When Disney sued the Academy Awards

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The 1989 Oscars remains a turning point in the life of the Academy Awards – and it ended in legalities.


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It’s been quite telling that, weeks after the 2023 Academy Awards, there’s not been a long tail of conversation in its aftermath. At least not for events unrelated to films. Everything Everywhere All At Once of course took the Best Picture prize, part of its seven Oscar haul, and the show itself was a good one. Well hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, it was very long – of course – but free of controversy and actually really rather fun to watch.

The actual Academy Awards show itself, though, has long been something of a hot potato for the Academy Of Motion Pictures Arts And Sciences (AMPAS), an organisation that keenly has to watch the ratings and continually tries to reinvent its annual big party.

The shadow over the attempts to rework the show though is still being cast from all the way back in 1989. That was the year that Grease producer Allan Carr fulfilled his lifelong dream of producing the show, bringing in some innovations that continue to form part of the Oscar show to this day.

Carr, after all, realised that the red carpet build up was an integral part of the event, and increased the onus on it. He also changed a bit of language. No longer would a presenter announce ‘and the winner is’. Instead, the line was changed to ‘and the Oscar goes to’, to subtlety remove the suggestion that those who didn’t take home gold were in some way losers.

Yet Carr’s single year producing the show isn’t remembered for those things. Instead, it was an eleven minute opening sequence that earned his show its place in Oscar infamy. Often referred to as the worst show in Oscar history, Carr decided to dispense with an actual host for the event, and instead began proceedings with an extensive musical showcase.

In the build up to the event, he’d also been teasing a rare appearance from a movie star, the kind who was such a big deal that they couldn’t be named. There were secret rehearsals, there were non-disclosure agreements, there was a locked down set.

Eileen Bowman was the actor at the heart of this, an unknown who’d come through an audition process to be cast as Snow White. She was at the centrepiece of a sequence that saw her walk through the auditorium as the television crew tried to follow her moves, before eventually becoming part of a duet with Rob Lowe.

It was not a career highlight for either, and the best thing I can do here is show it to you, rather than try to describe it.

The show had been widely hyped up by Carr in the build up to the event, and as Michael Schulman charts in his book Oscar Wars, the producer was initially oblivious to how hard his big opening number was tanking. It seemed that pretty much everyone else in the auditorium wasn’t. And whilst the rest of the show improved, the tone had been set by its beginning, and the poison pens were soon out. Reviews were not on the kind side.

Yet ordinarily, that would have been that. The Academy quickly decided not to hire Carr for the 1990 event, with Gilbert Cates instead recruited to oversee the first of what would be his 14 Oscar shows. Cates installed Billy Crystal as host – an inspired decision, as it would turn out – and things were a lot more conventional for many years going forward. Furthermore, the ratings for Carr’s show had also been the best in five years. If his brief had been in part to reignite interest in the Oscars show, Carr had delivered that. Just not in a way that made the Academy keen to work with him again. A line, at least, could be drawn there.

However, Hollywood wasn’t quite done with the 1989 event.

Carr’s decision to open the Awards show with Snow White was one made very early in the planning process. It took quite a search to find the actor to take the role on, and this was an idea that percolated for many months. The problem? Nobody had asked Disney’s permission to use the character.

Appreciating that there’s a copyright-free version of Snow White, the iteration that was absolutely covered by copyright laws was Disney’s. Carr was clearly bringing a version of Disney’s Snow White to the stage in his show, and the House of Mouse was not impressed. Arguably fuelled by the hostile response to the 1989 Oscars, a call was placed from the-then head of the studio, the late Frank Wells, to AMPAS head Richard Kahn. They had a problem. The use of Snow White had definitely not been cleared.

Schulman writes in his book that even at this stage, the likelihood is that Disney would have accepted a simple public apology from AMPAS for use of the character. Yet with no apology forthcoming, it filed legal papers in less than a week. This was potentially going to court, on the matter of trademark infringement.

Only, of course, it didn’t. The filing of formal legal documents was the catalyst for AMPAS to fast-track its own response to the issue, which was also the reason footage of the show disappeared for a while. AMPAS and Disney met up, but it still took a good week or so to hammer out an agreement, one that led to a cessation of the legalities.

The Academy thus put out a formal apology, the language of which made it very clear Disney had no involvement at all in the show’s opening number. The deal also expressly forbade the footage from ever being reused. The Academy was unable to reuse its own material, and to this date never has.

It’s taken the rise of the YouTube era to bring it back to light. In much the same way that George Lucas suppressed the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special for many years, so AMPAS was required to do the same of the 1989 Oscars show itself (or at least its opening). There was further fallout from the show, incidentally, and Schulman’s book does an excellent job of describing the subsequent letter from a bunch of Hollywood luminaries objecting to the event (Gregory Peck chief amongst them).

But at least the footage is out there now, and a bizarre chapter in the life of the Oscars can now be written….

Lead image: BigStock

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