25 Ways Disney Revolutionized Entertainment

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Statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse at Disneyland
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THE HOUSE THE MOUSE BUILT

Founded as the Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio in 1923, the Walt Disney Co. has grown to become the world's largest entertainment company by revenue. Just as its founder pushed the boundaries of animation, the company has continue to pioneer in all kinds of entertainment, including live-action film, digital imaging, branding, multi-platform marketing, and corporate consolidation. Here are some of the most notable innovations to come out of Disney that have shaped the American entertainment industry indelibly, for better and worse.

Steamboat Willie
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'STEAMBOAT WILLIE': SYNCHRONIZED SOUND CARTOONS (1928)

Five years after forming Disney Brothers, Walt Disney lost all his animators and the rights for the studio's first flagship character, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, to Universal Pictures. This led directly to the creation of Mickey Mouse (originally Mortimer), introduced to mass audiences in 1928's smash hit "Steamboat Willie" — the first film to synchronize animation and sound fully, establishing Disney as a studio on the cutting edge of cartooning.

Silly Symphonies
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'SILLY SYMPHONIES': TECHNICOLOR AND OTHER INNOVATIONS

"Silly Symphonies" was a series of whimsical cartoons intended as accompaniments to classical music compositions. Produced by Disney from 1929 to 1939, they won seven Academy Awards for animated shorts and spawned the Donald Duck character. They also set the template for Golden Age animations such as "Looney Tunes" and "Merrie Melodies" while providing Disney and collaborators a platform to inaugurate technologies such as Technicolor (in the 1932 short "Flowers and Trees"), which would return for the studio's feature-length efforts.
Snow White
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'SNOW WHITE': FEATURE-LENGTH ANIMATED FILM (1937)

It took three years of production for Disney to complete the world's first feature-length animated film, a proposition so outlandish at the time it was called "Disney's folly." Upon release, "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" became the highest-grossing sound film of all time and still ranks at number 10 for all-time box office receipts when adjusted for inflation. It also created a template that still defines our conception of animated films as family-friendly, often musical, and fairy tale-focused.
Disney Vault
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'SNOW WHITE': THE DISNEY VAULT

When Disney re-released its first feature film in theaters seven years after the premiere, it was mostly a financial decision to help stave off bankruptcy during the war. But it established a precedent for the company of reintroducing its animated classics for new generations every seven to 10 years, sustaining their place in American culture and children's imaginations. With the advent of home video in the 1980s, it made concrete the "Disney Vault" — a policy whereby "Snow White" and other favorites are withheld from video markets, creating artificial scarcity and greater demand for collectible copies.
Disneyland
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DISNEYLAND: INVENTION OF POP CULTURE-ALIGNED THEME PARKS (1955)

The only theme park designed to completion by Walt Disney himself, Disneyland in Anaheim fulfilled its founder's vision of creating a destination to entertain adults and children alike, while also pioneering frontiers in amusement park design and multi-platform marketing. Now the company has a worldwide network of theme parks in Florida, Tokyo, and elsewhere, while competitors struggle to keep up in attention to detail and film and cross-branding — such as Knott's Berry Farm, with its "Peanuts" characters, or Six Flags, with DC superheroes.
Lady and the Tramp
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'LADY AND THE TRAMP,' 'SLEEPING BEAUTY': WIDESCREEN ANIMATION, (1957-59)

Two decades after the release of "Snow White," Disney was still finding techniques to trailblaze in animation, with "Lady and the Tramp" (1957) becoming the first animated film made for a more cinematic widescreen aspect ratio. The studio's next release, "Sleeping Beauty" (1959), went even wider, becoming the first animated film photographed in Technirama 70mm.
101 Dalmations
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'ONE HUNDRED AND ONE DALMATIANS': XEROGRAPHY (1961)

Disney's next film, "One Hundred and One Dalmatians," introduced a process called xerography to feature animation, allowing animators' drawings to be replicated on cels via dry photocopying rather than meticulous hand tracing. This would become the default process in feature animation for decades to come, cutting costs on production — but lessening critical and artistic prestige for this period of Disney cartoon classics.
Tron
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'TRON': CGI ANIMATION (1982)

Disney's live-action films were having trouble gaining traction with critics or at the box office when the company released and financed the innovative "Tron." This was the first film to imagine a physical manifestation of cyberspace and — fittingly enough — to generate whole scenes using computer animation, using custom-built software from scratch that would color the technology's future in Hollywood. Despite its continued influence and cult popularity, "Tron" was seen as another box office flop for Disney upon release.
The Disney Store
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FIRST DISNEY STORE (1987)

