It was a banner week for the Walt Disney Co. Its 101 Dalmatians opened to a record $45 million. The company reported fourth-quarter earnings that were up 60 percent. And in a widely praised decision, the studio announced it would not buckle under threats by the Chinese government and would distribute Kundun, a $30 million movie about the Dalai Lama directed by Martin Scorsese, as planned.
Cartoonists pictured Mickey Mouse as the lonely hero of Tiananmen Square. But ironically, Mickey never intended to become a symbol. Caught between alienating a potential billion-dollar marketplace and antagonizing Hollywood filmmakers — not to mention risking the PR fiasco of a quintessentially American company bowing to the dictates of a foreign government — Disney bit the bullet and issued a terse statement last week, proclaiming ”We have an agreement to distribute Kundun and we are going to do that.”
Disney really had no choice. One of Michael Ovitz’s first moves after being named president of the company in 1995 was to lure his ex-CAA client Scorsese into the fold. The director brought with him Kundun, a project about the early life of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader. To avoid a showdown with the Chinese government — which has brutally repressed Tibetan Buddhism since occupying the country in 1950 — the studio earlier had gone so far as to sell off most foreign rights to the film. ”Ovitz was supposed to be the guy who was smoothing all the waters, but obviously there were a few ripples,” says financial analyst Dennis McAlpine.
Still, Disney’s support of Kundun was a significant gesture for a studio not always known for sacrificing commerce for art. ”It’s the first time I’ve felt kind of good about Disney,” says Little Buddha screenwriter Rudy Wurlitzer. ”The Chinese made a huge mistake. Everyone will want to see the film.” Or at least Hollywood’s Dalai devotees, including Richard Gere and Oliver Stone, will — which, eventually, could mean more to the studio’s bottom line than even Dalmatians’ opening.