5 Lessons in Risk From Walt Disney and Snow White

It was 1934 in the Great Depression and Walt Disney had a problem. Walt Disney Productions was the king of short animated films, the studio’s Silly Symphonies were winning all of the Academy Awards for “Short Subjects, Cartoons”, but it was a hand to mouth business with low returns. As today, the big money was in feature films, not animated shorts. When Walt embarked on his journey to make the first animated feature film in US history, he did not know how long it would take or that Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would come to be known as “Disney’s Folly”. He also did not know that he would mortgage his house to get the film finished.

When it was released in 1937, Snow White had a running time of 83 minutes and became the biggest grossing film in US box office history. Snow White’s international gross was $7.9 million, or $131 million in 2014 dollars. This was an excellent return on a movie with a production cost of $1.5 million, or about $25 million today. Snow White remains in the top ten for all-time box office gross at $416 million.

Calculating the odds

Walt knew that feature films costing only a few hundred thousand dollars to produce could make millions at the box office. In 1928, Warner Brother’s released The Singing Fool, a musical starring Al Jolson, which grossed $5 million, breaking box office records. Horror films were also doing well with box office hits like Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931), which reported box-office rentals of $1.4 million on a budget of $262,000. He also knew that the only animated feature of the time, The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) produced by Lotte Reiniger in Germany with a running time of 65 minutes, was a box office flop.

The word on the street was that animation could not entertain an audience for the full length of a feature film. Silly Symphonies films were 5-10 minute cartoon shorts, which were shown before a feature film to warm up the audience. People said that watching animation for too long would hurt the eyes.

Walt budgeted Snow White at $150,000-$250,000, which he hoped was low enough for him to make his money back, even if the film was not a hit. The original budget implied a running time of 40-50 minutes, the minimum length for a feature is 40 minutes, at a cost of $50-75 per foot of film, the average cost for a Silly Symphonies short.

When it was finished, Snow White’s budget was similar to an expensive feature. The average cost per foot of film was $200, almost four times that of an animated short.

Proof of concept

In 1934, Walt Disney Productions released The Goddess of Spring, a Silly Symphonies short with a running time of 9 minutes, which was a test reel for Snow WhiteGoddess draws on the genres of fantasy, horror, and musicals. It tells the tale of Persephone, a woodland princess, who is taken away by Hades, ruler of the underworld. In the end, good prevails over evil, like in Snow White.

The technologies used in Goddess were further developed in the production of Snow WhiteGoddess was shot in Technicolor Process 4, Walt negotiated an exclusive contract for the process in 1932, with a multi-plane camera to create a three-dimensional effect. Goddess was also the studio’s first attempt at depicting realistic human characters.

Beta testing

When story development for Snow White began in 1934, Walt told the story to anyone who would listen. At first, he focused on comedy and the antics of the Seven Dwarfs, whom he believed were the main attraction of the story. As the story developed, he became more concerned with the plausibility of the characters and their emotional journeys. In a move away from comedy, the Evil Queen went from being ‘fat’ and ‘batty’ to a ‘stately beautiful type’. The focus of the story also shifted away from the dwarfs to the relationship between the Queen and Snow White.

Walt told the story, and even acted it out, until he had the emotionally compelling narrative he needed to connect with audiences. The film begins like Goddess in a warm woodland setting where we see the innocence and goodness of Snow White. The Evil Queen is jealous of Snow White’s beauty and seeks to destroy her by poisoning her with an apple. Her friends, the dwarfs, cannot save her. In the end she is brought back to life by the Prince and true love.

Raising the bar

The greatest challenge Walt faced in making Snow White was the visual artistry of the film. The film was shot in 24 frames per second and each frame was photographed with three to seven layers, or cels. The cels were positioned at different levels of the multi-plane camera to give the illusion of depth.

Walt employed 750 artists to make Snow White, most of whom were newspaper cartoonists with no formal artistic training. Walt brought in Don Graham of the Chouinard Institute to instruct animators in anatomy, movement, and acting. Together these artists produced nearly 2 million images, of which only 166,000, less than 10% of the total, are seen in the finished film.

When Snow White was released in 1934, audiences were moved to tears. Sergei Eisenstein, the Russian director who invented avant-garde cinema, called it “the greatest film ever made”.

Walt Disney’s journey in making Snow White is that of a master entrepreneur and storyteller. Walt understood his market and used comparative data to understand financial risk and reward. He tested and mastered the techniques of his craft on a small scale first. He invested in people. He listened to his audience and connected with them on an emotional level. And he did not let the naysayers, who warned of financial ruin, stop him from achieving his goal.

To learn more about Walt Disney, you may enjoy Bob Thomas’s excellent biography, Walt Disney: An American Original (1994). There is also a more recent book on the making of Snow White by J.B. Kaufman, a film historian who was on the staff of the Walt Disney Family Foundation, called Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs: The Art and Creation of Walt Disney's Classic Animated Film (2012).