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Walt Disney introduces Disneyland, as construction on the theme park begins in 1954.

Disneyland:

How Walt Disney's Theme Park Impacted the Independent Film Movement

Excerpt from Hollywood Renegades by J. A. Aberdeen


As the Disney studio struggled to get back on its feet after World War II, Disneyland became Walt Disney's great postwar venture. Spending years trying to find backing for the park, Disney perceived that television could provide the financing and exposure necessary to get such a massive undertaking off the ground.

Walt Disney - around 1950 (Aberdeen collection). 

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In 1952 Walt Disney formed a company originally called Walt Disney, Incorporated, which was renamed WED when Roy Disney convinced his brother to adopt a more low-profile name that would not cause confusion with the studio itself. WED set up shop on the Disney lot in Burbank in 1953, ostensibly to specialize in television production. At the time, the creation of WED was in harmony with other Hollywood production companies like Columbia and Republic which created subsidiaries, Screen Gems and Hollywood Television Service, respectively, to specialize in television while protecting the distinctiveness of their feature film trademarks. In actuality, WED was designed as Walt Disney's command-post for the Disneyland theme park since Walt Disney Productions' support for the unconventional project appeared questionable. Quite suitably for the maverick producer, he had to jump-start his dream by going independent from his own studio.

In September 1953, Roy Disney, took the WED concept sketches and six-page prospectus to New York to meet with television industry leaders. The two main networks CBS and NBC both expressed interest in a Disney-produced TV show but were unable to commit to the theme park as extra baggage in the deal.

Running out of options, Roy Disney returned to his Waldorf Astoria suite, and phoned Leonard Goldenson who, after two years of courting the Disney studio, was still enthusiastic about a deal between them and ABC. Desperately trying to become a major broadcaster, ABC was also willing to take a risk on the unusual Disney project. Goldenson immediately came to the hotel to discuss the proposal.

Film trade headline for January 11, 1954. Roy Disney had announced to stockholders, in a controversial move, that a Disney television show would be "designed not only to produce revenue but also to publicize all of the company's product."

Also see Paramount Television and the Formation of ABC

In exchange for Walt Disney's commitment to produce a weekly television series, ABC-Paramount would contribute $500,000 to the park, guarantee $4.5 million in loans, and become a 34 percent owner in Disneyland, Inc. (the company Walt Disney organized in 1951). Walt Disney Productions also invested in a one-third interest; and the remaining stock was split between Walt Disney himself and a publishing company that worked closely with Disney.

The press photo used by Disney to announce the 1954 deal with ABC TV.

The ABC-Paramount board approved the Disney deal on March 29, 1954—one week after a memorable Academy Award ceremony where Disney came away from the night with an unmatched feat as the personal recipient of four Oscars. But in the Walt Disney Production board, last minute opposition within the company nearly killed the Disneyland deal. Eventually the contract with ABC was signed on April 2, and Walt Disney planned to begin his show for the fall season.

The ABC-Paramount deal put the independent producer Walt Disney in an interesting situation. His new commitments to ABC now made him the associate of the Paramount theaters whose ruthless tactics over the years had been the bane of the independents. Goldenson's active role in the Detroit monopoly made the dilemma even more awkward, as did Earl Hudson's position as head of ABC west coast operations. Not only was Hudson still a defendant in SIMPP v. United Detroit, but Walt Disney Productions sought millions of dollars in damages from the United Paramount theaters. The Disney company decided it was no longer prudent to be in a position of suing its television partner.

TV Guide, October 1954.

Walt Disney pressed for a settlement in the Detroit case in which SIMPP had invested several years trying to reclaim damages from the Michigan theater chain that had been owned by Paramount Pictures. SIMPP designed the case as the opening gun of their fight against the old Hollywood theater chains. Instead, the independent producers walked away without the pomp and balyhoo that accompanied the most public of SIMPP's activities. Though the case had had a number of difficulties, the undesirable conclusion disappointed some of the producers—in particular Sam Goldwyn, who would leave SIMPP the following year.

Disneyland provided an economic and creative turning point for Walt Disney Productions which had struggled for many years as an independent production company in Hollywood. But as Walt Disney moved into the theme park business, several other Disney activities were reevaluated.

Donald Duck cola from the Disney food division in the 1950s.

The Disney food division was one example. During the early 1950s Walt Disney had originated an extensive line of food products from bread to soft drinks. In addition to bringing further exposure to his name and company, Disney also considered this kind of diversification financially sound. Unfortunately when entering television, he was forced to curtail his food and beverage operation to avoid competition with potential advertisers. Only one significant remnant of the food line remained—Donald Duck orange juice.

Disneyland showed the film industry that Walt Disney was expanding beyond his film roots, and moving into areas that were foreign to even the studios themselves. Part of the price for this expansion was a redirection of the independent movement embodied by SIMPP. Walt Disney became the leading figure in SIMPP even while Walt Disney Productions less-and-less resembled the typical independent company. As the independent producers no longer shared common goals, it would only be a short time before these differences would divide the Society of Independent Motion Picture Producers, and to bring about its demise.


SOURCES:

Disneyland and WED: Thomas, Building a Company, pp. 178-185; Schickel, The Disney Version, p. 313-314, Thomas, Walt Disney, pp. 248-249 and Mosely, Disney's World, p. 233.

Disney deal with ABC-Paramount: Thomas M. Prior, "Disney to Enter TV Field in Fall," NYT, March 30, 1954, p. 24; Thomas M. Prior, "Disney Pact Delayed," NYT, March 31, 1954, p. 38; Thomas M. Prior, "Disney and A.B.C. Sign TV Contract," NYT, April 3, 1954, p. 19.

See Bibliography.

 

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