Jim Hill: From the Archives - May 8, 2001

Jim Hill: From the Archives
Page 3 of 5

Part Two: Eisner's Ultimatum
What happens when a studio loses faith in a director's vision?

OUR STORY SO FAR: As a reward for helping to deliver "The Lion King," the biggest animated hit in history, Disney Studio executives pretty much left Roger Allers alone while he got "Kingdom of the Sun" off the ground. Sure, the film had some story problems. But Roger knew about those and -- more importantly -- knew how to fix them ... right?

Maybe not. After three years of development and a year and a half of actual production, it became painfully obvious to everyone else at Walt Disney Studios that "Kingdom of the Sun" had serious story problems. But director Allers insisted on staying the course, certain that the storyline that he'd come up with for "Kingdom" would make for a compelling motion picture.

With "Kingdom" 's Summer of 2000 release date less than two years away, it was obvious that something had to be done. But -- if Allers (an acknowledged master of Disney animated storytelling) couldn't pull all of "Kingdom's" plot elements into one entertaining film, who could Disney turn to?

Mark Dindal.

Truth be told, Mark had been part of the "Kingdom of the Sun" team almost from the beginning of the project. Disney executives believe that directing a modern feature length animated film is just too much work for one person to handle. Which is why they usually assign teams of directors to shepherd these massive projects through the production process.

That's why Ron Clements and John Musker did "The Great Mouse Detective," "The Little Mermaid," "Aladdin" and "Hercules" together (And continue to work as a team on Disney's Summer 2002 release, "Treasure Planet.") That's also why Kirk Wise and Gary Trousdale worked together on "Beauty and the Beast," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" and next summer's "Atlantis: The Lost Empire." When it comes to animation, two heads really are better than one.

So, since Roger Allers' "Lion King" co-director, Rob Minkoff, had already left the Walt Disney Company to pursue other interests (Minkoff ended up over at Sony Pictures, where he made his solo directorial debut last year with that 1999 holiday season hit, "Stuart Little"), Disney felt that it was time to find someone else to partner with Allers. Even though Eisner had said in the 1996 annual report that the studio was expecting a new animated film " ... from Roger Allers, the director of The Lion King," there was no way the company was going to allow Roger to go it alone.

This is where Mark Dindal came in.

Dindal had a long history with the Walt Disney Company. Graduating from California Institute of Arts in the early 1980s, Mark quickly landed a job in the visual effects department at feature animation. Dindal did effects work on "The Fox and the Hound," "The Black Cauldron," "Mickey's Christmas Carol" as well as "The Great Mouse Detective."

Mark left the Walt Disney Company for a brief time in 1985 to pursue outside projects. But -- by 1987 -- he was back to work at the Mouse House, doing special effects for "Oliver and Company." His superior work in that film caused Disney executives to promote Dindal to supervisor of visual effects on the studio's next feature length animated film, "The Little Mermaid."

Mark's exemplary effects work on that toon blockbuster lead Disney executives to give Dindal a special assignment: the animated "Nazi Rocketpack Stormtrooper" sequence for the studio's 1991 release, "The Rocketeer." Though that film wasn't the success that Disney had hoped it would be, Dindal's authentic looking recreation of 1940s style animation caught the eye of Turner Feature Animation officials, who thought that Mark might be the perfect guy to direct an animated feature that that studio was currently had in the works.

That project turned out to be Warner Brothers' 1997 release, "Cats Don't Dance." A splendid animated feature that lovingly recreated the look and feel of those great MGM movie musicals of Hollywood's golden age, "Cats" died a dog's death at the box office due to Warner's woeful mismanagement of that film's promotion. No matter. Disney executives saw "Cats Don't Dance" and thought it was wonderful. They immediately contacted Dindal and asked him to come back to the Mouse House -- this time as a full-fledged director.

Since Allers was still going it alone on "Kingdom of the Sun," Disney Studio executives thought that Dindal might make the perfect co-director on that project. After all, maybe Mark could bring some of the sly wit that he'd shown on "Cats Don't Dance" to Roger's oh-so-serious South American / Inca extravaganza.

