production slate should be cut. In August 1998, Roger Birnbaum, Caravan’s co-founder, left at Roth’s prompting to co-found Spyglass Entertainment with former Morgan Creek Productions vice chairman and COO Gary Barber, in which Disney gave Caravan’s development slate, a five-year distribution agreement and an advance to Spyglass. After Caravan’s remaining three films were released, it went inactive. By May 2000, Disney had taken an equity stake in Spyglass.
Peter Schneider was promoted to studio president in January 1999, while Thomas Schumacher was promoted to president of Walt Disney Feature Animation and Walt Disney Theatrical Productions while both became co-presidents of Disney Theatrical Group. As the first studio president, Schneider had supervisory control of all films released by the Disney labels. In July, Walt Disney Television, including Buena Vista Television Productions, were transferred from the Walt Disney Studios to ABC Television Network to merge with ABC’s prime-time division, forming the ABC Entertainment Television Group.
Roth left to form his own production company in January 2000, with Schneider moving to a studio chairman role. Schneider left Walt Disney Studios in June 2001 to form his own theatre production company partly funded by Disney. The studio chairmanship was not filled at the time, leaving the studio’s major units, Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group (distribution) chairman Dick Cook, Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group (production) chairwoman Nina Jacobson and Walt Disney Feature Animation president Schumacher in charge. In 2002, Cook was named as studio chairman to replace Peter Schneider. In January 2002, Buena Vista International – Latin America formed a joint venture production company, Miravista, with Admira, Telefónica’s content production and distribution division, for primarily Brazilian and Mexican film productions.
In January 2003, Disney initiated a reorganization of its theatrical and animation units to improve resource usage and continued focus on new characters and franchise development. Walt Disney Feature Animation — sans Walt Disney Television Animation — and Buena Vista Theatrical Worldwide were organized under the Walt Disney Studios. In 2003, the studio set a worldwide box office record of $3 billion gross.
In 2005, Disney and Kingdom Films formed a joint venture, Magic Films, to finance a slate of 32 films, which would not include sequels. Kingdom would provide financing with $135 million equity and a $370 million revolving credit line. With the exception of High School Musical 3 as a part of a Disney Channel franchise, Kingdom sued Disney in December 2008.
In July 2006, Disney announced a shift in its strategy of releasing more Disney-branded (i.e. Walt Disney Pictures) films and fewer Touchstone titles. The move was expected to reduce the Group’s workforce by approximately 650 positions worldwide. This was a cost-cutting move with its yearly slate would consist of 12 to 15 films.
After being transferred to various other division groups since they were acquired in 2004, The Muppets Studio was incorporated into the Walt Disney Studios’ Special Events Group in 2006. In April 2007, Disney retired the Buena Vista brand, renaming Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group and Buena Vista Pictures Distribution as Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, respectively. Hollywood Pictures was also retired as well. In July 2007, Disney CEO Bob Iger banned the depiction of smoking and tobacco products from Walt Disney Pictures-branded films, as well as limiting such depictions in Touchstone and Miramax films.
In April 2009, the Studio announced the formation of Disneynature, a nature film production label. The Studio launched its Kingdom Comics division in May, led by writer-actor Ahmet Zappa, TV executive Harris Katleman and writer-editor Christian Beranek. Kingdom was designed to create new properties for possible film development and re-imagine and redevelop existing movies from the Disney library, with Disney Publishing Worldwide getting a first look for publishing.
On February 9, 2009, DreamWorks Studios entered a 7-year, a 30-picture distribution deal with the studio’s Touchstone Pictures banner starting in 2011. The deal also includes co-funding between Disney and DreamWorks for production. In late 2009, Miramax Films, a formerly independent Disney film unit, was transferred to the Walt Disney Studios, until its sale in 2010 to Filmyard Holdings. The Kingdom Comics unit’s creatives/executives moved its deal to an independent Monsterfoot Productions.
On September 18, 2009, Cook was forced out as chairman, after allegedly having been asked to do so by Bob Iger, for resisting change that Iger felt was needed and the previous year’s poor results. He was then replaced by Disney Channels Worldwide president Rich Ross on October 5, 2009.
After The Walt Disney Company’s acquisition of Marvel Entertainment in December 2009 for $4.2 billion, Disney began distributing Marvel Studios’ films in 2012, acquiring the distribution rights for The Avengers and Iron Man 3 from Paramount Pictures in October 2010. Marvel Studios, however, remained a division of Marvel Entertainment during that time, working in conjunction with Walt Disney Studios for distribution and marketing.
In May 2011, Disney India and UTV Motion Pictures agreed to co-produce Disney-branded family films, with both companies handling creative function and UTV producing, marketing and distributing the films. In 2011, Disney fired Marvel Studios’ marketing department, taking over marketing of their films beginning with the 2012 film The Avengers.
