Monday, February 19, 2007

World Cinema

In 2006, The Walt Disney Company spent good money to produce and/or distribute such cinematic gems as The Santa Clause 3, Step Up and The Wild. Together, the domestic (U.S.) gross of these movies was $187 million, meaning that approximately 30 million people saw them. Put another way, on average, 10 million people went to see each of these Disney movies.

Disney thinks nothing of spending millions on a movie in order to make a very little bit of money. Despite razor-thin margins, Disney churns out movie after movie … except, that is, the movies that more people see than any other: Its theme park productions.

Since opening its doors in 1982, EPCOT has greeted some 250 million visitors from around the world. Assuming just 50 percent of them visited any individual attraction, it’s safe to bet that more than 100 million people have experienced the movies that represent the World Showcase countries of Canada, France, Norway and China.

Yet, in that 25-year span, only one of those movies, The Wonders of China, has been updated, perhaps owing to the fact that Disney ultimately realized it had to acknowledge the sweeping social and political changes that have taken place in one of the company’s most significant regions of international investment. Undoubtedly, Disney’s decision to spend a few million bucks to update the China film came not from a deep creative need to present an up-to-date look at the country, but out of a desire to impress Chinese officials, with whom they desperately want to do more business.

If it were solely a creative decision, then Disney would have been much more aggressive in updating the films throughout World Showcase over the years. Despite the fact that more people have seen these movies than all but a handful of its own Walt Disney Pictures releases, Disney has shown no interest in investing in this area of its theme-park business. (Note: I realize the photo on this blog entry is of the Germany pavilion, which does not contain a film, but it was one of the better World Showcase photos I've taken!)

Take, for instance, the little-seen film that follows the Maelstrom ride in Norway. It is painful to witness how few people actually bother to sit in the theater for this five-minute travelogue. It’s a shame, because the movie is, by and large, a beautiful experience. Then again, it’s also often laughable. Clearly made in the late 1980s, the Norwegians it depicts sport ridiculously big hair; work on clunky, old-fashioned computers; and look like they just walked out of a Robert Palmer video. Frankly, it’s embarrassing, particularly because the film’s basic idea is that Norway’s people are at the heart of its rich spirit.

The lovely Circlevision 360 film O Canada! is equally uncomfortable … and that’s speaking as an American; I can only imagine how Canadians feel. The movie was made in 1982, which means it’s older than probably half of its viewers. Judging Canada on the basis of this movie, no one there uses a computer or cell phone; Toronto’s skyline is woefully tiny; all Canadians drive massive, old-fashioned cars; and Canadians have less fashion sense than my grandmother.

France fares little better, save for the fact that Impressions de France spends most of its time on landscapes and less on cities. Well, then again, there is that entire section on the Monaco Grand Prix. I expect Steve McQueen to pop out of one of those cars at any second. With so many European Formula One fans visiting (heck, Disney sometimes even sponsors Formula One cars!), there’s a bit of explaining to do about the images seen in the movie.

Then there’s the fact that most of these films sport visible copyrights. Yes, Disney very plainly puts up on the big screen for all to see: “© MCMLXXXII Walt Disney Productions.”

Now, back to the first point: If Disney, as a company, can spend, say $35 million on prints, advertising and marketing for a movie like Stand Up, which 10 million people in the U.S. will see, couldn’t it spend one tenth of that amount to update its EPCOT films every couple of years?

Perhaps Disney doesn’t realize the importance of these films to the World Showcase experience at EPCOT. The architecture of each World Showcase pavilion, the dining experiences and the cast members who inhabit them are absolutely the heart and soul of this area of EPCOT, but right behind them are the attractions that guests can experience. Only three of these attractions – The American Adventure, Maelstrom and El Rio del Tiempo – are ride-through experiences; the rest rely on films to convey the spirit of their host countries. (Norway has both.)

Imagine if The Walt Disney Company itself were being represented by a movie that was 25 years old: We’d see plans for EPCOT Center and Tokyo Disneyland being readied, production on Something Wicked This Way Comes touted as an example of Disney’s big-screen prowess, and perhaps a description of the “new” Fantasyland at Disneyland.

I somehow doubt Disney would allow itself to be presented in such a fashion, yet it doesn’t seem to care that entire countries and cultures are being represented as if they haven’t changed in a quarter of a century. It’s as if the digital revolution never happened, as if there have been no changes in society worth depicting in 25 years.

