Monday, December 12, 2011

The Eisner-EPCOT Antipathy Explanation

It’s widely known in the Disney geek community that when Michael Eisner took the reins of the Walt Disney Company in 1984 he was not a big fan of EPCOT Center. Under his watch many attempts were made to “fix” the park and give it a broader appeal, things like giving Future World a real live circus and bringing in celebrity-based attractions like Captain EO and Ellen’s Energy Adventure. The reason that’s usually given for Eisner’s antipathy toward the park’s original vision is that he was an empty suit too obsessed with synergy and marketing to appreciate EPCOT Center’s true appeal, and there’s certainly some truth to that.

But I believe that, in addition to his entertainment-industry instincts to synergize and dumb things down to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Eisner’s attitude toward EPCOT Center was affected by his experience on one of his big projects at Paramount: Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

In the late '70s, a young Michael Eisner was an executive at Paramount Pictures, and one of the projects within his sphere of responsibility was the revival of Star Trek. After several aborted attempts to make a film, Paramount had decided to start a fourth television network-a competitor to the Big Three of CBS, NBC, and ABC-with a revived Trek entitled Star Trek: Phase II as its flagship program. They even held a big press conference to announce this. Then their accountants did the math, and realized that the Paramount Television Network would never make enough money to stay in business. You’d think they would have had the accountants run the numbers before they had their big press conference, but if you’re reading this then the fact that large corporations often behave illogically is not surprising to you.

Anyway, the stillbirth of the Paramount Network presented a big problem for Michael Eisner. He had to find some way to salvage a sellable product out of all the money the studio had invested into Star Trek’s revival, and at an August 3, 1977 meeting, which was ostensibly a pitch meeting for the story for Star Trek: Phase II’s two-hour pilot, Eisner found his way out. The story treatment that Gene Roddenberry, Harold Livingston, and Robert Goodwin pitched to Eisner concerned a huge, unstoppable living spaceship that threatened the planet Earth. Upon hearing the pitch, Eisner reportedly slapped his hand down on the conference table and declared “We’ve been looking for the feature for five years, and this is it!”

With that, Star Trek: Phase II became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Not only did it provide Paramount with a way to finally get some return on all the money they’d invested in attempted Star Trek revivals, they also hoped it would give them something else they badly desired: a Star Wars killer. You see, not only was Star Wars a fantastically profitable motion picture, but it also turned tie-in merchandise into big business. Naturally, Paramount wanted their own science-fiction film franchise with a profitable line of merchandise to go along with it, and Star Trek seemed to be the perfect candidate.

However, the driving force behind Star Wars was George Lucas’ desire to make a modern version of an old-fashioned space adventure serial like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. As I’ve written before, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry’s aspirations were much different. Having spent most of the 1970s having his head swelled by enthusiastic convention audiences who treated his philosophical musings like the utterances of a prophet, he was keen that a Star Trek film tackle some kind of profound Big Idea. Stars William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy were heavily involved in the creative process, and they were mainly interested in ensuring that their characters got meaty story arcs.

The making of Star Trek: The Motion Picture was not a fun or happy process. When filming got underway, the script was still unfinished. Dialogue had to be repeatedly rewritten on the set as either Shatner or Nimoy would often object that their character wouldn’t say this or that, and the film’s big ending, where Decker merges with V’Ger and the Ilia-bot, was pretty much thought up on the spot. Star Trek was in the process of transforming into important tentpole franchise, yet Gene Roddenberry was still trying to maintain the same amount of control he’d had as executive producer of the TV series in 1967. He even went so far as to write his own version of the screenplay to compete with the one by the contracted screenwriter Harold Livingston, and then try and force Michael Eisner to choose between them. Eisner chose Livingston’s script, and the confrontation simply added one more headache to the movie’s already-painful birth. The film’s post-production phase was even more troubled. The film was locked into its December 7, 1979 release date, but its many special-effects shots proved more complex and time-consuming than was originally thought. As a result, post-production ran grotesquely behind schedule, and was completed only at the last possible moment. There was no time for test screenings, nor was there any time to release the film with anything but a temporary audio track. Director Robert Wise actually carried the finished cut of the movie with him to the premiere. Still, everyone was hoping that Paramount had a Star Wars killer on its hands.

