The Mouse has shuttered an animation studio ... one that was a shadow of its former self.
... Disney has decided to close down DisneyToon Studios. This shuttering is said to be unrelated to Docter and Lee's promotions, but as a result, 75 staff members, including animators, will be laid off, and it's unclear if any of them will be transferred to Pixar or the main Disney animation branch. ...
Disney Toon Studios specialized in making animated features for the home video market (VHS cassettes and later DVDs ... remember those?) The impetus for the division came when Disney Television Animation took multiple episodes of its new TV series Aladdin and cut them into a "sequel" feature entitled The Return of Jafar.
The opus cost a few million to cobble together, sold fifteen million units (VHS cassettes in those long-ago days) and grossed $300 million. And Disney knew instantly that it had stumbled into a gold mine with lots of thick veins of shiny metal.
Dozens of direct-to-video "sequels" followed: Cinderella II, Lady and the Tramp II, Bambi II, Lion King 1 1/2, etcetera and etcetera. The company turned the production of lower-cost spinoff features into its own division called (ultimately) Disney Toon Studios. Sharon Morrill, a Disney TVA executive in the right spot at the right time, became head of the new subsidiary. And big money continued to be made, even though story development on the sequels was often chaotic. (The first director on a new project was invariably fired by management. A standing joke: "You're more likely to survive Omaha Beach than being Director #1 on a direct-to-video Disney feature.")
The division prospered during the era of tape cassettes and DVDs, although budgets escalated and profits steadily declined. The head of the division was disliked by the artistic staff, but upper management nevertheless rewarded her with lucrative employment contracts. (Said one disgruntled film editor: "Michael Eisner is a micro-manager who pays no attention to what's actually going on.")
Eventually, however, upper management changed. John Lasseter and Ed Catmull took over most of the company's animation portfolio, and made it clear they were less than totally enthusiastic about the low-budget product Disney Toon Studios was turning out. The market for little silver disks was already in a tailspin when Ms. Morrill was at last given her walking papers, but the division limped along for another decade, surviving on the Tinkerbell franchise Mr. Lasseter set up.
A second series of features built around the Cars spin-off Planes failed to take flight, Mr. Lasseter departed, and the studio, which had suffered major layoffs a couple of years ago, was shut down this week, the victim of market changes and shifting audience tastes.