Filming of Hocus Pocus began at the end of 1992. A few people at Disney feared that the shoot might be a tough one because of Bette Midler’s reputation. The plan was to do the bulk of shooting at Disney’s Burbank lot with a two week “vacation” to film exteriors in Salem, Massachusetts.
Despite Disney’s worries about a rough shoot, things went relatively smoothly. Bette Midler was on her best behavior and stated that the production was a dream. She had the time of her life on the set and looked forward to work each day.
Even more amazingly, the film came in under budget and on time- a rarity in Hollywood. The film’s quick pace of production might have actually put the proverbial nail in the film’s coffin.
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The script that would eventually become Hocus Pocus arrived at Walt Disney Pictures in 1984. Originally called Disney’s Halloween House, it was supposed to star Cloris Leachman as head witch Winifred Sanderson. After Disney’s upheaval in 1984, the project was shelved. When Bette Midler signed onto the film in 1992, the project finally gained some steam.
After the three main witches were cast, producers began searching for the main boy who would propel the action forward. Originally, they wanted Leonardo DiCaprio. Leonardo had already signed onto What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? Omri Katz was signed instead.
Directing duties were given to an odd choice- Kenny Ortega. Ortega had been just a choreographer, crafting memorable dance scenes in such films as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and Dirty Dancing. By 1992 he had only directed one film- Disney’s live action musical Newsies- and that was mainly due to the fact that he had experience as a choreographer. Newsies was far from a hit, so it was a surprise that Disney would entrust him with another film. Even stranger, he would not be choreographing any of the dance scenes in the film.
With the major players in place, production on Hocus Pocus began on the Walt Disney Studios lot in Burbank in late 1992. They were hoping to get the picture completed in time for Halloween 1993.
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When Michael Eisner arrived at Walt Disney Productions in 1984, he wanted to send a signal to Hollywood that the stodgy, risk averse management that he was replacing was now being filled with younger, hipper rebels who would return the company to its risk taking younger days with Walt Disney at the helm. This surprised many people who saw Walt Disney as being quite traditional and far from a hip rebel. Eisner’s belief was true, however. Walt Disney had constantly pushed the envelope. The only difference was that by the 1980’s, the rest of the world had caught up with Mr. Disney and his company had done little to stay ahead.
Mr. Eisner had therefore pushed the narrative that the company under his leadership was a leader in synergy and promotion. If you wanted to reach the family audience, you had to take your project to Disney. Which made the fates of two Halloween themed films in 1993 strange happenings indeed. How could the company of Michael Eisner get the promotion of two films so wrong? We covered one of the films last week- The Nightmare Before Christmas had been released under Disney’s adult film brand, then unceremoniously dumped into theaters. It would take several years and the hard work of its fans for the company to finally see the error of its ways. Hocus Pocus would need a similar dose of magic to get to the same point.
Bette Midler was in much the same situation as Walt Disney Productions in 1984. While Disney’s problems had been caused by the company’s unwillingness to take many risks or innovate, Bette’s downfall had come because of her notoriously bad attitude behind the scenes. Many in Hollywood refused to work with her. When Disney started up Touchstone Pictures, it wanted to signal to Hollywood that it was willing to make films with adult subject matter as long as the price was right. For Bette, this was a godsend. She quickly signed up with Touchstone, promising to behave herself if she was given the chance. The result were some of the most successful films of the 1980’s- Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Ruthless People and Beaches. As Bette’s star began to climb again, however, some old habits feared their ugly heads.
As Bette’s contract with Disney came to a close, the company was getting exceedingly less excited to work with her. Their misgivings about her came to a head when she unceremoniously left the film Sister Act, forcing the company to recast her at the last minute. Her replacement, Whoopi Goldberg, made the film a blockbuster hit. The film that Bette had made instead for another studio- For the Boys- was a huge box office disappointment. Bette still owed one film to Disney, however, so they presented several projects to her, one of which was Hocus Pocus.
Hocus Pocus originally began life as a possible Disney Channel original film. The Disney Channel was transitioning from a premium channel into a basic channel and had begun ramping up its original film catalog. The script, however, was snagged by Walt Disney Pictures who thought it could make a big budget hit. Bette Midler, who was reportedly trying to salvage her reputation around town at the time, lept at the chance to take on the role. Kathy Najimy, who had originally taken her role in Sister Act to work alongside Bette Midler, jumped at the chance to finally work with her.
Sarah Jessica Parker was cast as the third Sanderson sister partly due to her singing abilities. She had also been cast in Touchstone’s Ed Wood, so it was an easy choice for the studio. With such a star studded cast, the film was sure to have easy success, right? Stay Tuned!
