EXCLUSIVE: Even when you run Disney’s most tenured moviemaking division, it is easy to feel overshadowed when you are a silo alongside Marvel, Pixar, Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Animation Studios. But this past weekend marked a watermark moment for Sean Bailey and his Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, and forgive them if they are puffing out their chests this week, days after Beauty And The Beast way surpassed projections and set records that put the film on a course to potentially crack the hallowed $1 billion mark. That has become almost the goal at this studio: Disney-generated films hold 13 of the 28 slots in that exclusive club, and most have come in the past few years.

Beauty And The Beast
Disney

Disney’s live-action division, which once struggled through an identity crisis and pricey flops like John Carter and The Lone Ranger, has found its sweet spot. The musical casts a light on an unsung part of the Disney moviemaking machine that has learned to lean in heavily on the live-action adaptations of beloved Disney-branded animated films. The label, which had two Pirates Of The Caribbean sequels in the billion-dollar club, notched its third with the Tim Burton-directed Johnny Depp-starrer Alice In Wonderland. It now seems a matter of time before Beauty And The Beast becomes its fourth. While a sequel to Alice failed — it was made even when Burton said no — The Jungle Book nearly cracked the billion-dollar mark with $966 million in global ticket sales.

Beauty And The Beast is just the latest example of a philosophical change within Disney’s most overshadowed silo. The baseball equivalent of Bailey’s mission statement is basically, be disciplined enough not to swing at bad pitches outside the strike zone. That wheelhouse has increasingly become about recapturing the animation library magic with live-action films, ideally supplying one or more of the three tentpole-sized annual films the division generates (supplemented by one or two films whose under $100 million budgets are far lower than the big pictures carry). All of the films generated by the division revel in the Disney brand. You won’t find an R-rated movie here, nor will you find films with sex or over-the-top violence. You also won’t find first-dollar gross players as part of this honed formula. The stars here are the classic properties, and the filmmakers resuscitating them, and riches come in success, without exception. Will Smith engaged recently in conversations about starring for Tim Burton in the live-action Dumbo, and when those talks hit a snag, sources said a contributing factor was Smith’s salary quote. Honestly, when you have Burton and the lovable elephant everyone grew up with, do you really need a big-ticket star?

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Bailey would not comment on these things, but he did take Deadline through the learning curve that led to Beauty And The Beast and what looks like a load of future films that could certainly replicate its box office performance. Bailey came from the writing and producing ranks, once partnering in Live Planet with Ben Affleck, Matt Damon and Chris Moore and producing films that included Affleck’s directing debut Gone Baby Gone. He was producing Tron: Legacy and a new version of 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea for Disney when tapped by then-Disney chief Rich Ross to become president of production in 2010.

Rex

In a conversation Monday, Bailey credited the division’s escalating success rate to the silo system instituted by Disney chairman Bob Iger and managed by Alan Horn, the former longtime Warner Bros chief who stabilized a static operation and infused his own moral sensibilities on the slate. It is a program where each division stays in its own lane and isn’t pressured to make more movies than its marketing machine can handle, while maintaining quality controls. This differs from some studios that seem to be bent on filling a high number of films on a slate. Disney’s annual collective output usually doesn’t exceed a dozen. But eight of those Disney films are global blockbusters that suck all the oxygen out of the box office when they are released.

The collective results have turned Disney into the most consistently dominant studio Hollywood has seen in the modern era, to the point where it now dictates the release calendar, at least the most desirable summer and holiday corridors. Date a Pixar, Marvel superhero, Star Wars sequel/spinoff, Disney Animation or live-action animated film remake, and it is likely that other studios will then have to work around it.

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I asked Bailey to explain the slow turn that allowed his division to find itself on par with these other better publicized silos.

“We’ve always been the name on the door, but we weren’t an acquisition,” Bailey said. “After Alice worked the way it did in 2010, we asked ourselves, what does it mean? We were seeing Marvel and its superheroes with a very male focus and the same with Star Wars,” Bailey said. “There was opportunity with the female audience, and we had a lot of big characters here that we consider to be ours. Marvel has Iron Man, Captain America and Thor; we have Cinderella, Snow White and Belle. Pairing those characters with great live-action talent and technology, something that Walt always aspired to, with technology that has moved so far forward, just seemed a smart way to go.”

Bailey said that the division unabashedly leans into female empowerment fare, a niche not usually covered with superhero and space films and the resulting merchandising that is part of the revenue machine. That effort was reinforced by Maleficent, which grossed over $710 million worldwide. The strategy really proved itself with Beauty And The Beast, and the benefit of being able to be at a studio where others deliver blockbusters allowed the patience it took for Beauty And The Beast to find itself.

“The credit goes to Bill Condon, to David Hoberman and Todd Lieberman, and the wonderful cast,” he said. “We worked on this for five or six years, and for 18 months to two years, Beauty was a serious dramatic project, and the scripts were written to reflect that. It wasn’t a musical at that time. But we just couldn’t get it to click and it was Alan Horn who championed the idea of owning the Disney of it all. We realized there was a competitive advantage in the songs. What is wrong with making adults feel like kids again?”

