For the millions who love and admire Walt Disney, December is an important month. Walt Disney was born on December 5, 1901, and died on December 15, 1966, at the age of 65.
December was also the month he released many of his animated films to take advantage of the popularity of movies as a pastime during the Christmas holidays. Perhaps the greatest of them all was his first full-length animated feature and extravaganza, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which premiered on December 21, 1937 at the fifteen hundred seat Carthay Circle Theatre in Hollywood, California.
With the creation of Snow White, Walt Disney demonstrated the true characteristics of entrepreneurship. I talk about Snow White and entrepreneurship in this excerpt from my Walt Disney business biography, The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success (Theme Park Press, 2017).
New Entrepreneurial Knowledge Changes Everything
Walt was meticulous about proving to the world that an animated feature was viable if it was done right, as he envisioned it, granting full respect to the story, the medium, and the audience. Grim Natwick, one of four animators of the character of Snow White, recalled that “Disney had only one rule: whatever we did had to be better than anybody else could do it, even if you had to animate it nine times, as I once did.”
It was Walt’s courage, conviction, and commitment to take an entrepreneurial risk by doing something that others had rejected as folly that made him the prime mover in the creation of new knowledge and entrepreneurial information, information that heretofore didn’t exist about what is practical and possible in creating economic value and public entertainment. As he had previously done with Mickey Mouse and the Silly Symphonies, Walt again showed his acumen as a paradigm shifter.
As a result of the extraordinarily high quality of the film, writes Martin Goodman in his Animation World article “The Light That Might Have Failed,” “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs made a very strong case for animation as an elevated art form rather than simple entertainment. At the same time the animated film became the equal of the live-action feature film in the eyes of critics and paying customers.” Walt was of a similar though perhaps not as lofty opinion when he commented to a studio visitor not long after Snow White was released “the days of the animated cartoon, as we had known it, were over.”
Reflecting back on the success of Snow White, Walt Disney later said:
The success of the Silly Symphonies gave us the courage for Snow White. And you should have heard the howls of warning! It was prophesied that nobody would sit through a cartoon an hour and a half long. But, we had decided there was only one way we could successfully do Snow White – and that was to go for broke – shoot the works. There would be no compromise on money, talent or time. We did not know whether the public would go for a cartoon feature; but we were darned sure that audiences would not buy a bad cartoon feature.
Walt’s uncompromising standards were not arbitrary or neurotic in nature. They were based on Walt’s own high-level integration and rational consideration of the facts, and the objective requirements of what was necessary to succeed in business. Writes David Johnson, “Disney finally unlocked the heretofore hidden potential of a medium whose capability he knew existed for some time.”
The resounding success of Snow White proved that Walt’s assessment of the potential of the medium was right. Instead of listening to skepticism and nay saying of others, Walt relied on his own rationality, unique knowledge, skill, insight and independent judgment of what was achievable in his field of expertise.
By doing so, he was also able to see beyond Snow White’s success as a singular event and to view it as a fundamental change in his business model and the future of the animation business. That he was already planning future animated features showed that he looked at Snow White as a stepping-stone in a process towards a different future with greater possibilities, and not as a single experimental event. Walt remarked: “When Snow White hit, we realized we were in a new business. We knew it within a week after the picture had opened…. We had been heavily in debt and within six months we had millions in the bank.”
Just as the success of Silly Symphonies was the driver and lever of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, then the success of Snow Whitewas the catalyst of all that came afterwards.
© 2018, Barry L. Linetsky. All Rights Reserved. Barry Linetsky is a Toronto management consultant, and author of the book,The Business of Walt Disney and the Nine Principles of His Success. It is available at amazon.