What was nice about this was that Allers and Dindal already had a little history. The two men had worked closely together on Disney's 1988 hit, "The Little Mermaid." Disney management had hoped that Roger and Mark combine their talents to produce another enormously entertaining film for the studio.

Too bad that things didn't exactly go according to plan.

Disney's kept a pretty tight lid on what actually happened to "Kingdom of the Sun" in the summer of 1998. What is known is that -- based on the story reels that were being shown around the studio -- it appeared that Allers and Dindal were making two different movies. Roger -- perhaps in a sincere attempt to top "The Lion King" -- seemed intent on making an important film. Something sweeping and grand that would move audiences as well as entertain them.

Dindal -- on the other hand -- was just trying to make "Kingdom of the Sun" as entertaining a film as possible. The sequences that he put together were quick, funny, light on their feet. But Mark's scenes didn't fit at all with the tone and style of the footage that Roger's people were producing.

The real trouble with Aller's approach to the material was that Disney's previous two attempts at producing sweeping, grand and important animated films -- 1995's "Pocahontas" and 1996's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" -- had under-whelmed audiences as well as under-performed at the box office. Executives at the Mouse House felt that they had learned the hard way that audiences weren't really looking for importance when it came to animated films. That's why these Disney Studio officials were definitely disturbed by the direction Roger seemed to be taking "Kingdom" in.

Worse still, test audiences who watched work-in-progress versions of "Kingdom of the Sun" responded loudly whenever Mark's footage came on the screen. Whenever Aller's scenes were screened, the audience watched in polite silence -- sitting on their hands.

It was about this time that a Disney Studio executive entered "Kingdom" producer Randy Fullmer's office and -- placing his finger a quarter inch away from his thumb -- delivered the infamous "Your film is this far away from being shut down" line. So it was obviously up to Fullmer to try to get the film back on track.

So Randy quietly approached Allers and tactfully tried to express the studio's concerns about "Kingdom of the Sun." Allers was reportedly genuinely surprised and hurt to hear about the studio's lack of faith in his vision for "Kingdom." Hadn't he been the guy who had rescued "The Lion King" from the ash heap? Given that film's success, hadn't Roger earned the right to be trusted by studio executives to deliver the goods in the end?

Fullmer countered that -- given that "Kingdom of the Sun" was already 18 months and $25 million into production -- the studio couldn't really afford to let Allers fumble for much longer. Disney already had agreements with its promotional partners -- McDonalds, Coca Cola, General Mills et al -- that "Kingdom of the Sun" was going to be the studio's big release for the summer of 2000. Based on the way the "Kingdom of the Sun" production team was still struggling to find an identity for their movie, there was no way that Disney Feature Animation would be able to deliver a finished product in time for "Kingdom" 's previously announced Summer 2000 delivery date.

Allers then admitted that he would need more time to successfully complete his version of "Kingdom of the Sun." An additional six months. A year, tops. Fullmer countered that an extension was impossible. Due to the promotional agreements the studio had already signed, "Kingdom" had to meet its previously announced Summer 2000 delivery date.

Roger was disappointed to hear that studio executives placed more importance on meeting promotional deadlines than they did on producing a memorable motion picture. Since Disney seemed to have lost confidence in Allers' ability to turn "Kingdom" into a commercially viable film, Roger asked to be taken off the project.

Fullmer took this news back to the then-head of Disney Feature Animation Peter Schneider. Schneider called Allers to express his regret with Roger's decision, but did agree to allow the director to withdraw from the project. Peter then picked up the phone and broke the news to Disney Company CEO Michael Eisner that Allers no longer wanted to direct "Kingdom."

This supposedly was the last straw for Eisner. He was reportedly so angry at what a mess "Kingdom of the Sun" had become that he issued an ultimatum: Disney Feature Animation had just two weeks to convince him that there was an affordable way to save this animated abortion, or Eisner would personally pull the plug on the project."

So Fullmer quickly made a call to Mark Dindal ...