The Walt Disney Company (NYSE: DIS) is one of the world’s leading media and entertainment companies and has four business segments: Media Networks, Parks and Resorts, Studio Entertainment, and Consumer Products.
Disney has become as much an American icon as Rocky, Charlie Brown, or, well, Mickey Mouse. Walt Disney and his brother Roy founded Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio on Oct. 16, 1923. After some reflection, Roy thought that “Walt Disney Studios” had a snazzier ring to it, so in 1926, they changed the name. (It would finally become The Walt Disney Company in 1986.)
Their first film, Alice’s Wonderland, eventually blossomed into an Alice Comedies series and marked the beginning of a long line of animated movies, including Disney’s "Silly Symphony" series. One of the titles from the series, Flowers and Trees, won an Academy Award for Best Cartoon for 1932, and for the rest of the 1930s, each year marked another Oscar win for a Disney cartoon.
Of course, part of what makes Disney's animation so much fun are the characters. Chief among them is Mortimer Mouse, which Walt Disney renamed after his wife voiced her preference for the name Mickey. Others that have emerged from Disney's studio over the years include the raspy-voiced Donald Duck and his girlfriend Daisy, Goofy the talking dog, Winnie the Pooh, and Peter Pan.
As the company continued to crank out more cartoons, additional business opportunities started to present themselves. Walt Disney recalls one example on the company’s website: "A fellow kept hanging around my hotel waving $300 at me and saying that he wanted to put [Mickey Mouse] on paper tablets for school children. As usual, Roy and I needed money, so I took the $300." Dolls, books, toys, shirts, and a host of other items would eventually follow; and so began Disney’s colossal merchandising business.
The films themselves started to break new ground, too. In 1937, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs burst onto the scene, bringing with it a huge risk: Its success hinged on the public’s willingness to sit through a feature-length cartoon. The risk paid off, and the movie set a record as the highest-grossing film of its time (a title it later gave up when Gone With the Wind blew through Hollywood). Three years later, Disney went public.
More Than Just Movies
The company accomplished many other important “firsts” in the years to come. For instance, it produced Treasure Island, its first live action film in 1950, and four years later, launched the Disneyland anthology series, which (1) featured the first television mini-series (Davy Crockett); and (2) became the longest-running prime-time television series (29 years).
One of its most well-known televised endeavors was The Mickey Mouse Club, a variety show that started in 1955. It featured the all-too-catchy theme song, “Mickey Mouse Club March” (“M-I-C … K-E-Y … M-O-U-S-E!”) and helped launch the careers of several of its “Mouseketeers” (cast members who performed on the show). These include Annette Funicello, Britney Spears, and Justin Timberlake.
Although Walt Disney and his brother Roy passed away in 1966 and 1971, respectively, their company continued to push forward and make several more milestone achievements. These include the release of Disney's first animated feature on video (Dumbo) in 1981, the introduction of the Disney Channel in 1983, and Disney’s creation of Touchstone Pictures in 1984, which released the popular movie, Splash. And, of course, nearly everyone in America has heard of Disney’s amusement and theme parks. (If you haven’t, tap the shoulder of the nearest 8-year-old for a detailed description.)
The Golden Years
By 1988, Disney had taken the lead at the box office when hits Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Three Men and a Baby, and Good Morning, Vietnam raked in more than $100 million apiece. For fans who just couldn’t wait to get their hands on a Jessica Rabbit figurine, the company also opened Disney Stores that year.
Following these accomplishments were the release of The Little Mermaid in 1989 and Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (which marked yet another record-breaking achievement as the only animated film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture). One year later, Aladdin smashed a record of its own as the first animated film to gross more than $200 million in the United States, and in 1994, The Lion King raised the bar further by grossing $312 million in the States -- and $783 million around the world.
Given their onscreen popularity, it seemed a reasonable bet to launch a stage production of Beauty and the Beast (1994) -- which ended up grossing more than $1.4 billion worldwide -- and The Lion King (1997), which was also successful. And that paved the way for Aida and Tarzan, which graced the stage in 2000 and 2006, respectively.
Offstage, one of Disney’s most notable transitions was its foray into computer-animated films. The company paired up with Pixar Animation in 1995 to release the wildly popular Toy Story. Other profitable movies with Pixar include Toy Story 2, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles. In 2006, Disney acquired Pixar.
Between the staggering success of Finding Nemo and Disney’s adventure film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney became the first studio in history to generate more than $3 billion in box office winnings worldwide in 2003.
In 1984, Michael Eisner moved over from Paramount Pictures to become Disney’s new CEO. While he initially succeeded at growing the business, by 2004, Disney’s stock showed a five-year 23% decline, and relationships within the business had become strained. Roy Disney, Walt Disney’s nephew, penned a letter to Eisner in which he announced his own resignation as chairman of the feature animation division and vice chairman of the board of directors. He went on to list Eisner’s missteps with the company and concluded, “Michael, it is my sincere belief that it is you who should be leaving and not me.” Shareholders withheld 45% of their votes for Eisner's re-election to the board, and he left the company in 2005. His replacement, Robert Iger, was still president and CEO of Disney at the time of this writing.
Other Notable Details
The tragic events of Sept. 11, 2001 had an immediate impact on the stock market and marked a particularly notable event for Disney: Billionaire Sid Bass, a significant holder of Disney stock, received a margin call and was forced to sell 135 million shares -- or more than 6.7% of the company's total shares.
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