Thursday, January 13, 2011

Walt Disney – Visionary Leader

“Of all the things I’ve done, the most vital is coordinating the talents of those who work for us and pointing them towards a certain goal.” –Walt Disney

Walt Disney was born in Chicago in 1901. In his youth, he discovered and fell in love with drawing and movies. In 1920, at age 18, Walt formed Iwerks-Disney Commercial Artists with Ub Iwerks. The company quickly failed, and Walt and Iwerks went to work as illustrators for the Kansas City Slide Company and there learned the basics of animation. While keeping his job at Kansas City Slide Company, Walt began creating short animated films at night. In 1922, Walt started Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc. with $15,000 ($192,000 in 2009 dollars) from investors. Laugh-O-Gram Films, Inc. produced several short cartoons including Little Red Riding Hood, Puss in Boots, and Cinderella but struggled financially. During this time, Walt had no money for rent so he “slept on rolls of canvas and cushions at the office . . . and subsisted on cold beans he ate from a can. . . He took his baths once a week at Union Station.” (Neal Gabler, Walt Disney (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) p. 71) In 1923, the company declared bankruptcy and Disney decided to leave Kansas City for Hollywood. To earn the money for the train ticket to Los Angeles, Walt spent two weeks, going door-to-door in high-income areas offering to make films of their children. On his way to LA, a fellow traveler asked Walt where he was going and he replied, “I’m going to direct great Hollywood motion pictures.” (Marc Eliot, Walt Disney (Andre Deutsch Ltd, 1995) p. 23) He always had a dream.

When he arrived in Los Angeles, Walt lived with his Uncle Robert and began making the rounds to the Hollywood studios looking for a job as a director. He applied at every studio in town but was unsuccessful. With no prospects of a job, Walt, now 22 years old, requested loans from Uncle Robert and other friends to start his own studio with his brother Roy, which they called the Disney Brothers Studio. The studio received a contract to produce a series of cartoons called Alice Comedies in which a live girl named Alice had adventures in an animated world with a cat named Julius. The series was successful with the studio producing dozens of cartoons in the series. In 1926, Walt and Roy renamed the studio Walt Disney Studios. Roy said of the renaming, “It was my idea. Walt was the creative member of the team. His name deserved to be on the pictures.” (Bob Thomas, Building a Company: Roy O. Disney and the Creation of an Entertainment Empire (New York: Hyperion, 1998) p. 53)

From 1926 to 1933 the Walt Disney Studios had several successful creations including Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Mickey Mouse, and Three Little Pigs. “Sometime in mid-1933, at the very time he was enjoying the enormous success of Three Little Pigs, [Walt] decide that he needed to chart a new course for the studio—something big and dramatic.” (Neal Gabler, Walt Disney (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2006) p. 213) “Walt said, ‘If we were going to get anywhere, we had to get beyond the short subject. I knew that if I could crack the feature field, I could really do things’. . . Whenever Walt talked about making a feature-length animated picture, people responded, ‘A cartoon is fun for seven minutes, but nobody will sit through a ninety-minute cartoon.’ Walt couldn’t help wondering: Why shouldn’t audiences enjoy an all-animated feature, as long as it is filled with drama, action and laughter?’” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 110) “Walt Disney aimed to do something never before done in the movie industry: create a successful full-length animated feature film.” (James Collins, Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) p. 100-101)

One night in 1934, Walt gathered his top 40 animators and told them the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs performing the voices and actions of each of the characters. At the end of his performance, he said, “That is going to be our first feature-length film.” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 112)

Roy, who handled the finances of the company, estimated that the creation of Snow White would cost $500,000 ($7 million in 2009 dollars). When people in the industry heard that Walt was creating an animated feature film, they predicted it would be the end of the Walt Disney Studios and called the attempt “Disney’s Folly.” Even Walt’s wife Lilly and brother Roy “tried to talk Walt out of his dream—but when they saw that he was totally committed to it, they gave up. Once Walt made a decision, no one could change his mind.” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 111) “[The] Walt Disney Company . . . stimulated progress throughout its history by making bold—and often risky—commitments to audacious projects.” (James Collins, Jerry I. Porras, Built to Last (New York: Harper Collins, 2002) p. 100-101)

Walt Disney Studios began work on what would be a 3-year, $1.5 million project ($21 million in 2009 dollars). Walt spent countless hours in a cramped projection room located under the stairwell. The room was dubbed “the sweatbox” because (as Walt put it), “There was no air conditioning and it was hot in there – plus the animators had to go in there and sweat this thing out with me.” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 116)

Months before the release date for Snow White, Walt and Roy were out of money. Snow White had already cost a million dollars, and a half million more was needed to complete the project. This price tag made the movie more expensive than any live action film ever produced.

Artists felt like they were working on something special, so they voluntarily donated evenings and weekends to complete the project. Meanwhile, Walt spliced what they had together to show to the head of studio loans at Bank of America, Joe Rosenberg, to seek a loan of $500,000 ($7 million in 2009 dollars) to complete the film. Joe Rosenberg liked what he saw and gave Walt the half-million dollar loan.

“Walt spent the final weeks of production ruthlessly cutting to keep the film as tight and fast-paced as possible. By the time it was completed, Snow White had employed more than 750 animation craftsmen. Of an estimated two million drawings created, only 250,000 actually appeared on-screen.” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 120)

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs premiered in Los Angeles’ 1,500-seat Carthay Circle Theatre on December 21, 1937. The Seven Dwarfs were present in full costume to greet the guests, including dozens of Hollywood’s biggest stars who arrived in limousines. Surrounding the theater was a full-size replica of the dwarfs’ cottage, a mill with a running waterfall, and a forest scene. An orchestra played music from the movie as search lights filled the sky. For 83 minutes, the audience was carried into a new world. The audience broke out in spontaneous applause throughout the movie, and at the conclusion Walt received a standing ovation.

In its initial release, Snow White earned $8.5 million ($126 million in 2009 dollars). This allowed Disney Studios to pay off its massive debt and also construct a new $3.8 million ($58 million in 2009 dollars) studio in Burbank which today continues to be the center of Disney animation.

Snow White went from “Disney’s Folly” to becoming the highest grossing film of all time and at age 36 Walt Disney had made history. The film has been re-released several times since its first release in 1937 and has now has earned over $782 million when adjusted for inflation. (Retrieved August 11, 2009 from

Walt’s oldest grandson, Chris Miller, said of Walt, “My grandfather had big dreams and goals . . . and he persevered until he achieved them. . . His life teaches all of us to believe in our dreams, to be daring in the pursuit of our goals, and to never back away from a challenge. Walt Disney was an adventurer at heart, and the way he lived is an example to us all.” (Pat Williams, Jim Denney, How to Be Like Walt (Deerfield Beach, FL: HCI, 2004) p. 124)

Walt Disney should inspire each of us to ask, “What are my big goals and dreams? What accomplishment is going to be my Snow White, my Disneyland? What can I do to make the world a better place?”

This is an excerpt from the book 8 Attributes of Great Achievers by Cameron C. Taylor

About Cameron C. Taylor
Cameron is the author of several books including Does Your Bag Have Holes? 24 Truths That Lead to Financial and Spiritual Freedom, 8 Attributes of Great Achievers, and Twelve Paradoxes of the Gospel. Learn more at his website