Disney opened its first Disney Store in Glendale in March 1987, making it the world's first "retail-tainment" store, using the entertainment company's marketing touch to promote branded souvenir and clothing retail sales. The idea was a roaring success that led to 50 more locations within the next three years, followed by a slew of other Disney-owned bricks-and-mortar businesses such as ESPN Stores, Mickey's Kitchens, and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutiques. This wouldn't be the last time Disney consolidated unprecedented services under its entertainment brand.
Who Framed Roger Rabbit
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'WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT:' LIVE ACTION WITH ANIMATION (1988)

Whether it was the early short "Alice's Wonderland" (1923) or "Mary Poppins" (1964), Walt Disney experimented for decades with mixing human actors and animated cartoon characters before his studio finally seemed to perfect the technique in 1988 for Robert Zemeckis' cartoon noir "Who Framed Roger Rabbit." There was an unprecedented level of detail and realism to the interactions between actors and their animated costars, thanks to compositing by Industrial Light & Magic, and the film also marked the first (and so far, only) time Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse appeared together onscreen.
The Rescuers Down Under
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'THE RESCUERS DOWN UNDER': COMPUTER ANIMATION PRODUCTION (1990)

In 1990, "The Rescuers" (1977) became the first Disney animated film to get a sequel, opening the floodgates for the company's numerous straight-to-video follow-ups throughout the 1990s and current animated franchises. Appearing 13 years after the original, "The Rescuers Down Under" was also notable from an animation standpoint for being the first film colored with the digital ink compositing process CAPS (for "computer animation production system"), developed by Disney with a then-unknown graphics studio called Pixar.
Beauty and the Beast
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'BEAUTY AND THE BEAST': ANIMATED BEST-PICTURE NOMINEE (1991)

More than any other U.S. company, Disney has elevated popular notions of what animated films can be, and perhaps no film epitomizes this more than "Beauty and the Beast." Made during the Disney Renaissance after "Roger Rabbit" had reignited interest in Golden Age animation, the film used new computer animation techniques to execute strikingly cinematic shots (think of the ballroom scene) that didn't go unnoticed by audiences, critics, or the Academy. It became the first animated film nominated for Best Picture, precipitating a rise in competition and the creation of a designated award for feature-length animation in 2001.
The Mighty Ducks
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'THE MIGHTY DUCKS' SPAWNS A REAL-LIFE SPORTS TEAM (1992)

Disney began another bold venture in cross-platform branding when it founded the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim NHL franchise based on its 1992 film "The Mighty Ducks," which then CEO Michael Eisner called "our market research." Coinciding with an animated kid's show on TV, Disney was trying to create a fully integrated model of sports and scripted entertainment with the Ducks and subsequently the Anaheim Angels, but they failed on both counts, selling the Angels in 2003 and the Ducks in 2004.
Return of Jafar
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'THE RETURN OF JAFAR': DIRECT-TO-VIDEO ANIMATION (1994)

Disney discovered a lucrative way to take advantage of the home video market and exploit its most popular properties beginning with the 1994 release of "Return to Jafar," a cheaply produced Aladdin "sequel" (actually just the re-edited first few episodes of a TV series) that wound up selling more than 10 million units that year. Thus, it became common practice for Disney and other animation studios to release cheap direct-to-video sequels to theatrical classics until 2007, when John Lasseter canceled all such productions upon becoming animation head.
Toy Story
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'TOY STORY': FIRST COMPUTER-ANIMATED FEATURE FILM (1995)

Disney only had a hand in this revolutionary moment in entertainment by association. The company acquired Pixar Animation Studios in a $7.4 billion deal with Apple in 1991, bringing the works of groundbreaking animators such as John Lasseter (a former employee inspired by "Tron" to pursue computer animation) back under its corporate umbrella while limiting Disney's creative oversight. Pixar's first film was "Toy Story," a critical and commercial success that thrust computer generated images to the forefront of feature animation.
Disney Cruise Line
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DISNEY CRUISE LINES: EXPANSION OF BRANDED TRAVEL (1998)

Again pushing the limits of its business and of corporate synergy, Disney expanded its travel offerings beyond theme parks and adjacent resorts to include a Disney cruise line, as well as a private island and port in the Bahamas. An unequivocal success in branded travel accommodations, the line has cornered 2.3 percent of the worldwide cruise market by passenger and 2.2 percent by revenue.
Tarzan
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'TARZAN': 3D ANIMATED BACKGROUNDS (1999)