When it built EPCOT Center 25 years ago, Disney took on a responsibility to ensure that the theme park remained ever-changing, fresh and exciting. One of those responsibilities is to the host countries – whether they are officially sponsored or not – that it presents in World Showcase. Just because its current managers didn’t themselves decide to build and open EPCOT doesn’t mean they are any less responsible for it.

Chillingly, I have received word that O, Canada! is indeed due for a new film … one starring a comic whose height of popularity came around the time EPCOT opened. Yes, that means we’re in for another movie that, instead of trying to bring insightful illumination and showcase the beauty of a country and its people, we’ll be treated to another quick-to-age “comedy” routine as we’ve seen at the Universe of Energy and the Imagination pavilion.

Is it possible that seeing 1976 Buick LeSabres and polyester apparel on screen is better than the alternative, which is another desperate attempt to be “fun” instead of simply letting EPCOT do what it does best: inspire, amaze and (go ahead, shudder at the word) educate?

Each year, Disney blows through literally billions of dollars to keep its movie business competitive. It seems hard to believe that a few million dollars out of Disney’s overall budget couldn’t be shunted over to the theme parks division each year, where they could be used to ensure EPCOT remains fresh, vibrant and exciting, offering guests a reason to return and re-discover year after year.

Of course, that would assume that the people who manage EPCOT actually care about doing such things, about ensuring that the park lives up to the very high bar that was set for it 25 years ago. I’m not sure that’s the case. Every week, it seems, there’s an astonishing new IMAX film opening at the science center down the street from my house. Someone enjoys making these movies, and, based on box-office results, millions of people enjoy seeing them. Someone understands there’s a market for these movies.

Someone, perhaps, but apparently not Disney.


Anonymous said...

Who is going to be in the Canada film? I was hoping that they were simply updating it and not changing it's general direction. I love the song, but if this new direction is taken, I hope it isn't used (It would be inconsistent. The song works well because it is simple and follows the theme of the movie. Sure it's hokey, but it is endearingly so...)

Anonymous said...

I talked to a Canadian friend who said that the McKenzie Brothers were popular around that time. ;) If the newspaper articles that he has read are accurate, the Canada film is going to be in a new format that will require modification of the theater; will be filmed by a Canadian director, (the American director got replaced after some local protest); there will be a special theater built in Toronto for a 6 month engagement; and it will be titled an unpronounceable Inuit name. I guess the film has been very expensive to produce. They are certainly under the gun to get it completed.

I think that the (non)commitment to World Showcase extends to all of the pavilions - not just those with films. They were built with the intent that all would eventually have attractions. Only Norway and a few upgrades to existing shows have been done thus far. I enjoy WS immensely, but moving forward with the original intended plans, (or even new plans to fill-out what is there), would be a tremendous benefit. Let's get rides for England, Japan, Italy, and Germany. Let's get beautiful new films for France, Canada, and Norway. Let's get another pavilion or two.

World Showcase is insanely huge but it has that incredible promenade that creates a wonderful social setting. Whether this was intentional or not, it's success is something that should be studied for what Disney has done right. And, this success should be an indication that this is a part of the parks that deserves some up-front attention.

Anonymous said...

A good point well made - I hardly ever bother with the movies in WS these days because (although I like them) I know that they are the same old, same old. So why waste my time? Besides, as you pointed out, it does sometimes feel like "time travel" with all those big hairdos and old fashions.

Wouldn't it be awesome if ALL films were updated at the same time and Epcot created a sort of film festival at the time? It would definitely bring people in, give the area a bit of sparkle and get the money needed to update WS even more.

WS is my favorite part of all Disney parks but it does need a bit of help. If it does well as it is now, imagine what it could be like with a bit of investment!

Samantha said...

that france film is one of my favorite epcot world showcase attractions. the poor quality and the aquarium from the carnival of animals will always bring a smile to my face.

when we heard the china film had been updated we were a bit skeptical.. because we knew the old one was unbearable. turns out, the update was quite good.

as for o canada! and that norway film my family and i have been walking through since i can remember, i agree with an update..

ah goodness.

Anonymous said...

Does anyone know if there is a way to get a copy of the old Wonders of China movie?

If so, I would love to hear about it. I can receive email at