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Disney had brought its prodigal son back to produce whatever he wanted. When he decided to produce a stop motion film, Disney was overjoyed that maybe this could be a way for it to bridge the gap between Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney Pictures chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had even publicly stated that he hoped the film could help lift the studio’s stodgy reputation.
At practically the last minute, however, the company got cold feet. This film was too macabre. Too stark. Too scary. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy before it, the film was sent to theaters with the more adult Touchstone Pictures brand on it. An odd choice, considering that the company had already regretted doing that to WFRR. By 1993, Roger Rabbit had already been welcomed into Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom with his very own attraction. Jack Skellington would be similarly exiled.
Without the Disney name, the studio put minimal effort behind promoting the film. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving Weekend release, the film would premiere days before Halloween with a muddled promotional push. Early trailers referred to the film as being from Walt Disney Pictures, but viewers looking for the latest Disney film were greeted with the Touchstone logo. The shift in marketing allowed some toy licensees to drop out while others hastily covered the Disney logo with Touchstone Pictures stickers on the packaging.
The film would be a modest success, but wouldn’t be a Lion King sized success. The merchandise would fail to find very many buyers and the film would soon make its way to the Disney vault, destined to become just a trivia question. Disney might have had little faith in the picture, but its fans wouldn’t let it just disappear. The film gained a massive fan community in the years after its release. By 1998, dolls based on the character Sally that had languished on clearance shelves in early 1994 were fetching $800 on eBay. Disney obviously took notice. Small amounts of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise were produced for Disney Theme Parks and were eagerly snapped up. Licensees lined up to produce even more merchandise for sale. Most films sell the bulk of their merchandise during their initial release. Jack and the gang were selling 20 times more merchandise than they did in 1993 seven years after the film came out.
Disney would make up for lost time. In 2001, Jack Skellington would take over DISNEYLAND’s Haunted Mansion for both the Halloween and Christmas seasons. Despite the huge drop in tourism that year, Jack’s takeover would be a huge success. Florida’s Magic Kingdom ordered its own version and The Magic Kingdom at the Tokyo Disney Resort wanted one too, but initially had to wait. When Florida canceled the overlay, Tokyo eagerly jumped at the chance to add a little madness to its Haunted Mansion. Both seasonal overlays have become cherished additions.
Who could have guessed that the little project that Disney originally rejected would become such a huge phenomenon. Jack and his crew might not have succeeded in stealing Christmas, but they did succeed in stealing the hearts of their millions of fans.
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Our Disney Deep Dive concludes tomorrow!
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Upon his return to Disney, Tim Burton set about choosing his first project. He decided to return to his Disney roots by turning his Halloween themed short idea into a feature length stop motion film. Disney originally had cold feet. What would people think about this grim, macabre take on Christmas and Halloween? The company’s hardline would soften once it realized that it already owned the property and wouldn’t have to negotiate to acquire it from Burton.
At the time, Walt Disney Animation was experiencing a second Golden age. The Little Mermaid had ushered in this new era while Beauty and the Beast had cemented Disney’s new dominance. Disney CEO Michael Eisner had hoped to do what Walt Disney himself was unable to accomplish; release a new animated feature every year. With Aladdin opening up one year after Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King on deck for the next year, it seemed as though he would achieve this goal.
The Lion King, however, had fallen behind schedule. It would not be finished in time to meet its original November 1993 release date. The company thought that possibly The Nightmare Before Christmas would fill the void. Production on the stop motion picture, however, was going very slowly.
The actual filming took place in San Francisco, 400 miles away from Disney’s Burbank studios and its prying eyes. The studio feared that the production was going too long and that some of the film’s elements would be too scary for children, despite the fact that this film was supposed to show Hollywood and the world that Disney was willing to create and release edgier pictures. Disney’s fears would prove unfounded; the picture would be ready in time for a Holiday 1993 release. Would Disney, however, be ready for The Nightmare Before Christmas?
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After his firing from Walt Disney Productions, Tim decided that his future was in directing live action films. Luckily for him, his Vincent short was seen by Paul Reubens, who was looking for a director for the big screen debut of his Pee-Wee Herman character. The film was a huge success, which caught the eye of Warner Brothers executives. They quickly signed him to a contract.
The studio still had some reservations about handing over huge budgets to make some of his more eccentric projects. He began working on a script for a new take on Batman, but while encouraging him to work on the project, Warner Brothers was reluctant to hand such a big project over to him. Eager to work on something that would actually get produced, Tim found a script that had the same sort of twisted view that he liked to portray on screen. Beetlejuice was a huge hit, produced on a small budget. Warner Brothers was finally ready to hand over a huge budget and the equivalent of its Crown Jewels to Burton. His version of Batman would finally hit the big screen.
