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The Lion King, the pitch and the boardroom
A Cautionary Tale of Hollywood Creative Culpability by Camus
"The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe was the
first book I ever read. Should I be fearful?"


Dramatis Personnae:

Walter Elias...............A Disney executive
Exec...............Walter's Boss

Walter Elias is a Disney executive. (No he isn't, but for the purposes of satire, bear with me). Walter Elias's future depends on him unerringly predicting it. Walter Elias has been to Cannes. It's 2001. He's feeling a mite unwell. He has just seen about 40 minutes of Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings. And he's scared. Very scared.

Walter knows his own company's digital effects facility (the 'Secret Laboratory') doesn't hold a single, slim candle to New Zealand's WETA FX company run by the irrepressible Richard Taylor. Walter knows that their mega-stiff Dinosaur was beyond hugely expensive and had the charm of a Dixon's ad campaign. It also had a leading man (leading dinosaur) named 'Aladar' and if that's not a synonym for ‘anodyne' I don't know what is. Let's find a name that is the least offensive to everyone – which in turn means their drama of a dinosaur leading a group of dinosaurs to a feeding ground is insipid and thesaurusly overblown. The movie didn't quite tank but then it hardly lit up the firmament despite a marketing budget that would have kept Don Simpson in cocaine for a whole weekend. The Lion King was the worst thing to happen to Disney. It made too much money, put too much pressure on everyone to deliver a repeat performance and made subsequent creative choices rather eccentric (check out the lemur mating dance in Dinosaur. It's Lebo and all African Lion King leftovers rejigged by the absurdly talented James Newton-Howard).

2001 belonged to a man who had previously made films about undead aliens and body fluids so fluid it made you blink from the spray. After Heavenly Creatures, Hollywood sat up and said "Yeah, OK. Peter Jackson can make good movies despite all that gory shit…" After The Fellowship of the Ring, Hollywood said "What's the country code for New Zealand?" Ring in the changes. A maverick had become mogul and Disney had become slaves to the imaginations of conservative Oxford Dons. But they didn't know that just then.

Imagine, 2001, Christmas:

Walter Elias has to make a business plan for 2002… He has just seen Lord of the Rings and is in a state of palpable shock.

WALTER: It's… Well, it's… Sir, it's extraordinary.
EXEC: Niagara Falls is extraordinary. This Rings thing is embarrassing the shit out of all of us.
WALTER: To fight fire with fire, you need the spark, tinder and kindling. We're wet.
EXEC: What've we got?
WALTER: A 2D cell animation of a yodeling rustler and some plucky cows…
EXEC: We market Home on the Range right and it could go stratospheric…
WALTER: No. It's a stiff and we all know it.
EXEC: OK, OK. Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. What's this Kiwi got?
WALTER: Mr. Jackson's got a globally beloved trilogy…
EXEC: I'm well read and not just a Disney exec. The Lord of the Rings was one book but the publishers insisted it was divided into three.
WALTER: Colour me impressed. One book but in six parts divided into three volumes. Actually.
EXEC: The Kiwi got three cherries. How do we get three cherries without lion kings?
WALTER: By getting seven cherries…
EXEC: What? Fuggedaboudit. The sequel will not do anything close to the same business, mark my words.

Cut to Christmas 2002:

WALTER: I marked your words.
EXEC: Said in the heat of the moment. Who the fuck is J.R.R. Tolkein anyway and why isn't he doing publicity? But who on this good Earth wants to see all those battles? The Two Towers? Is the Kiwi taking the piss? Doesn't he know it was the ‘twin' towers? Remind me. What do I employ you for?
WALTER: To come up with ideas?
EXEC: If the Kiwi does this again next year, I want more than ideas. I want a Teflon coated business plan.
WALTER: Well, as I said last year, there's always the wardrobe.
EXEC: What?
WALTER: The Christian allegory? Gibson's Passion was hot last year.
EXEC: Extreme torture can only get you so far and besides we want to snare the kids…
WALTER: Oh, this'll snare the kids…
EXEC: Hold on that. I just read a script. Perfect Michael Bay material – The Island! No other movie is going to touch this.
WALTER: …with a barge pole.
EXEC: No problem. It's not as if a second sequel ever won anything at Oscar night…

The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King wins 11 Oscars… April 2004

EXEC: King who?
WALTER: Kong. You know. The gorilla?
EXEC: So what about the second sequel?
WALTER: There is another series of books you know. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia'?
EXEC: Who directed Shrek? Get him on board. Well, if I'm going to consider ‘The Chronicles of Riddick', (a) it has to appeal to the religious right as Bush has got them all fired up, (b) it has to be realizable by CGI and (c) it has to be made in New Zealand. I'm getting a good vibe from there right now.
WALTER: That decision took three years? What about your principal decision making process?
EXEC: My lucky anagram generator? Let's see what we get from "Disney's Chronicles of Narnia"... "Fairyland concession shrine!" Let's do it... But drop the wardrobe. Wardrobes don't float my boat, you know what I mean. How about ‘The Lion, The Witch and the Internet Portal'?
WALTER: And Aslan, the lion (or Jesus as he's more well known)?
EXEC: Get a poll out. How pissed off would people be if we re-named him?
EXEC: ‘Simba''s got a good ring to it, don't you think?
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

USA 2005
140 mins
Andrew Adamson
Mark Johnson
Philip Steuer
Ann Peacock
Andrew Adamson
Christopher Markus
Stephen McFeely
from the novel by
C.S. lewis
Donald McAlpine
Sim Evan-Jones
Jim May
Harry Gregson-Williams
production design
Roger Ford
Georgie Henley
Skandar Keynes
William Moseley
Anna Popplewell
Tilda Swinton
article posted
7 December 2005