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Commentary: As Disney turns 100, the brand’s real legacy is its business acumen

COVENTRY, United Kingdom: “100 Years of Wonder” is the theme for Disney’s year-long promotion of the company’s centenary. From special Disney on Ice events to a retrospective at the British Film Institute and limited edition Disney100 merchandise, Disney’s celebration is big business.

The wonder and magic of Disney is consistently promoted. And yet I would argue that Disney’s greatest legacy is not its animated stories or characters, but the more mundane history of its mergers, acquisitions and intellectual property rights.

The business acumen of those behind the scenes at Disney has been central to the peaks and troughs of the company’s enduring presence in the film industry and popular culture at large.

EARLY DISNEY

The Walt Disney Company was founded in Hollywood by brothers Walt and Roy Disney in 1923.

Before this, along with friend and animator Ub Iwerks, the brothers had founded Laugh-O-Gram Studio in Kansas City. They then moved west with their successful silent Alice Comedies series, which featured both animation and live action.

Animation is what the Disney studio became known for. First with their shorts which included Mickey Mouse’s third outing in the studio’s first sound film, Steamboat Willie, and the Silly Symphony series. And then in their feature length films, beginning with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937.

The first two decades of the studio established Disney’s desire for innovation and profit. This was illustrated through their early adoption of merchandising (Mickey Mouse merchandise was profitable in the mid-1930s) and various technologies, such as Technicolor and sound.

Sinking most of their profits back into their expensive animated ventures led Disney to find ways to cut costs. This included making live action nature series, television shows and opening Disneyland, their first amusement park, in Los Angeles in 1955.

While their animated products were no longer as groundbreaking as they once were, their adoption of television in the 1950s was lucrative and popular, especially The Mickey Mouse Club (1955) and Davy Crockett (1954).

Furthermore, television afforded the company the opportunity to promote their products and authenticate Disney’s position at the forefront of animation. However, live action films – quicker to make and less expensive than animation – dominated their releases in the 1960s, with stars Haley Mills, Fred MacMurray and Dean Jones appearing in multiple Disney films.

In 1966, Walt died. Roy then passed in 1971 and Walt Disney World opened in Florida the same year. In many ways, the Disney Company was never the same after the loss of the founding brothers.

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