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Remembering Roy E. Disney

by on December 17, 2009

Were it not for Roy E. Disney, the course of animation history would
have been almost completely different. The Lion King, The Little
, and Aladdin would likely not have been made, at least not with
the class and verve that made them classics. Had Roy Disney not
intervened, Pixar might have been preparing to release its fourth film
with another studio as Disney prepared to release Toy Story 3 itself.
Moreover, Disney’s exodus from hand-drawn animation may well have been

Conjecture? Hyperbole? Perhaps. But there’s something to be said about
a man who engineered not one, but two successful shareholder revolts. A
man who, despite amassing enough wealth to purchase a castle in
Ireland, recognized what the Disney name stood for and fought to keep the company focus on those ideals. He did
not run the Walt Disney Company, but was a key force in
handing the keys to the Magic Kingdom over to the outsiders who did.

It’s hard to believe now, with the Disney brand almost omnipresent, but
Walt Disney Productions was perched on the brink in 1984. Under
president Ron Miller, the sole asset Disney had was its name and
library. Animation, once the cornerstone of the company, was reduced to
cranking out uninspired efforts such as The Fox and the Hound and The
Black Cauldron
. Most of the second generation of artists trained by the
Nine Old Men, led by Don Bluth, left the studio for greener pastures.

Worse, Disney’s animation presence on television was limited to the
occasional television special and repeats through its long-running
“Walt Disney” anthology series and fledgling Disney Channel. Despite a
promising move towards mature-oriented films with the new Touchstone
label, flops like Condorman and Return to Oz were more typical of the company’s live-action output.

Disney was in trouble; the company was being circled by various
suitors. Roy was the one who realized his uncle’s company had to be
turned around in order for the Disney legacy to live on. He resigned
from the board in 1984, and with backing from financier Sid Bass, led a
coup to replace Miller with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells. Roy then
rejoined the company as chairman of Feature Animation and a board
member. He did not participate in the day-to-day work of supervising
the department; that was left to Jeff Katzenberg.

The results of the coup could be seen vividly by 1989. In six years,
the animation studio was restored to its former prestige. It had become
a major player in television animation. Touchstone opened a large new
market for the company, as did VHS and cable. Roy stopped focusing on
the company as a whole and retreated to the aspects of the company he
knew best, and frequently appeared as a company figurehead and

By 2003, things were not at all well at Disney once more. Former COO, Frank Wells had
passed away in 1994; Katzenberg was forced out soon after. Disney, with only Eisner at the
helm, fought with their most important content partner and made
questionable acquisitions such as Fox Family. Again, it was Roy who saw
the company heading in the wrong direction. Again, he quit and launched
a very public campaign against the man he had helped appoint.

This second revolt was more impressive than the
first. Disney was no longer a small struggling company; it was a big
struggling empire. The company’s holdings now included a broadcast
television network, one of the biggest brands in sports, several film
studios, and a mighty home entertainment unit.

This was no longer his uncle’s company.

In essence, that was exactly the reason Roy launched his second “Save
Disney” offensive. He believed the studio had strayed too far from its
roots, becoming “rapacious and soulless”. More importantly he
criticized the litany of failures that characterized the last half of
Eisner’s reign – the dismal performance at ABC, the Fox Family fiasco,
mismanagement of animation, etc.

Through a relentless campaign waged online through SaveDisney.com, Roy
capitalized on the growing discontent towards the Walt Disney Company
and its culture. The site appealed both to fans who had seen the
company lose its way but also to investors, going so far as to provide
forms to vote against the re-election of Eisner at the company’s 2004
shareholder meeting.

A stunning 45% of shareholders voted against keeping Eisner as CEO.
This was unprecedented in corporate America. Keep in mind that
many boards act as rubber stamps for the executives in charge. Their
power is generally very limited; often, secrets are kept from the
board. While it was not a majority, and not enough to depose Eisner,
the simple fact that nearly half of Disney shareholders voted against
the boss sent a huge message. Eisner was essentially forced to step
down as chairman and accelerate his retirement plans.

Roy was not happy with the man picked to succeed Eisner, nor the way he
was chosen, but eventually settled all differences with Bob Iger and
shut down the Save Disney site. He rejoined the company in a director
emeritus role.

Since then, Disney has made a number of large scale changes designed to
revitalize the company. Not only did Disney and Pixar reconcile, they
merged, with Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter supervising a
revitalized animation division. ABC’s fortunes began to turn around,
and the Al Michaels/Oswald “trade” signified a renewed interest in the
studio’s legacy. While big acquisitions still happen, as is the case
with the pending acquisition of Marvel, they are more carefully thought
out and planned.

In his own way, Roy E. Disney was just as important to the Disney
studio as his uncle. He did not have the creative genius of Walt, but
his ability to both recognize the need for difficult change and to follow through on it made him a formidable opponent. The Disney company, in its current form,
would not have existed if not for Roy’s shareholder revolts,
particularly the first one. Had Roy not pushed for Eisner in the first
place, Disney may well have been swallowed up by another corporation.

Roy E. Disney can be considered the father of the current
Disney corporation. It’s a testament to the man he was that Roy E.
Disney never lost sight of the company’s roots.

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