January 2000 – “Boycott Disney? What on earth for?”
That seemed to be the question on the minds of many Christians when AFA called for a boycott of The Walt Disney Company four years ago. What was then the world’s second-largest entertainment company and most famous entertainment brand name seemed an unlikely boycott target, and an even less likely boycott pushover.
When AFA began disseminating the evidence of Disney’s disturbing change in direction, numerous Christian denominations and ministries jumped on board. Because of the company’s promotion of homosexuality and production of violent, profane and sexualized content, Disney became a perfect boycott target.
The question was, however, could Disney be influenced by a boycott? While that question has not yet been answered, the boycott has resulted in some renovations at the Mouse House.
Talking about Disney
For years, many Christians have had grave concerns about the amount of immoral content produced by Hollywood. Disney provided a lightning rod for attracting national attention to the issue of entertainment’s effects on society. The Disney boycott allowed AFA and other Christian organizations to crystallize their concerns, making the company a centerpiece example in the ongoing debate over cultural issues.
“Back in 1996, the reasons for boycotting Disney were not obvious to the casual observer. So our intent was simple: when people would ask Christians why they were boycotting Disney, we could initiate a discussion about homosexuality or the rapid degeneration of the entertainment industry,” said AFA President Donald E. Wildmon.
The corollary was also true: discussions about a general cultural issue often turned to a discussion of Disney. In 1996, for example, San Francisco instituted a controversial law requiring all businesses which wanted to do business with the city to extend health benefits to the domestic partners of their homosexual employees. City Supervisor Tom Amiano, who co-sponsored the measure, defended it by saying, “If it’s good enough for Mickey Mouse, it’s good enough for San Francisco” – a reference to Disney’s controversial extension of domestic partner benefits in 1995. In a 1997 article about the growing movement in corporate America to extend such benefits to homosexual employees, The Orlando Sentinel said, “Disney brought these issues to Main Street.”
“Disney has become the template for more general discussions of cultural issues,” said Wildmon. “For that reason alone, we believe the boycott has been successful.”
Naturally, any boycott is intended to have a financial impact on the targeted company. In that regard, the evidence is sketchy at best. Disney has certainly fallen on less prosperous times, but it has not been possible to isolate which potential causes are responsible.
Disney’s net income has been falling over the last year-and-a-half, that much is certain, and usually in areas that would be sensitive to a boycott – such as Disney merchandise, video sales, and domestic movie performance. (See related story here.)
This less-than-rosy financial picture is not something that has been lost on Disney Chairman and CEO Michael Eisner. The company will be reducing spending, cutting costs and reevaluating the planned expansions of Disney stores, Disney play centers and its recently launched cruise line. The company also jettisoned its magazine unit, Fairchild Publications, and might be considering the sale of its two professional teams – hockey’s Anaheim Mighty Ducks and baseball’s Anaheim Angels.
Disney’s weaker financial outlook has also affected its image on Wall Street: the company’s stock has dropped 37% below last year’s high, according to Fortune. That performance is not representative of an industry-wide trend in entertainment, but is what The Wall Street Journal called a “Disney-specific” problem.
While Disney’s stock values have been dropping, those of rival media companies within the so-called Media Conglomerate (like Time Warner, Seagrams, Viacom, and USA Network) have all been growing. According to Zack’s Investment Research, Disney’s earnings over the last five years have been down 1.5%. That compares with an earnings growth rate of 4.0% for the Media Conglomerate, and 10.3% overall for the Standard and Poors 500.
“We believe the disparity in stock directions for Disney as opposed to other entertainment companies is evidence that there is something amiss at the Mouse House,” said Wildmon. “There is a problem that is specific to Disney, and we believe it is related, in part, to the boycott.”
Still, Disney is a financial behemoth, and while it has stopped growing, the Mouse maintains formidable assets and revenue punch, leading Wildmon to remind people that the boycott has always been a longterm campaign. “The boycott is taking a bite out of Disney’s profits, and yes, Disney is a company with deep pockets,” he said. “But we’re like a Rottweiler. We don’t let go.”
Disney policy changes
While the boycott has not devastated Disney’s economic picture, it was never intended to do so. Wildmon said the boycott effort was not meant as a financial punishment of the company. “We wanted to call Disney back to the family-friendly roots that previously provided it with a pristine image that parents could trust,” he said. “The financial pressure was meant to convince that company that America’s parents were serious about their concerns.”
In fact, over the past two-and-a-half years Disney has become more conservative, making numerous moves to shore up its family-friendly image, such as dumping the most offensive rock bands from its Hollywood Records label; dropping controversial Disney/ABC shows like the anti-Catholic drama Nothing Sacred and pro-homosexual sitcom Ellen; and replacing a television actor after discovering he had been in a pornographic film.
At the beginning of 1999, Disney recalled 3.4 million video copies of its 1977 animated feature The Rescuers after discovering a single, objectionable frame that was not even visible to the naked eye. Even though other animated films have had offensive frames – which are usually sneaked into the final film by animators as a sort of inside joke – the recall of The Rescuers was a first for Disney.
A spokesman said the recall demonstrated the company’s intention “to keep our promise to families that [they] can trust and rely on the Disney brand to provide the finest in family entertainment.”
Behind the scenes, Disney also appeared concerned that if it released its Miramax-produced film Dogma – certain to be viewed as anti-Christian and virulently anti-Catholic – it would add fuel to the boycott fires.
The early controversy over Dogma recalled in media circles the firestorm created by Priest, a 1995 anti-Catholic Miramax release. That film not only ignited a Disney boycott by the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, but helped convince AFA that it was time to do the same. Neither Disney nor Miramax ever responded to requests to pull that film.
The concerns over Dogma, however, prompted Miramax co-founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein to purchase the movie from Disney and work out their own distribution deal with Lions Gate Entertainment.
While demonstrating some awareness of the concerns of Christians and pro-family groups, Disney also seems unable to fully return to its family-friendly past, thus virtually guaranteeing that the boycott will continue.
Disney’s promotion of homosexuality, for example, has continued post-Ellen. ABC aired two new prime-time shows this fall with strongly pro-homosexual characters and themes: a drama entitled Wasteland and Oh Grow Up, a sitcom with three male roommates, one of whom is a man who has left his wife after announcing that he’s a homosexual.
However, Disney had a public-relations disaster at this past summer’s “Gay Days” celebration, where a Christian ministry caught on video Disney dancers simulating homosexual sex during a performance on Disney World property.
After such nudity- and sex-filled films as Color of Night (Disney’s Hollywood Pictures) and The Advocate (Miramax), Disney is apparently unashamed to flaunt that side of its film personality. Disney’s subsidiary Touchstone Pictures purchased the screen rights to Chippendales, an unpublished book about the male strip club dancing industry.
For sheer perversion, however, nothing matches radio shock-jock Howard Stern’s television show on the cable network E!, of which Disney has partial ownership and, according to Daily Variety, full programming control.
Miramax will also continue its legacy of producing violent films aimed at a teenage audience. After releasing the “splatter films” Scream and Scream 2, Miramax’s Dimension films is set to release Scream 3. It also purchased the Halloween franchise.
“Disney seems to be almost doubleminded at this point – at times the company appears to be trying to win back the trust of families, but at other times continues to produce and market trash,” said Wildmon. “Until Disney makes up its mind, I think the boycott will only grow, and Disney's profits will only shrink.