The last year hasn't been too kind to the little studio making the Mouse's direct-to-video/spin-off stuff...
A little background. Prior to Bob Iger becoming CEO of The Walt Disney Company, DisneyToon produced the infamous direct-to-video sequels. The cheaply-made, cash-grab sequels to the Disney animated classics both old and new, the studio was highly successful in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, these sequels destroyed the Disney brand and hurt hand-drawn animation in the process. The misguided decision to release two features - Return to Never Land and The Jungle Book 2 - in North American theaters probably made matters even worse.
Worst of all, these sequels were highly inferior in the eyes of critics, animation fanatics, and Disney devotees. To me, they are certainly not very good, sometimes downright embarrassing, and are only for children, unlike the originals. Walt Disney believed in creating timeless animated entertainment that could entertain anyone, while most of the world thinks he wanted to make kiddie films. The DTV sequels are kiddie flicks, and they sure sold extremely well because parents bought them by the pound. Back in those days, films like those certainly had better chances on home video. Home video saved a lot of animated films that flopped or underperformed in theaters back then, too.
Had something like Pocahontas II or Lady and the Tramp II hit theaters, they probably would've bombed. It didn't matter how poorly-made or how kiddie these films were, parents would get the videos for their tots anyway. "It's Disney, it's Lion King II, my kids'll watch it, sold!" Disney made a real mint off of these, all the while hurting their image and animation in the process.
Early on his run, Iger announced a big acquisition of Pixar, whom Disney was close to losing at the time. Once things went over well by summer 2006, Pixar chief John Lasseter was now in the trenches of the Mouse House. He immediately put the kibosh on direct-to-video sequels to Disney animated classics, regardless of how well they were doing. The last few DTV sequels would be The Fox and the Hound (nearly complete by the time Lasseter came in), Cinderella III (in production), and The Little Mermaid III (too far along to cancel). Those were released from late 2006 to early 2008.
DTV sequels that were in development such as Dumbo II and The Aristocats II didn't make it, neither did Chicken Little II or the horrendous-sounding Meet The Robinsons II. The dark era was over...
One other production that couldn't be halted was Tinker Bell, a CG film based on the Peter Pan pixie of the same name. After much drama and turmoil, Lasseter was able to turn the project around. In the process, connections to the Walt Disney Peter Pan film from 1953 were cut alongside the more embarrassing elements that were in the previous person's version. (There was an epic 2-parter on the madness and drama that went on behind the scenes between Lasseter and ex-president of DisneyToon Sharon Morrill floating around that I sadly can't find anymore.) Lasseter fought for a higher quality DTV film, and he got it.
Most people tell me that the Tink films are all pretty solid. I have no real desire to watch them, but I'll take their word for it.
So Tinker Bell hit DVD and Blu-ray in 2008, and was followed by five sequels and a big franchise that brought in the bucks for the Mouse. The plan was to make more, but the series has ended with the most recent installment, Legend of the NeverBeast.
DisneyToon was thriving making those, but in the last couple of years, Disney began to believe that the home media market was shrinking. It's true that overall DVD and Blu-ray sales may not be as high as they used to be, but physical media still does very well in this day and age of digital. Just look at any recent sales chart on the-numbers or other sites. The company's recent Blu-ray releases have ranged from good to absolutely disappointing, and sometimes outright bad. Bonus features are becoming more and more of an afterthought, too. Other countries are getting screwed over, I know some places aren't even getting certain films on Blu-ray!
With that, Disney upscaled Planes. The DisneyToon-produced Cars spin-off set to hit video exclusively was now on its way to theaters. The decision was made in December 2012, when Disney had reportedly griped about how Brave and the Diamond Edition of Cinderella performed on home media. It hit theaters in August 2013 and grossed $219 million worldwide against a small $50 million budget. Of course the sequel would be theatrical, too. Planes: Fire & Rescue, despite getting better reception that its predecessor, underperformed. It cost the same amount of money, and made $151 million. Okay, that's triple the budget... How is that "underperforming"???
Okay, I'm not going to ask these kinds of questions anymore. A studio like DreamWorks considers Penguins of Madagascar to be a bomb even though it made 2.7x its budget, yet Monsters vs. Aliens barely doubled its mammoth $175 million budget and that was called profitable. Yeah, I'm not going to go there. Here's my theory: Disney probably wanted to get rid of DisneyToon before that since they have been downsizing many departments and cost-cutting in the recent years, and Planes II not being a blockbuster was their excuse to downsize DisneyToon more.
So for whatever reason, Planes: Fire & Rescue was deemed a flop by the company. A third one is not happening, and Tinker Bell is over. Layoffs ensued, now the studio is down to a few members. The building itself is now being used by Walt Disney Animation Studios staff, as their building is currently being rebuilt.
Steve Hulett of the Animation Guild said on the Guild blog:
"As I mention below, Diz Co. appears to be re-thinking their Toons unit. Several years ago Disney re-purposed the building next to Disney TV Animation (Glendale), turning it into a very nice facility physically patterned after Pixar (Emeryville). For a long while they made a string of Tinkerbell CG features that were produced in India...
Shorts production seem to be the only thing going on there, but what is to come of the studio? Will it somehow be relaunched?
Here's my question... They sent the Planes films to theaters, why couldn't they do the same with the Tinks? (Not saying I ever wanted that to happen, but it's a good business strategy no?) The franchise is successful and the toys fly off shelves like no tomorrow, why not put these in theaters, especially if they got better reviews than their flying machine counterparts? Did Disney think they weren't theatrical enough or something? Scheduling issues?
So Tink's over because home media is apparently "dying", while Planes is out because two didn't make the money Disney wanted it to make... So, where do they go from here?
My (crazy) suggestion...
Turn it into a second unit for Walt Disney Animation Studios, much like the defunct Orlando studio that was set up in 1989. I know that Pixar shut down Pixar Canada, because they want to keep everything under one Californian roof, but I think this is a fine idea. The Orlando unit, after doing a good chunk of the animation and production work for The Lion King, ended up doing all the animation for some features on its own. We got lower-budget but still amazing-looking films like Mulan, Lilo & Stitch, and Brother Bear. The unit was shut down in 2004 when executives destroyed traditional animation at the studio.
Why not revive that idea? With the amount of films the studio has in development right now, I think a second unit is ideal... And maybe they can do lower-budget, maybe even 2D films to go along with the big CG films... But I'm asking for too much, aren't I? Disney's current brass sees no need for niche market-y stuff, or 2D, or live-action films that aren't based on stories they already told as animated features. It's all about pleasing Buzzfeed and making mint off of Disney Animation, Pixar, Marvel, and Lucasfilm. Iger might be hands off in many ways, but he and his crew sure know how to limit other areas of the company. That's all cool, it's his company, he can technically do whatever he wants... I don't have to entirely like it, though.
My idea is a pipe dream, but it should happen in my opinion.