The flurry of attention on Disney seems to be missing the fundamental problem: it appears Disney does not 'get' Gen D, the digital generation. The Pixar digital movies have all done better than the best recent features of the vaunted Disney animation studios. This is not a situation which can be fixed by Roy Disney's appeal to go back to traditional Disney ways. Nor by Comcast, which is known by its efficiency (and deal timing) not its creativity. Nor it appears by Eisner, who has been quite good at seeking efficiencies and synergies across the Disney businesses, but seems unable to maintain supremely talented executives. He correctly attributes Pixar's success to the vision and story telling of John Lasseter, who does get Gen D. Without a John Lasseter, can Disney duplicate Pixar and appeal to Gen D?
Disney may be too hidebound to get it.
Eisner revitalized Disney by raising ticket prices at the theme parks in the face of demographic serendipity -just as the Baby Echo Boom hit Disney age. (The number of kids of the Boomers exceeded the Baby Boom itself. And all those Soccer Moms wanted to treat their kids to the same experience they had delighted in when they were growing up.) At the same time, Jeffrey Katzenberg issued a series of feature cartoons that signaled the rebirth of animation. These films were more animated Broadway shows (in music and story) than the prior generation of animated fairy tales, and appealed to the parents as much as the kids. Since Katzenberg's departure, Disney animation has gone back to older story forms, and has sunk in popularity. Eisner went on to manage the growing complexity of the business fairly well, given what he had to work with. And therein lies the problem.
The Boomers were raised on the stories of the original Disneyland. Fairy Tales. They eagerly brought their kids into the same world. But the stories of the past are not appealing to Gen D. Perhaps to a degree not fully appreciated compared to past generations, a Gen D kid and her great-grandparents of 100 years ago would find it extraordinarily difficult to relate to each others world view. Yet Disney still retreads the old stories. Would Pixar do a Tarzan, or (god forbid) a Treasure Planet?
Digital animation is much more than the same stories with new tools. Nor is about the tools. Hollywood is prone to the George Lucas disease - substituting digital effects for compelling story and acting. Witness how far off Matrix 2 and 3 were from the first Matrix movie. Given the failure of recent Disney animation, why should we expect it to appeal just because it is digitized? Their first Pixar-killer is based on the story of Chicken Little. We'll see whom the sky falls in on.
The theme parks are meant to tell the same stories as animation in a physical realm. The old Tomorrowland was looking dated, but when building a new Tomorrowland, why would it be appealing to build a future that looks like Jules Verne? Or add a new park which is meant to be a synthetic California? Disney seems unable to give away enough tickets to fill their new California Adventure park.
Compunding this problem is the slowness and expense which Disney takes to add new rides to Disneyland. Rather than use computer simulation tools to imagine and 'walk-through' the rides, Disney still largely uses the old-fashioned approach of storyboard, model, build and rebuild. How can they keep up with the video-game-enabled Gen D?
The loss of the last independent studio to Comcast would be a shame, given Disney's history. Yet perhaps no more shameful than watching the studio lose its way in the transition to digital. Maybe the idle talk of merging Pixar into Disney and letting Steve Jobs run the show should be taken seriously.