The 100-year history of Disney from a small studio to a media empire

The 100-year history of Disney from a small studio to a media empire

In 1923, Walt Disney left his struggling animation company, Laugh-O-gram Films, and invested his last $40 in a train ticket to join his brother, Roy, in Los Angeles. Together, they embarked on the journey of creating animated films from their uncle’s garage. Little did they know, this endeavor would lay the foundation for one of the most influential media and entertainment brands in history.

Fast forward to the present, The Walt Disney Co (DIS.N) is celebrating its 100th anniversary this month. The company, famously characterized by Walt Disney as having been “all started by a mouse,” has grown into a colossal entity with a market value of $156 billion. Disney’s reach extends to encompass theme parks, television networks, a vast film library, and a successful streaming service that connects with audiences worldwide.

As Disney commemorates its centenary, it faces a challenging era in the entertainment industry. This period is marked by the decline of traditional television, a dip in advertising revenue, a film industry struggling to reach pre-pandemic levels at the box office, and the profitability challenges faced by most video streaming services.

Let’s take a look at Disney’s remarkable journey, from its humble beginnings as a small studio in Burbank to becoming a global media powerhouse:

Oct 1923Walt Disney and brother Roy Disney start “Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio” after signing a contract with distributer M.J. Winkler for “Alice Comedies”
March 1924“Alice’s Day at Sea”, the first short film of the Alice Comedies series, is released
Jan 1926Renames to “Walt Disney Studio”
Sept 1927All-cartoon series “Oswald the Lucky Rabbit”, a character created by Walt Disney, is released by the distributor MJ Winkler. However, Disney later has a falling-out with Winkler after realizing he doesn’t own the rights to his work
May 1928Popular character Mickey Mouse, co-created with Ub Iwerks, debuts in relatively unsuccessful cartoon shows “Plane Crazy” and “The Gallopin’ Gaucho”
Nov 1928Mickey’s claim to fame, “Steamboat Willie”, premiers. “Minnie Mouse” is introduced
Dec 1929Company spun off into four unit – Walt Disney Productions, Walt Disney Enterprises, Liled Realty and Investment Co, and the Disney Film Recording Co
1930Disney merchandising begins, the first Mickey Mouse book and newspaper comic strip are published
1932One of the first full-color cartoons, “Flowers and Trees”, a part of the “Silly Symphony” series, wins the Academy Award for best cartoon
Feb 1935First Mickey Mouse cartoon in color, “The Band Concert”, is released
Dec 1937First feature-length animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, is released
1942Begins making propaganda and training films for the American military during the Second World War. “Saludos Amigos” is created to promote good relations with South America
Jan 1943Anti-Nazi film “Der Fuehrer’s Face” is released, wins the Academy Award for Best Cartoon
1945Releases “Destino“, a film made in collaboration with Spanish artist Salvador Dalí
Dec 1948Releases “Seal Island”, its first documentary film
Oct 1949Launches Walt Disney Music Company
July 1950Release of “Treasure Island”, first completely live-action feature.
Dec 1950Releases its first television show “One Hour in Wonderland”
Feb 1953Releases “Peter Pan”
Oct 1954First airing of “Disneyland” television show
Jul 1955Opens the first Disneyland theme park
Oct 1955First program of the “Mickey Mouse Club” television series airs
Aug 1964Release of “Mary Poppins”
Dec 1966Walt Disney dies
Dec 1971Roy Disney dies
Nov 1976Card Walker named CEO, replacing Donn Tatum
Nov 1977Roy E. Disney, son of co-founder Roy O. Disney, announces his resignation
1982Coca-Cola launches a series of unsuccessful attempts to buy Disney
April 1983First Disney Theme Park outside of the United States opens in Tokyo
1983Ron W. Miller replaces Walker as CEO; Raymond Watson becomes chairman
April 1983Disney Channel begins airing
Feb 1984Launches Touchstone Film label in an attempt to cater to mature audiences
1984Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Edward Disney and his business partner, Stanley Gold, remove Ron Miller as CEO and president and Raymond Watson as chairman, replacing them with Michael Eisner and Frank Wells in the aftermath of an unsuccessful buyout attempt by investor Saul Steinberg.
Eisner became the first person with no personal connection to Walt Disney to lead Walt Disney Productions. His first 4 years as CEO would see Disney surge from last place to first in box-office receipts among the 8 major studios
1986Walt Disney Productions renamed The Walt Disney Company
Feb 1989Launches Hollywood Pictures label to produce comedy films aimed towards mature audiences
1989Launches Hollywood Records, offering recordings ranging from rap to movie soundtracks
May 1991Joins the Dow Jones Industrial Average index
Jan 1992Sets up Disney Publishing Group, which includes Hyperion Books, Hyperion Books for Children and Disney Press
April 1992Euro Disneyland, now Disneyland Paris, opens in Marne-la-Vallée, France
April 1994First show from Disney Theatrical Productions – Beauty and the Beast – opens on Broadway
