Disney, and how the 1980s ended its 20 year search for a box office hit

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Disney went through the back end of the 1960s, the 1970s and early 80s on the search for a box office hit: here’s the story.

Given that for the last few years, Disney has dominated movie box office charts, it’s perhaps the last company you’d expect to have a 20 year search for a box office success.

Yet while I was exploring a completely different article idea, I found myself trawling through the back archive of some American newspapers over the last couple of weeks. One of those was the Chicago Tribune, in particular an article it ran back in 1985, that contained a sentence that really took me back: that before 1984, “Disney had not produced a major US hit since Mary Poppins was released in 1964”.

This seemed unfathomable to me, and thus off down a rabbit hole I went. Sure enough, The Jungle Book was huge. But still: it turns out that, in terms of live action features at the very least, that aforementioned slice of movie trivia is, staggeringly, true.


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Let’s start the story in 1964, as that was when Mary Poppins landed in first place at the American box office for the entire year. By some distance too: its gross of $102m was astonishing for the time, and the much-cherished musical landed $30m ahead of the second place movie in the chart – fellow musical My Fair Lady. Mary Poppins – as is charted in the lovely film Saving Mr Banks – was a hell of a gamble for the studio, and one that ultimately paid off handsomely.

A few years later, the studio’s animated division generated a big hit too, with the aforementioned The Jungle Book ending up in second place back in 1967, not too far behind The Graduate. It looked as though Disney was in a good place, but conversely, the death of Walt Disney in 1966 took away the company’s rudder. It would take a very long time before it found it again.

What followed in the ensuing two decades was no shortage of intent, and no shortage of movies either. Just a paucity of box office hits. Take 1968: the studio lined up five live action features for that year, but – even though The Love Bug would generate a boxset of Herbie films going forward – it was only Blackbeard’s Ghost that’d get any kind of box office traction. It landed in 12th place that year at the US box office albeit with just $21m of takings, a long way behind the year’s chart topper, Funny Girl (with 2001: A Space Odyssey in second place).

Going through the charts for the subsequent years, it was only animation really where Disney could get close to buying a hit. 1970’s The Aristocats did perfectly fine for instance, but the same year’s most successful live action flick was a long way down the list in 13th. It was called The Boatniks, and starred Robert Morse, Stefanie Powers, Don Ameche and Phil Silvers, and I confess I’d never even heard of it.

Disney's The Boatniks

Disney’s The Boatniks

The hard truth was that Disney had come nowhere near to Mary Poppins numbers for the rest of the 60s, and its attempt to repeat that formula  – 1971’s Bedknobs & Broomsticks – fell some way short as well. An expensive film to make (with plenty of conversation since about its final cut), it landed in tenth place at the annual box office, doing less than 20% of Poppins’ numbers. And that was as good as it got for Disney’s film unit for many more years.

In fact, the only two films that broke into their respective annual top tens in the years that followed were still only modest hits at best: the animated Robin Hood, and 1975’s The Apple Dumpling Gang, a western starring Bill Bixby. 1977 meanwhile saw Pete’s Dragon climb into 13th place, and that was the only year of the decade where the studio clawed four films in the top 25. The Rescuers (19th), Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (20th) and the original Freaky Friday (22nd) were the other three.

Books have been written about the struggles Disney had in the movie business post the death of Walt, and as the 70s went on, it wasn’t for the want of trying. For instance, in the aftermath of Star Wars, Disney actively chased that segment of the market with films such as TRON and The Black Hole. As beloved as both of them are now, they finished 26th and 22nd respectively in their years of release. Even when it tried to court where it felt the audience was, Disney was behind the times and struggling to stay relevant.

The bottom line was that Disney was struggling to adapt, and as the 70s turned to the 80s, movies from other studios were getting bigger. It wasn’t just Star Wars that had opened the eyes of Hollywood studios to the potential revenues for films. Jaws had really started things off for the blockbuster era a few years before, and others saw what was happening and duly rolled the dice. As such, by 1983, Paramount was enjoying sizeable success with Trading Places, 48 Hrs, Flashdance and Staying Alive all in the same year. Columbia’s Tootsie  – and can you imaging Disney backing a film like that? – soared past $100m, and even a modest comedy such as Mr Mom hoovered up $64m for Fox.

Disney's The Apple Dumpling Gang

Disney’s The Apple Dumpling Gang

The best Disney could do? Another re-release of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs, good for an easy $30m, but no better than 24th place. Something just wasn’t working. Even when it had films that seemed to be drifting closely to where the zeitgeist was, the studio then couldn’t sell them. The big talent, meanwhile, was going elsewhere.

Disney in the end decided to gamble, and it had to if it was to stay in the movie business. It thus brought in some of the core team that had turned Paramount’s fortunes around. Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg were lured to the studio, along with Frank Wells from Warner Bros. But even as their deals were being done, the film that’d finally – after two decades – turn Disney’s live actions fortunes around was in motion.

The unlikely candidate to do so, and to deliver the studio’s priceless first bona fide live action hit since Mary Poppins (even appreciating that had animation in it too)?

Splash, starring Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah.

This was the product of Disney’s then new Touchstone arm. Touchstone was a strategic move to release films aimed at an older audience, whilst protecting the main Disney brand as family friendly. Thus, the edgier Splash – directed by Ron Howard, and released in February 1984 – was the first film as part of that experiment. It might have just fallen short of breaking the year’s top ten – its $62m take was good enough for 12th, a long way short of Ghostbusters, Indiana Jones & The Temple Of Doom, Gremlins and Beverly Hills Cop – but it was a massive breakthrough for a studio low on confidence.

Furthermore, it offered something for the new regime to build on, and it didn’t take them long to do so. Two years on, the Touchstone model had been expanded and delivered hits Ruthless People, Down & Out In Beverly Hills and The Color Of Money, two of which finally broke the top ten. Proving it was no fluke. A deal inked with Bette Midler was at the heart of a good chunk of its 80s hits.

Daryl Hannah in Splash

Daryl Hannah in Splash

It’d still take a few more years before the studio landed the year’s biggest movie again, for the first time since 64’s Poppins. It was one of its most challenging gambles that broke that unhappy run too. Not unlike Mary Poppins, a groundbreaking union of live action and animation: 1988’s Who Framed Roger Rabbit, that snared $151m for a first place finish, with the studio’s Good Morning Vietnam in third at $121m that same year.

Disney has had up and downs since, but never such a barren spell. I’ll leave you with a list of just some of the films that tried to break it. Let us know both how many you’ve seen and how many you’ve heard of out of these 20…

Charlie, The Lonesome Cougar (1967)

The Horse In The Gray Flannel Suit (1968)

Never A Dull Moment (1968)

The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes (1969)

King Of The Grizzlies (1970)

The Barefoot Executive (1971)

The Biscuit Eater (1972)

Snowball Express (1972)

The Bears And I (1974)

The Strongest Man In The World (1975)

Ride A Wild Pony (1975)

No Deposit, No Return (1975)

Treasure Of Matecumbe (1976)

The Littlest Horse Thieves (1977)

The Cat From Outer Space (1978)

Unidentified Flying Oddball (1979)

The Last Flight Of Noah’s Ark (1980)

The Devil And Max Devlin (1981)

Tex (1982)

Trenchcoat (1983)

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