From the New York Times, 11/24/03:You can join Unsolved Mysteries and post your own mysteries or
The Walt Disney Company celebrated the 75th anniversary of Mickey Mouse as a cultural icon and corporate totem last week, but some business analysts wondered whether it could have been a retirement party.
Despite the hoopla, which included a party at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., for the unveiling of 75 hand-decorated Mickey statues, the mouse's popularity is waning.
Revenue of Mickey-related products sold by Disney's consumer products division, for example, has shrunk to less than 40 percent of the division's $2.3 billion annual total, down from 50 percent during the peak in 1997, according to Disney executives. Winnie the Pooh merchandise is now outselling Mickey items.
Even the company's own research suggests that the 75-year-old mouse is becoming increasingly difficult for Americans of all ages to relate to - particularly children, whose entertainment world is filled with online computer games and other distractions.
"Mickey hasn't really changed, and I guess the question is, have the times passed him by?" said Tom Wolzien, an analyst at Sanford Bernstein & Company who covers Disney. "I think they've had chances to upgrade the character, but they haven't done a lot with it."
Disney, though, is now trying hard to find Mickey's 21st-century footing - an effort for which it bought additional time last January when the United States Supreme Court upheld the extension of the Mickey Mouse copyright through 2023.
Helping lead the Mickey makeover is Andy Mooney, the president of Disney's consumer products unit, who joined the company four years ago from Nike. Eighteen months ago he set up a secret 1,000-square-foot room in Glendale, Calif., not far from Disney's Burbank headquarters. He stocked the room with Mickey watches, stuffed animals, comic books and thousands of other Mickey-licensed merchandise. Television monitors played Mickey Mouse videos, clips and shows from all eras, including the company's most recent animated series, the Disney Channel's "House of Mouse."
Representatives from every Disney division toured the war room, including the chief executive, Michael D. Eisner, and the president, Robert A. Iger. Mr. Mooney said. "We found there was no consistency," said Mr. Mooney, noting that retailers, too, had been complaining about the product line. "To be candid, they beat up on me to put energy into Mickey Mouse."
Mr. Mooney said he had whittled the number of Mickey products the company offered in the United States, hoping to improve Mickey's cachet.
More than a year ago, the company began selling retro-style Mickey Mouse T-shirts and other clothes in trendy boutiques. The clothes were also given to celebrities, and the paparazzi have captured the actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Jennifer Aniston, among others, wearing the shirts, which Mr. Mooney said have become the consumer products unit's fastest-growing item.
And Disney is not above drafting Mickey and his friends into civil service. Starting next summer, Disney characters will be featured on a series of postage stamps that will be released yearly through 2006.
Mickey is competing against streetwise and sophisticated animated newcomers like Viacom's SpongeBob SquarePants. So Disney is literally taking Mickey to the streets, painting black and white murals of him on the sides of buildings around Los Angeles.
Disney is also planning new feature films, including next year's "Three Musketeers," the first full-length film starring Mickey Mouse and his friends, and for 2005 the first computer-animated Mickey movie, "Twice Upon a Christmas." The movies will not be released in theaters, instead going straight to home video, under the theory that it can be difficult to muster cinema-size crowds for animated characters older than many of today's children's grandparents.
But age alone might not be Mickey's problem as much as the burden of carrying corporate responsibilities far heavier than playing an engaging cartoon character.
"Mickey seems to be more of a spokesperson," said Herb Scannell, president of Nickelodeon Networks, which is home to SpongeBob SquarePants.
Some within Disney think so too, and they want to change that perception. On a recent afternoon in his offices in Burbank, Ken Shue, the affable director of global art development for Disney Publishing Worldwide, rifled through drawers stuffed with thousands of original drawings from original comic books and strips as well as hardcover books of all the Disney characters.
He gingerly pulled out sheets of early comic strips of Mickey and Goofy from the days when the founder, Walt Disney, who died in 1967, was active in the creative process. "When Walt was around we didn't have as much regulation as we do now," said Mr. Shue, who joined the company nine years ago. "When I came in I was told we had to conform to a standard."
Indeed, several Disney employees interviewed said the company employs a team of executives, often referred to as the "Mickey Police," who monitor Mickey's image.
In the 1930's and 40's Mickey had much more edge to his personality, Mr. Shue said, because the comic strips were drawn by adults who wanted to entertain themselves as much as readers. He pointed to one early strip, in which Mickey must save Goofy from a dogcatcher who has threatened to put him in an execution chamber.
Mickey Mouse comic strips were published in newspapers from 1930 to 1993. But after a redesign in 1976, the mouse became "a more homogenized, more corporate Mickey," Mr. Shue said. "You could make the case Mickey lost his flair."
Maybe, at age 75, the mouse simply cannot be all things to all masters.
One Disney executive, Mr. Shue recalled, wanted to create a book about Mickey Mouse set at the theme parks because "kids could identify with it." But Mr. Shue and a number of his colleagues balked at the idea because, unlike the Mickey on television or in books, the character at the parks does not speak (in part so that any number of people in costumes can play him).
"What can be more anti-animation than that?" asked Mr. Shue. "That Mickey doesn't talk. That's not necessarily what we want to bring to the printed page."
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