We are now at a unique point in pop culture history: the children who grew up alongside the Disney Renaissance are in early-to-mid adulthood, and know the company as the corporate money machine that occasionally releases a gorgeous Pixar film. They had no conception of how important Walt Disney was to the company when he founded it, and how it nearly collapsed in the decades after his death. The period of the 1970s and 1980s, now known as the Dark Ages, seemed to be the death knoll for the company that had been such a titan of the entertainment industry.
After Roy's death, Donn Tatum became the Disney chairman and Card Walker took over duties as president. Both men had been with Disney for several years already--Walker had been a major force behind the development of Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida. Walt Disney's son-in-law, Ron Miller, became the president in 1980; CEO in 1983; The goal of creating a business entity for more mature, adult-oriented films, which wouldn't tarnish the child-friendly Disney reputation, was achieved with the creation of the Touchstone distribution label. Miller also oversaw the initial development of ambitious projects Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Tron.
On the cartoon side, the animation department quietly descended into utter chaos behind the scenes, even as they released well-received features like Robin Hood. The times were changing; the original Nine Old Men, the animators who'd been with Disney from the start, were all but retired; they began handing the reins over to a new generation of artists. These animators included Don Bluth, Glen Keane, Ron Clements, and Brad Bird--men who would go on to play vital roles in modern animation history. 1977's The Rescuers was the studio's first animated success since The Jungle Book in 1967. The Nine Old Men would never again work (in a significant capacity) on a Disney film, after the release of The Fox and the Hound in 1983. The last vestiges of the Disney studio's foundation were slowly withering away.
To make matters worse, the company was extremely vulnerable from a financial standpoint. Even with the success of theme parks (including new installations like Epcot in 1982), the studio was struggling creatively; Walt Disney's genius (and passion) was nigh impossible to recreate. Disney releases were being crushed at the box office--most insultingly by the films of Don Bluth, once a promising asset to the company. Ron Miller's direction was widely criticized, and Disney became the target of corporate raiders; he was ousted as CEO after just one year, and replaced by Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew.
Then, in 1984, financier Saul Steinberg attempted a hostile takeover, with the intent of dissolving the entire company. It was a pivotal time for Disney, as it could have been their last chance to turn the company fortunes around, but they pressed on and got help from friendly investors. Roy Disney and investor Sid Bass ended up hiring three men: Frank Wells, a previous Warner Bros Chief; Jeffrey Katzenberg, the President of Production at Paramount; and Michael Eisner, an up-and-coming businessman and producer. Things at Disney would never be the same.
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