April 1994Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Co, dies in a helicopter crash
July 1994Releases animated musical “The Lion King”
July 1995Announces acquisition of Capital Cities/ABC Inc for $19 billion
1996Acquires Jumbo Pictures
1997Enters a 10-year distribution partnership with Pixar
2000Bob Iger becomes president
Dec 2003Walt Disney’s nephew Roy Disney resigns as chairman of Feature Animation division and as vice chairman of the company’s board.
In a letter to then-CEO Michael Eisner, he alleged that the company failed under Eisner during the previous seven years, citing low attendance at theme parks and “loss of public trust” among other reasons.
After his resignation, he helped establish the website called aimed at ousting Eisner.
May 2003“Finding Nemo” releases.
July 2003“Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl” releases.
2004Comcast (CMCSA.O) launches an unsolicited $54.1 billion takeover offer for Disney in February, triggering a battle to keep the entertainment company independent. The cable TV provider abandoned its bid two months later, after it became apparent that it was too low to succeed.
March 2005Eisner announces that he would resign that September, one year before his contract expired.
Oct 2005Iger becomes CEO
Jan 2006Announces acquisition of “Toy Story” creator Pixar Animation Studios in a $7.4 billion deal
Feb 2006Announces merger of its ABC Radio stations with Citadel Broadcasting in a $2.7 billion deal
Aug 2009Announces acquisition of Marvel Entertainment in $4 billion deal
Jan 2012Acquires controlling interest in Indian entertainment firm UTV
Oct 2012Announces acquisition of “Star Wars” producer Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion
Feb 2013Achieves $100 billion in market capitalization
Nov 2013Releases “Frozen”, one of its top-grossing animated movies
Dec 2015Releases “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”, the first Lucasfilm titled release under the new owner
2016Shanghai Disney Resort opens, the first Disney theme park in mainland China
Aug 2017Acquires majority stake in BAMTech
Dec 2017Announces a deal to buy 21st Century Fox’s film and television studios, entertainment networks and international TV businesses, for $52.4 billion. Comcast launches a competing bid of $65 billion for Fox, driving up the price Disney paid for the assets. The acquisition closed in 2019 at a raised bid of $71.3 billion.
Nov 2019Launches Disney+ streaming service
Jan 2020Hong Kong Disneyland closes, as the region deals with the rising threat of COVID-19. The spread of the deadly virus causes the company to shutter all its theme parks. The Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, remained closed for 412 days – the longest closure in its history
Feb 2020Elevates parks head Bob Chapek to CEO of Disney
March 2022Disney issues statement opposing Florida’s law that banned classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity with younger children. Opponents labeled the measure the “don’t say gay” bill, saying it would hurt LGBTQ children.
April 2022Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signs a bill that strips Disney of self-governing authority at its Orlando-area parks in apparent retaliation for its opposition to the Parental Rights in Education law.
Aug 2022Activist investor Third Point discloses stake worth $1 billion, recommends changes at Disney
Sept 2022Disney announces truce with activist investor Third Point, appoints tech and media veteran Carolyn Everson to the board of directors
Nov 2022Iger reinstated as CEO, replacing Chapek
Dec 2022Launches ad-supported subscription tier on its streaming service Disney+
Jan 2023Activist investor Nelson Peltz of Trian Fund Management formally launches a battle for a board seat at Disney to rescue the entertainment giant from what he called a “crisis” of overspending on the streaming business, the purchase of 21st Century Fox and failed succession planning.
Feb 2023Announces a sweeping restructuring, including 7,000 job cuts, in an effort to save $5.5 billion in costs and to make its streaming business profitable
Feb 2023Peltz ends his quest for a board seat
April 2023Disney sues Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in federal court, claiming he was “weaponizing” state government in retaliation for the company’s criticism of a law that banned classroom discussion of sexuality and gender identity with younger children
May 2023Thousands of film and television writers go on strike after the Writers Guild of America (WGA) called its first work stoppage in 15 years after failing to reach an agreement with major studios such as Disney and Netflix over payment and limits on the use of artificial intelligence
July 2023Hollywood actors go on strike after talks with studios break down, joining film and television writers who have been on picket lines since May and deepening the disruption of scores of shows and movies
Oct 2023Activist investor Nelson Peltz’s Trian Fund Management amasses roughly $2.5 billion worth of shares in Disney, and is expected to ask the company for multiple board seats
Oct 2023Hollywood writers union ratifies three-year labor contract after strike
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