“Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” – Jean Luc Godard
Yeah…what he said.
...because the history of media is going to have the proverbial mouse ears somewhere in the past, present, future and most recently, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. Disney is a juggernaut in every avenue of filmmaking. Whether or not that's now attributed to the mountain of wealth they have to buy the best is irrelevant because they've been in the business of selling the idea that "dreams come true" since your grandparents were in diapers. And they were doing it well back then too.
Believe it or not, the global media behemoth known as The Walt Disney Company originally laid its foundations through a genuine commitment to storytelling. You probably didn’t know that Walt has more Oscars than any one other individual by a long shot, and this isn’t because he sold a bunch of toys. The first ever Mickey Mouse cartoon “Steamboat Willie” was inspired by Buster Keaton’s classic (and similarly titled) film "Steamboat Bill Jr." Influenced by the German Expressionist filmmakers, Walt also recognized the narrative power of classic fairy tales, using them as source material for the company’s early animated features. Disney was also the first company to utilize marketing as a component of storytelling. In building the theme parks, Disney essentially created the idea that the cinematic dreams of its films could come true in real life…after the price of admission, of course. While it’s easy to take a cynical view of the company’s relentless pursuit of marketing and narrative tie-ins, Disney’s world-devouring consumerism basically paved the way for trans-media storytelling.
Disney was among the early Hollywood studios to produce and distribute its own films, which it still does today. However, as the company grew into the world’s brand name for children’s entertainment, the inheritors of Walt’s legacy understood the need to find new viewers, or simply cater to the original kid consumers as they grew into adults and senior citizens. Because powerful narratives don’t need to have singing animals, Disney acquired entertainment companies like Miramax during the emergence of independent film (though it relinquished its stake in 2010), ESPN as sports transformed from a novelty act into compelling live drama and Marvel after CGI breakthroughs made comic book adaptations cinematic. Recently, you may have also heard something about the company’s purchase of a minor franchise about some folks fighting in outer space. Disney has also been smart about using its YouTube channel and new media to reach untapped, ever-changing viewership. While no filmmaker will EVER have the resources of Disney, the company proves that there are always new audiences waiting to be discovered and that they crave more than just the story in the finished film or show.
Once upon a time, Walt Disney and his brother Roy were basically guys making cartoon short films in the early days of Hollywood. They of course weren’t the only people doing this, but theirs is the name we all know today. The history of cinema and media entertainment is filled with stories of individuals and companies that failed to adapt to changing times or take chances on new trends. Disney is not one of those. Walt quickly saw the potential in the transition from silent film to sound, short cartoons to animated features, film to television and eventually the value of “lived” experiences such as theme parks. It may sound trite to call him a visionary, but he really earned that label. Today, the company that bears his name tries to follow in his footsteps by jumping onto new technological developments and seeking new venues for its storytelling. Sometimes this even involves looking backwards to older forms, such as when the company hired Julie Taymor to adapt its hit film "The Lion King" into an inspired puppet theater show on Broadway. For filmmakers and storytellers, it’s worth considering how your work can expand into other areas or media forms.
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