Adventures In Failure

How to make bad decisions happen


Each time an audience consigns some flashy, highly anticipated show business vehicle to the entertainment industry's Cadillac Ranch—a phenomenon seen most recently and most dramatically with Disney's Treasure Planet, the Christmas season's first major studio flop—observers fall back on the truism of professionally disgruntled screenwriter William Goldman: "Nobody knows anything."

While that phrase is certainly pithier than anything else Goldman has managed to pen in a career that has recently produced such stinkers as Hearts In Atlantis, The General's Daughter, and Absolute Power, it's demonstrably untrue, in every field of entertainment. To date, J.K. Rowling has managed to write four or so Harry Potter books without a single artistic or commercial misstep. Legendary talent scout John Hammond's ear remained sharp across several decades and countless musical genres; Billie Holliday, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, George Benson, Aretha Franklin, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Stevie Ray Vaughn were all Hammond finds. Back in the movie business, Jerry Bruckheimer's unholy ability to guess right has resulted in few failures and countless mega-successes.

All of which makes The Los Angeles Times' recent obituary for Treasure Planet a fascinating study in system failure. It turns out somebody—namely former Disney studio chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg—did know something. Katzenberg strongly objected to the film's premise when it was pitched in the late 1980s, and it was only when the successful director/producers Ron Clements and John Musker went over his head, to Disney CEO Michael Eisner and co-chairman Roy Disney, that the project was approved. The dispute over the project fueled the legendary feud between Katzenberg and Eisner, and contributed to Katzeberg's firing in 1994. Thus the failure of Treasure Planet is another turnabout in the Spy vs. Spy contest between the two men. The $140 million picture brought in only $16.6 million over the Thanksgiving weekend, and has grossed only $23.6 million to date, and its failure is prompting idle speculation that the studio's core animation department may be headed for the showers. (This summer's hit cartoon Lilo and Stitch came from a novice team, and last year's ill-conceived Atlantis was a disappointment.) While Disney contemplates a future of live-action features in the Computer Wore Tennis Shoes mode (or maybe a Song of the South remake with Trent Lott as Uncle Remus), Katzenberg, in his current spot at Dreamworks SKG, scored a major success with last year's Shrek.

Interestingly, though, Eisner himself had reservations throughout the Treasure project. While these were addressed piecemeal, it's unclear that the movie under any conditions would have proved compelling for audiences. Clements and Musker persevered through more than 15 years of nay-saying from many sources at Disney, to see their labor of love bomb on the big screen. We'll have to wait for the inevitable Esquire story to sort out the threads of hurt feelings, swinging dick competitions, and a studio's need to indulge a pair of well performing filmmakers.

But if there's a lesson, it may be that learning your lessons doesn't necessarily help you to make the right decisions. It's not that nobody knows anything, but that the people who know are rarely in a position to act on their insights without encumbrance or consideration for politics. Hollywood is hardly the only place where better judgment is subjected to the need to keep a system running, even if the good of the system occasionally requires that people consciously make wrong decisions.