That included the songs from the original movie that won Alan Menken and the late Howard Ashman three Oscars for the 1991 original. Once they had a script for a full-blown musical by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, they met with directors and heard everything they needed to hear from Condon, who directed Dreamgirls and scripted Chicago.

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Bailey said the choice of Emma Watson truly belonged to Horn, who watched the actress grow up as he ran Warner Bros during the Harry Potter films. Watson might have lost the La La Land role to Emma Stone, but it sounds like there was really no chance of that happening here.

“We knew we wanted Belle to be a more empowered character, an ambitious, innovator version of the ’91 film,” Bailey said. “Emma embodied those things in her own life and it showed in her performance. Alan had the very long relationship with her from the Harry Potter films, and very early on he spoke about her traits, her activism, her work with the UN.” An unexpected byproduct was her voracious social media following. “The first teaser trailer was viewed by more than 90 million, and almost half of them came from one of Emma’s vast social media channels. Imagine, 40 million plus views through her social media channels.”

All this emboldened Disney to undertake what became the most expensive live-action musical ever made, at a cost of around $160 million. That required a box office haul of $375 million worldwide to break even. The studio will hit that mark before its second weekend. There are currently no plans for a sequel and the studio — perhaps with Alice Through The Looking Glass as a reminder — won’t try to force one. It will explore possible spinoff and prequel scenarios, Bailey said. While a live-action Fantasia would seem daunting, Bailey said no animated property is off the table, if a filmmaker can find a way in. What is off limits for now are the post-2000 CGI 3D product from Pixar and Disney Animation. Said Bailey: “We are focused on classic properties, and the ones from the Disney 2D renaissance.” The Jeffrey Katzenberg era that brought Beauty And The Beast, The Lion King, The Little Mermaid and others ripe for reimagining.

There is every reason to believe that library will fuel Disney’s live-action division with hits for years to come.

The Jungle Book
Walt Disney Studios

Alice In Wonderland director Burton is casting a live-action adaptation of Dumbo; Jungle Book director Favreau has temporarily put down a sequel for that film to instead focus on a live-action musical version of The Lion King, one that will take the Jungle Book‘s photo-realistic technology further, and will fully exploit the Elton John songs from the original; The Little Mermaid is in the works with Kingsman screenwriter Jane Goldman, Lin-Manuel Miranda and La La Land producer Marc Platt; the studio is trying very hard to get Angelina Jolie back for a Maleficent sequel; a sequel to Mary Poppins is in production with Emily Blunt playing the title character, surrounded by Meryl Streep, Colin Firth and Miranda; there is the 101 Dalmations spinoff, Cruella, which has La La Land’s Stone playing the iconic villainess, with possibly a musical number or two from the original animated film. The 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea project Bailey was going to produce is now called Captain Nemo, and Logan helmer James Mangold is attached to direct it.

There are also originals: Artemis Fowl and The Graveyard Book, and a movie inspired by the theme park Jungle Cruise ride with Dwayne Johnson are among the properties in development. The division is poised for another blockbuster with Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, the Joachim Ronning- and Espen Sandberg-directed fifth installment of the series.

Disney

Said Bailey: “The way we used to look at each potential film was, could it be Disney? Now, the question becomes, should it be Disney? Does our brand mean more than if our competitors make the film? Looking at it that way, the Disney brand has become a competitive advantage. As eager as I am to see Dunkirk, a movie like that wouldn’t be where our competitive advantage lies. Beauty And The Beast and Maleficent, that’s a different story.”

Even though failures like John Carter and The Lone Ranger are in the rear-view mirror, they are reminders of what can happen in straying too far from the brand. Even when the architects, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, director Gore Verbinski and Johnny Depp, launched the division’s reigning franchise success, Pirates Of The Caribbean. The film got halted before production to lower the budget, but it still cost a reputed $225 million and proved a deflating flop.

Lone Ranger was instructive in informing our brand and our process,” Bailey admitted. “We have great respect for Jerry, Gore and Johnny, but we learned what people want from the Disney brand.”

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Bailey said there is no brand envy within the Disney silo system, and said that Horn has created a collegial atmosphere, as opposed to the ruthless intramural turf scrum it could be. “They are gracious when you succeed, with calls and emails, and they are often very valuable second sets of eyes. Kathy [Kennedy], Kevin [Feige] and I always talk about filmmakers, editors. If I have a problem, I can ask, what do you think of this? It’s a very supportive system, with the attitude that all boats rise in success.”

Bailey said the successes of the other divisions also place pressure to keep pace. “You are expected to play at a very high level here, and when that doesn’t happen, there are certainly conversations about the lessons to be learned,” Bailey said. “You beat yourself up a lot. When you’re on a team with great players, you want to perform at their level. When you don’t, you certainly don’t feel great.”

The Disney president said that wasn’t the case this past weekend. “I did pop into a couple of theaters,” he said. “To hear the audience applaud, and feel a sense of joy in a complicated time in the world, was certainly gratifying.”