The Walt Disney Studios
The Walt Disney Studios is maybe the best-known movie studio in the world, the kind even non-fans have heard of and which today pretty much owns pop culture. Marvel superheroes? They belong to the Mouse. Star Wars? The Mouse even owns that galaxy far, far away. Pixar Studios, ESPN, ABC, A&E…they're all owned by Uncle Walt's crew, and that comes on top of the theme parks, cruise ships, merchandising to bankrupt a small country, and some of the most beloved cartoon characters the world has ever seen.
In between all of that, Disney managed to turn out some pretty good movies, too.
Uncle Walt Starts a Revolution
As you may have suspected, Disney Studios was indeed created by Walt Disney, who got his start in Kansas City making silent pictures based loosely on Alice in Wonderland that ran from 1923 until 1927. He moved out to Hollywood with his brother Roy soon after and began producing cartoon shorts that ran before the feature in most movie houses.
Not many people know about their first breakout success: Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, who appeared in a series of shorts throughout the 1920s. But, because Walt didn't own the character—it belonged to his business partners—he didn't make any money off of it. And, when his partners got hostile, he found himself without any piece of his creation.
As they say, success is the best revenge.
While Oswald and a number of Disney animators jumped ship, Walt went back to the drawing board. He came up with a little mouse we're betting you've heard of, and from there, his fortunes were set.
Mickey Mouse's rise, and the rise of Disney in general, can be attributed to Walt's ability to capitalize on new technology. Steamboat Willie, the film that made Mickey a star, was the first animated short to feature sound. A few years later, Walt signed an exclusive contract with Technicolor to produce cartoons with all the colors in the crayon box. And, when those cartoons become huge, marked by the classic Silly Symphony series, he did something absolutely unprecedented: make a cartoon that ran as long as a feature film.
At the time, people thought he was nuts. Cartoons were five-minutes shorts. How could he keep up the pace for an hour and 15 minutes? But Walt was undeterred, and the result was Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, released in 1937. It was an incredible, monstrous hit, and in the process singlehandedly created the animation genre for films. Without Snow White, Beauty and the Beast would never have gotten past the drawing board.
Walt wasn't done, though, and followed it up with a number of other classics: Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, and Bambi, to name a few. (Source) The company shifted gears in World War II to do their part, producing a number of training and propaganda films to support the war effort. The most notable was called Victory Through Air Power, a feature-length film that actually convinced President Franklin Roosevelt to focus on long-range bombing as a way to win the war.
After the Japanese surrendered and the champagne was uncorked, Walt switched back to more traditional animated features, as well as trying his luck at live-action films. By 1953, he had become successful enough to launch his own distribution wing and started sending movies to theaters instead of relying on other studies to do it.
But, even as the company engaged in all that "ginormous corporation" stuff, Walt himself kept finding new ways to innovate. He jumped into television very early, starting with One Hour in Wonderland in 1950 and advancing to Disneyland in 1954 and The Mickey Mouse Club in 1955. That same year, Disney unveiled the Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, California, and as we'd say today, "disrupted" the amusement park business. He made plans for Walt Disney World in Florida shortly thereafter.
The Slow Decline and the Eisner Era
Unfortunately, in addition to being a genius, Walt was also a heavy smoker. He died of lung cancer in 1966, and his brother Roy took over the company.
Talented animators like Don Bluth and John Lasseter were jumping ship. There was even some guy named Tim Burton who decided he didn't want to draw cartoon foxes for the rest of his life. The same company that had produced the likes of Snow White and Pinocchio now turned out half-hearted bombs like The Black Cauldron, and America just wasn't buying what they had to sell. There was even talk of shutting down animation entirely and basically turning Disney into a theme park company.
Help arrived in the form of a down-and-dirty Hollywood mogul, Michael Eisner, whose demeanor was about as far from Walt's as you could get. Walt talked to you like your friendly uncle. Eisner was the guy who would take you out back and beat you silly if you looked at him cross-eyed. But, like Walt, he had a vision. For starters, he pushed for the production of more grown-up films and even created a new label, Touchstone Pictures, to release them. They produced the likes of Splash, Good Morning, Vietnam, Pearl Harbor, Dead Poets Society, and Lincoln.
But, Eisner didn't neglect the company's signature movies, either. Beginning with The Little Mermaid in 1989, he oversaw a renaissance in the animation department that led to Disney regaining its crown as the king of all things cartoony. Beauty and the Beast followed in 1991 and became the first animated feature ever to earn a nomination for the Best Picture Oscar. (Source)
From there, Disney has enjoyed steady success in the animation field, with Aladdin, The Lion King, Pocahontas, Mulan, Tarzan, Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, and Frozen, just to name a few (source). And, they've parlayed their success into other movie franchises, purchasing Marvel Entertainment in 2009 and Lucasfilm in 2012. We're not kidding when we say they pretty much own the pop entertainment culture these days, and with Marvel and Star Wars both raking in money hand over fist, there's no reason to think they're ever going to stop.
Big things sometimes arrive in very small packages. Like the man said, it all started with a mouse.