Thanks for the corrections! This is what happens when I write from memory. Glad there's another person in my We Hate Mortimer Club.
I wrote this little essay for my class, figured you all might be interested as well.
Though Walt Diseny’s public rhetoric often focused on the magic of animation, the supposedly enriching quality of the stories his company of artists told, and the development of his personal mythology as “Uncle Walt,” a kind, even-keeled, avuncular figure who give his young audiences their medicine with a spoonful of sugar, he was, under and through all of that, a capitalist of the highest order. Practically every technological innovation (whether really innovative or just sold as such) from Disney happened not in pursuit of higher art or science but because profits were lagging and he needed a spark around which he could advertise the latest picture. After two relatively successful films, Walt wanted to develop his reputation as a bastion of cultural importance by marrying his company’s animation prowess to old, famous, European, classical music. And yes, mission accomplished on that front. But Fantasia is a failure in another way, a failure that it took almost 80 years to correct. Based on statements and letters written by Walt at the time of Fantasia’s making and distribution, he seemed to envision it as a kind of perpetual profit machine, a film that could be constantly refreshed with new content that would entice audiences back to the theater to see what the man and his team dreamt up this time. For reasons I’ll speculate upon later, this didn’t end up happening. But nearly eight decades later, the launch of Disney+ in the era of Disney Corp.’s ever-increasing grip upon the production of filmed entertainment media has perhaps finally fulfilled Walt’s fantasy of a forever-fruitful fountain of profits.
First exhibited as a roadshow production in major cities throughout the U.S., then edited for time for a wider theatrical release in 1942, Fantasia was a major production that, in its optimal roadshow format, involved installing Disney’s Fantasound technology, the first stereo system made for sound movies. Featuring some 96 speakers planted throughout the theater to play one of three channels of audio meticulously recorded and mixed for maximum impact and accuracy, the Fantasound system was both expensive and time-consuming to install for what might amount to a few-week-long run. The shorter, widely distributed version of the film did not feature the Fantasound technology for obvious reasons. By all accounts, the Fantasound tech was impressive and accomplished the desired enormity and clarity of sound, but it was too costly and cumbersome to last outside the early roadshow exhibitions of the film.
In addition to the infeasible sound technology, the use of three-strip Technicolor filming technologies and super-detailed drawings meant that the production costs for Fantasia were sky-high. With a production priced at $2.23 million in 1940 (nearly $41 million in 2020), the price for designing and animating so many characters and backgrounds for such a long movie was almost impossible to comprehend. Disney was banking on the film’s near universal appeal, given its relative lack of spoken dialogue and the immediate comprehensibility of its combination of music and images, and envisioned a distribution strategy that would see it succeed worldwide. The outbreak of WWII a year away from Fantasia’s release would basically close off the crucial European market. Disney would have to find another way to make the movie profitable.
According to an article on D23, the official Disney Fan Club (basically an arm of the Disney Corporation), Walt stated in 1941 that it was his “intention to make a version of Fantasia every year.” This wouldn’t be an entirely new film, of course, since that would entail incurring the same development costs that the original film was trying to recuperate. Instead, we know from correspondence between Walt and Fantasia’s conductor, Leopold Stokowski, that Walt was looking to use the film’s structure to his advantage. “From all the talk I hear,” he wrote, “I think if we put in one new number, almost everyone would go to hear the whole picture again. Then a few months later if we put in another new number, most of them will go again.” This idea was born from the overwhelmingly positive audience response to the long-running roadshow presentation of the film in New York City, and it seemed to Walt like audience response was so positive that he could basically milk that relatively small audience for all it was worth. The film’s structure as a series of shorts based around different pieces of classical music could feasibly sustain such a milking, as perhaps the Beethoven segment might get pulled for some other respectable bit of music with its own new series of images to delight audiences anew. After all, these pieces of music have stood the test of time without much variation, why couldn’t Disney’s concert film work like an orchestra’s set, with “new” (or should I say, different) pieces introduced once “old” ones have been heard enough. Such swapping could feasibly happen every “few months” for forever! A perpetual profit machine.
Disney developed, to one extent or another, eight new segments before scrapping the idea. I couldn’t find why the Fantasia reinvigoration idea didn’t come to fruition, though the timing of the 1941 animator strike at Disney Studios probably had a role to play in it. By the time that strike ended Disney had started looking to other revenue streams that depended less upon angry animators like live-action film and, eventually, theme parks. Perhaps the logistics involved in the development, recording, and filming of new segments for what was ultimately a small market was always untenable. 59 years later, Disney released a “sequel” to Fantasia which, in some small way, retained the idea of the film as a renewable resource in its reuse of the famous “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” segment. But that film, too, was met with less-than-expected enthusiasm and smaller-than-necessary box office receipts. We are unlikely to see a Fantas3a any time soon.
That isn’t to say that the Disney Corporation has abandoned Walt’s dream of a perpetual profit machine, and they might have even achieved it in a way Walt could never have thought of. At the end of 2019, Disney released their Disney+ subscription streaming service. Leveraging their grip on a back catalogue of nostalgia-inducing films, giant IP acquisitions, and a professed—though not yet accomplished—desire to revive the animated short film as an exciting medium for their audience, Disney+ seems like it has the potential to work similarly to the way Walt wanted Fantasia to work. Every week or so a new animated short debuts on the service, and they seem to be rotating through their collection of animated shorts from the 1920s through the 1950s. With a built-in audience of paying customers who are forking up ~$5 a month for access to the service, Disney has found themselves a way to get a monthly infusion of cash. Their subscriber base will only grow as they continue to develop shows like The Mandalorian, and maybe one day they’ll start a series of animated shorts set to wordless music such that subscribers could curate their own Fantasia program. Disney+ doesn’t seem likely to collapse any time soon, and Disney has finally found its perpetual profit machine.