And what happened? You know what happened. Star Trek:The Motion Picture had lots of special effects, just like Star Wars. It even had a lot of background aliens that could be made into action figures, just like Star Wars. But where Star Wars was fast-paced and exciting, Star Trek: The Motion Picture was grand, majestic, profound, slow-moving and boring boring BORING.

cast_1701_tmpPictured: EXCITEMENT!

Sure, the music was excellent, the designs (even the much-lampooned disco pajama uniforms) were well thought-out, and the story had something meaningful to say about the human condition. But none of that made up for the fact that the movie was less fun than a PBS documentary on the history of borscht. Kids didn’t find it exciting, the toy line by Mego was nowhere near as cool or successful as Kenner’s Star Wars line, and so even though the movie turned a budget of $40 million into a domestic box office gross of about $82.2 million it was widely viewed as a flop. A flop with Michael Eisner’s name on it.

eisner_TMPSee that guy on the right? It’s not Frank Wells.

At the time, no one could have known that it would give birth to a successful, long-running film series and a television revival that would include four spinoff shows and a resultant boatload of home video sales. Star Trek: The Motion Picture was a stressful, painful experience that appeared not to have been worth it.

So imagine how Eisner must have felt in 1984 when he took over a Walt Disney Company that had, on its Florida property, a big expensive sciencey park that was a lot like Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the very thing that gave him so many headaches during the final years of the 1970s. EPCOT Center was very grand, impressive, and profound, but like the first Star Trek film most members of the general public found it confusing and boring. I believe that Eisner quickly turned his back on EPCOT Center’s founding philosophies in part because his experience with the first Star Trek film led him to believe that such profound, educational ideas presented in a rather sterile, academic, science fictiony way just could not appeal to mass audiences.

Of course, his vision of what EPCOT should be was all about thrill rides, celebrities, and faddish trends. A perfect example of that was the Wonders of Life pavilion, which featured a garish late-80s Nickelodeon-inspired color scheme, EPCOT’s very first thrill ride, and a large helping of celebrity cameos. You could argue, though, that at least Michael Eisner had a vision. Today’s executives seem to have no clue what they want EPCOT to be, beyond a place to sell Duffy merchandise.

Still, I still hope that one day EPCOT will get a Wrath of Khan-style makeover that remains faithful to the park’s core essence while jettisoning all the pointless flotsam it’s accumulated over the last couple decades worth of attempts to make it fit in with the cool kids.

Or at least get William Shatner to narrate O Canada! That’s one celebrity cameo I can get behind.


  1. And now we know that although Wonders has proven to be a great success in EPCOT history, it's ended up nothing more than a setpping stone from greatness to (medical term pun) DOA.

  2. Great insight made all the more relevant by the fact that Wrath of Kahn was already out in 1982 so Eisner had already seen the results of adding more excitement into a story.

    Considering your recent article, are you in some ways equating Ray Bradbury with Gene Roddenberry?

  3. With Wrath of Khan the situation was different. The studio pretty much gave the project to Harve Bennett and Nick Meyer and gave them a pretty free hand to do what they wanted as long as they stayed within the budget. Eisner didn't involve himself with the creative process. At Disney, it seemed like the more involved he was, the worse things turned out.

    And no, I am certainly not equating Ray Bradbury with Gene Roddenberry. I love Star Trek, but let's face it: Bradbury is a prolific and celebrated author. Roddenberry only knew how to tell two or three different stories, and most of his stuff (especially after the 1960s) was hokey and preachy. Especially after Star Trek became a success, Gene's scripts were far more concerned with pushing his ideas about the future (and demonizing those things the disagreed with) than telling a good story.

    The core of Star Trek was his idea, but a lot of what it became is due to the contributions of people like Gene Coon, D.C. Fontana, Nicholas Meyer, and David Gerrold. Gene, however, reasoned that since Star Trek was "his", he was free to claim creative credit for all of it, even the ideas he had nothing to do with. Therefore, he almost always claimed ownership of any idea associated with Star Trek, and ignored the contributions of his co-creators.


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