At first, Warner Brothers began to regret its decision. Tim chose Michael Keaton as his Batman, which the studio found puzzling. The fans were outraged, resulting in a drop in the studio’s share price. After Jack Nicholson was signed, the grumbling quieted. In the end, the film became a colossal hit, making hundreds of millions of dollars for Warner Brothers. When the huge merchandising push was factored in, the studio made in excess of $1 Billion off the film. This made Tim a directing superstar.
This success would not go unnoticed by anyone in Hollywood. Disney CEO Michael Eisner saw an opportunity to grab some of the success for the company. Tim’s firing had come before Eisner had joined the company, and it had been transformed since then. The company’s Touchstone Pictures division now produced the sort of films that could give Burton the freedom to fully explore his visions. Eisner took advantage of Tim’s fondness for Disney and the new freedom he would have to sign Tim to make a few projects for the studio. Warner hadn’t signed Tim to an exclusive contract, so he was free to work where he wanted. So in 1990, Tim would return to Disney. But what would his first project be? It would end up being a literal blast from the past.
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These days, The Nightmare Before Christmas has become an established Halloween treat that bridges the gap between Halloween and Christmas. Who could imagine Halloween without a visit from Jack Skellington and the other denizens of Halloweentown? This beloved classic has even inspired yearly Haunted Mansion overlays at DISNEYLAND and the Tokyo Disney Resort’s Magic Kingdom Park. The film’s current success, however, was hard earned. Executives in charge at The Disney Studios were never big fans of the project and it would take Batman and ten years for the film to make it to the big screen. Join us as we trace the history of this now classic film that was initially rejected then buried by Disney. It would be the film’s fans- and their dollars- that would eventually elevate the picture to its current heights.
Tim Burton was never a normal kid. Growing up in Burbank, he was literally in The Walt Disney Studios’ backyard, but while he aspired to one day join the ranks of the studio’s artists, his tastes leaned darker and more gruesome than the squeaky clean world of Disney. Of course, while Disney’s world was never completely gumdrops and lollipops, its villains always took a back seat to the heroes and everything seemed to be either black or white. Tim, on the other hand, saw things in shades of grey.
Tim’s artistic gifts would eventually lead him to the legendary CalArts. Endowed and built by Walt Disney, the school had soared to the top of arts colleges by the late 1970’s. While it was descended from institutions that had been established decades before, it had only been established as CalArts in the mid-1960’s. It had become a reliable producer of talent for the various Hollywood studios and was a great place to begin an artistic career. Tim had produced a pencil drawn cartoon short in 1979 that caught the attention of Walt Disney Animation- Stalk of The Celery Monster. The studio would offer young Tim an apprenticeship and then a job. A few of the studio’s old guard saw Tim’s potential and regarded his different, darker style as intriguing enough to let him pursue his own projects.
One of his first productions was Vincent, a macabre stop motion short that featured a young boy, not unlike young Tim, who aspired to be just like his favorite actor- Vincent Price. At least, he aspired to be how he imagined Vincent Price to be like in real life. This novel short was unlike anything that Disney had ever released before, which rattled a few executives at the studio. Vincent Price, however, quickly signed on to narrate the film, which changed a few minds at Disney. The short was a huge success, prompting Tim to start working on other concepts for the studio.
His next big project for the studio was a Japanese-themed retelling of the Hansel and Gretel story for The Disney Channel In 1983. The bizarre live action production flummoxed studio execs. They weren’t sure what to make of it and chose to air it just once on Halloween of that year. The film was eventually shelved, never getting a home video release or even a repeated viewing on television.
Undaunted, Tim chose the macabre Frankenweenie as his next project. The featurette, which told the story of a young boy who brought his dog back to life, was the last straw. Disney executives, faced with a hostile takeover and increasing irrelevance, decided to fire Tim Burton. It was determined that the type of projects he was creating would never fit in at Disney.
Tim was devastated, especially after he learned that his next project had also been canceled. The project was deemed, like his others, to be too dark and macabre for Disney. That project was The Nightmare Before Christmas.
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We’re starting a new series here at RetlawYensid.com- Disney Deep Dives! On these special weeks, we’ll take a deeper dive into one Disney subject. Beginning next month, these Disney Deep Dives will alternate weeks with our regular posting schedule. This month, however, we’ll launch with a month of Disney Deep Dives to celebrate Halloween.
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