Though it's largely disappeared from major studio films today, hand-drawn animated films persisted for several years after the release of "Toy Story," incorporating computer techniques in smaller measures. Disney's "Tarzan," for example, used the technology for a process called Deep Canvas, which created 3D CGI backgrounds that could change rapidly and still appear natural beside hand-drawn characters.
Disney Channel stars
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DISNEY CHANNEL AND MULTI-PLATFORM TV/MUSIC STARS (2002)

The Disney Channel launched as a national premium cable channel in 1983 and in subsequent decades focused its programming around made-for-TV movies and teenybopper-targeted live-action sitcoms. True to Disney's tradition of multi-platform marketing, these latter series became a pipeline for young actors and actresses such as Hilary Duff, Selena Gomez, the Jonas brothers, and Miley Cyrus to become pop stars and "teen idols" through their music label Hollywood Records and FM station Radio Disney.
High School Musical 2
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'HIGH SCHOOL MUSICAL 2': HIGHEST-RATED CABLE NON-SPORTS PROGRAM (2007)

Though the Disney Channel tends to aim for fleeting youth relevance over the timelessness of the film studio's feature-length animated releases, the channel still made TV history in 2007 when the premiere of "High School Musical 2" was watched by more than 17 million people, making it the highest-rated basic cable telecast of all time.
The Avengers
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'THE AVENGERS': THE START OF CINEMATIC UNIVERSES (2012)

In 2009, Disney paid $4 billion to acquire Marvel Entertainment and the interconnected series of films based on its comic book properties. The culmination of these early efforts was 2012's crossover "The Avengers," which inspired other major studios such as Warner Bros. and Universal to mount their own attempts at cinematic "universes" with their own properties. So far, none have replicated the box office success or synergistic storytelling of Disney's efforts with Marvel.
Paperman
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'PAPERMAN' COMBINES 2D AND 3D ANIMATION (2012)

Still pioneering techniques almost a century after its founding, Disney used a newly developed software called Meander in a short called "Paperman" to blend hand-drawn and computer animation as never before, with two-dimensional drawings mapped over 3D-generated settings. It became the first Disney film to win the Academy Award for best animated short since 1970 and used the new tech to showcase the expressiveness of 2D animation largely missing from Hollywood today.
Rey from Star Wars Force Awakens
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PURCHASE OF LUCASFILM (2012)

After the success of its Pixar and Marvel acquisitions, Disney was in the market for more subsidiaries. It hit the jackpot in 2012 by buying Lucasfilm for $4 billion, adding the "Star Wars" franchise to an already extensive portfolio of beloved properties. At the same time, the studio announced plans for an unprecedentedly ambitious reboot, planning the release of one "Star Wars" film (or spinoff within the same "universe") per year for the foreseeable future.
Disney Digital Network
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PURCHASE OF MAKER STUDIOS: ONLINE CONTENT PRODUCTION (2014)

It's clear by now that Disney will leave no stone unturned when it comes to promoting its properties through different forms of entertainment media. As such, it entered the online video world decisively with the $500 million purchase of Maker Studios, a leading YouTube channel and home to content creators such as PewDiePie and Kassem G. It's now part of the Disney Digital Network, allowing the studio another front from which to promote film and merchandise releases and likely setting precedents for how other film production studios may behave in this new digital sphere.

Big Hero 6
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'BIG HERO 6': ANIMATED LIGHTING SCENARIOS (2014)

Disney's 54th animated feature film was its first to use Marvel comics characters and a series of new software programs, including Denizen, which generated background characters to populate the urban environment, and Hyperion, rendering complex lighting scenarios such as the translucent effect of robot Baymax's vinyl skin — evidence that the company hasn't stopped pioneering, even if people watching don't realize what they're seeing. "It's sometimes easy to overlook how many technological breakthroughs are nestled inside," the Oh My Disney site says.
20th Century Fox
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20TH CENTURY FOX ACQUISITION, ONGOING

In December, Disney announced its intentions to acquire 21st Century Fox, a $71.3 billion merger tentatively scheduled for completion in 2019. If all goes right, this horizontal merger — of companies making similar products — would reduce the number of major Hollywood film studios to five from six and increase Disney's market share to a whopping 39 percent with the additions of Fox Searchlight, Hulu, and others. This has raised significant antitrust concerns, given that Disney has used its box office power to bully review outlets and movie exhibitors for more favorable financial terms.

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