Now that animated films have proven their big-screen drawing power, rival studios are challenging Disney's reign as king of cartoons

Be warned: the world of scampering puppies, singing crabs, spunky maidens, adorable sidekicks, handsome princes, and happily-ever-after endings is about to get as bloody as a Sam Peckinpah shoot-out — and the first gunslingers will be a Russian princess and a little mermaid.

When Twentieth Century Fox’s animated film Anastasia opens Nov. 14 — the same day as Disney’s strategically timed rerelease of its 1989 hit The Little Mermaid — a multiyear, multibillion-dollar battle for the hearts, minds, and wallets of young moviegoers will begin. By 1998, Warner Bros. and DreamWorks will have joined the fray in an attempt to break Disney’s choke hold on the animation market by releasing their own ‘toons. And, of course, all three studios wouldn’t mind replicating Disney’s synergy in ancillary markets: merchandise, international box office, Broadway spin-offs, videos, company-owned toy stores, theme parks, and broadcast channels.

What happens when competitors try to horn in on entertainment’s most lucrative franchise? If there are kids in the room, you may want to cover their ears; the following presentation contains some really angry adults. Here’s how round one is going: With over $60 million reportedly invested in Anastasia, and a marketing budget that could top $50 million, Fox is accusing Disney of cannibalizing its own movies to fend off a competitor. At the annual shareholders meeting of News Corp., Fox’s parent company, president and COO Peter Chernin warned that Disney is ”determined to do anything they can to stop the success of Anastasia.”

He’s got a point. Disney has refused advertising for Anastasia on ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney, and banned Anastasia‘s corporate sponsors from placing any spot on the show that includes movie clips. (Lost revenue: $175,000 for a 30-second spot — pocket change given what’s at stake.) Says Disney spokeswoman Terry Curtin: ”The point is, that when you have the word Disney and you see animation, we are protecting the brand. We’re not using our ownership position at ABC to preclude them from reaching their audience, or from advertising in [the rest of] our lineup.”

As opening day nears, the jabs — and trash-talking — are intensifying. Disney, which advertises on Fox TV, complained to Fox that correspondence sent to Disney was arriving in envelopes bearing Anastasia logos. In Burbank, near where most of the animation studios are located, a Fox source says a Toys ‘R’ Us manager has claimed that Disney employees are pushing Anastasia toys to the backs of shelves. (”If Toys ‘R’ Us has given us priority placement, it’s probably because of our long-term relationship,” says Curtin.) But wait, there’s more: On Nov. 11, Disney will roll out the direct-to-video sequel Beauty and the Beast: The Enchanted Christmas, which features the voice of Angela Lansbury — also one of the star voices of Anastasia.

”If Anastasia falls on its face, Disney remains king,” says attorney Jon Cantor, who’s represented hundreds of animators at Disney and its competitors. ”If it’s a hit, it opens the floodgates.”

A Bug's Life
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