On April 20, 2012, Ross was fired as studio chairman. On October 30, 2012, Lucasfilm agreed to be purchased by The Walt Disney Company and a new Star Wars trilogy was announced. The deal was finalized on December 4. Later on the same day, Disney agreed to have Netflix as its exclusive U.S. television subscription service for first-run Walt Disney Pictures, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios and Disneynature feature films starting in 2016, replacing its agreement with Starz that ends in 2015.
In April 2013, The Walt Disney Studios laid off 150 workers, including staff from its marketing and home entertainment units. In December of that same year, Disney purchased the distribution and marketing rights to future Indiana Jones films from Paramount Pictures, while Paramount will continue distributing the first four films and receive “financial participation” from the additional films. The studio and Shanghai Media Group Pictures signed a multi-year movie development agreement, before the March 6, 2014 announcement, in which Chinese themes would be incorporated into Disney branded movies. In March 2015, Iger expanded the studio’s smoking and tobacco prohibition to include all films released by the studio—including PG-13 rated films and below—unless such depictions are historically pertinent.
In August 2015, Marvel Studios was moved into the Walt Disney Studios, with president Kevin Feige now reporting directly to Walt Disney Studios chairman Alan Horn instead of Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter, who continued to oversee Marvel Television and Marvel Animation until 2019, in which they were folded back into Marvel Studios.
In January 2016, Disney received ownership of the thirteen DreamWorks films it distributed, in compensation for outstanding loans as DreamWorks was restructured as Amblin Partners.
On December 19, 2016, Walt Disney Studios became the first major studio to reach $7 billion at the global box office. This surpasses Universal’s record from 2015 of $6.89 billion. Disney did it with five of the top 10 films of the year with a record four of them, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory, Captain America: Civil War and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with opening weekend take of over $100 million. Four films in 2016 grossed over $1 billion and another $966 million globally. Two studio units’ (Pixar and Marvel Studios) combined lifetime library grosses passed $10 billion.
In November 2017, the studio briefly banned reporters of the Los Angeles Times from attending pre-release screenings for its films, after it had published reports on Disney’s political influence in the Anaheim area that the company deemed to be “biased and inaccurate”. After a boycott effort emerged among several notable critics and publications (including Washington Post blogger Alyssa Rosenberg, The New York Times, and Boston Globe critic Ty Burr), and several major film critic societies threatened to disqualify Disney films from their year-end awards in retaliation, Disney stated that the company “had productive discussions with the newly installed leadership at the Los Angeles Times regarding our specific concerns”, and had reversed its ban.
In December 2017, Disney announced plans to purchase 21st Century Fox (21CF) for $52.4 billion. In preparation for the integration of 21st Century Fox assets in March 2018, Disney created a new segment named Walt Disney Direct-to-Consumer and International, merging two segments and transferring various units to the new segment, including the Janice Marinelli-led Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. On June 28, 2018, DisneyToon Studios was shut down.
On June 8, 2018, Disney announced that Lasseter would be leaving the company by the end of the year, but would take on a consulting role until then. On June 19, 2018, Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee were announced as Lasseter’s replacements as chief creative officers of Pixar and Disney Animation, respectively. On June 28, 2018, Disneytoon Studios was shut down, resulting in the layoffs of 75 animators and staff.
On October 18, 2018, Disney announced that the 21st Century Fox film units 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures and Fox 2000 Pictures, would be units of The Walt Disney Studios. 20th Century Fox Animation (including Blue Sky Studios) and Fox Family would continue on under the Disney ownership. Fox’s filmed entertainment CEO Stacey Snider exited following the acquisition. Fox executives Emma Watts, Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula joined The Walt Disney Company on March 20, 2019. On March 21, 2019, Disney announced that the Fox 2000 label would be shut down by the end of the year after releasing its films in production and 20th Century Fox Animation was also repositioned to directly report to chairman Horn. 20th Century Fox and its related studios will keep their headquarters on their studio lot in Century City, thanks to a seven-year lease from the Fox Corporation.
On May 2, 2019, president Alan Bergman was promoted to co-chairman. Horn added the new title of the studio’s chief creative officer.
Disney announced a round of layoffs for the studio, mostly from 20th Century Fox, in the production and visual effects departments. They also announced on July 31, 2019 that the Fox Research Library will be folded into the Walt Disney Archives and the Imagineering Research Library by January 2020. The studio announced a 10-year lease of most of the Pinewood Studios near London from the Pinewood Group in September 2019 to start in 2020.
In December 2019, Walt Disney Studios became the first major studio to reach $10 billion at the global box office, breaking their previous record in 2016, and eventually earned $13.2 billion. Disney achieved this on the strength of Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Captain Marvel, Toy Story 4, Aladdin, and Frozen II all earning over $1 billion.
On January 17, 2020, Disney announced it would drop the “Fox” name from the studio’s 20th Century Fox and Fox Searchlight Pictures branding. The two studios were renamed as 20th Century Studios and Searchlight Pictures, respectively. Similar to other Disney film units, films under the 20th Century Studios banner are distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, while Searchlight Pictures continues to operate their autonomous distribution unit.
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