Notes from the Underground. 3 Nov 2009.

I asked an industry friend in Sun Valley recently about Jeff Katzenberg’s strategy to preempt Disney’s animation releases. I asked why Disney didn’t sue Katzenberg for “look and feel”. Here is the reply:

Hey. Sorry for the delayed response. Been a bit busy launching our current round of engagement.

Some answers are:
Very hard to establish legal basis for a judgment without exposing way more of the internal creative process than they’d want.

K was already suing D for a cut of the profits that the films on his watch raked in. They ultimately settled behind the scenes, with K getting about $280 million.

D had a lot more to lose from a PR standpoint than SKG did. They were already bleeding from the other suit, and the company as a whole was very uncomfortable with the Eisner-Katzenberg showdown. Many see the roots of Eisner’s departure in this feud.
Having just acquired the ABC network, D wanted shows that SKG was producing, and had to bury the hatchet in order to get content.

The S and G in SKG were also being alienated by the battle – and neither Spielberg nor Geffen were people one would readily cut ties with for long.

I did check back to see if I was remembering the battle correctly, after all these years. Seems that the whole thing started when the release date for Antz was pushed up 6 months to beat Bug’s Life to the theaters. But Disney and Universal were already at the clone game before that. Some samples are listed in the attached PDF.

Having looked over the returns, though, I think the best answer is that Disney kept winning, thanks mostly to Pixar’s success. In this JPG, Disney’s purple, SKG is green. In the chart to the right, the vertical axis represents release dates:
DW v Dis
All this would make it seem that a preemptive strategy wasn’t as effective as one might think. Jury’s still out on that – though K was the one who originally put Pixar and Disney together, so he planted the seeds for his own biggest competition. He’s been much more effective at keeping Sony, Fox and Warner Bros at bay.

Interestingly, Katzenberg can claim direct responsibility for about a third of all box office receipts for animated films released in the US in the past two decades, regardless of studio of origin – or $4.4 billion of a $13 billion industry.

Some people you just don’t sue.

Published by William Vaughan

filmmaker, artist

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