Bob Iger Saves Oswald the Rabbit | How Walt’s Oswald the Lucky Rabbit Came Home to Disney EXPLAINED

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I’ve previously written about how after Bob Iger took over as CEO of Disney in 2005, replacing the embattled Michael Eisner and how he took Disney on the journey of acquiring intellectual properties such as Pixar, Marvel, Lucasfilm and 21st Century Fox, but today I want to talk about how, before all of that, Bob Iger saved Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

The Iger era of the Walt Disney Company can best be described as one of wheeling and dealing for the rights of intellectual property (IP) to join the Walt Disney Company. As un-Disney as that sounds, Iger made the deals work. He not only masterfully acquired new IP but was at the helm of a Disney Company that was successful in integrating these properties and made them… DISNEY! Making these characters a part of the Disney family, bringing them to the parks and making them as magical as the original Fab 5 or Disney Princesses. 

Many of us know about the big deals. 

There was Iger’s effort to repair a strained relationship between Pixar and Disney by winning the trust of Pixar and Apple Computer’s head Steve Jobs, which led to a 6 billion dollars deal in 2006 to make Pixar an official part of the Walt Disney Company.  

Iger saw the potential of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and acquired what would be the most successful studio and film franchise in 2009.

Iger then negotiated a deal with Star Wars creator George Lucas in 2012 to bring Star Wars to Disney.

And it was out of a casual conversation between studio  heads, Iger and Rupert Murdoch, head of 21st Century Fox, that Disney acquired Fox, the largest deal of its kind in modern history. 

But before all of that, it all started with… a sportscaster. 

Al Michaels was a sportscaster for the Disney owned ABC network covering the NFL. In 2005 it was announced that Monday Night Football would be moving from ABC to the ESPN network (also owned by Disney)  beginning in the 2006 NFL season.  Sportscaster Al Michaels had been calling the NFL Monday Night Football  games with legend John Madden for years and they had created quite the repertoire. Around the same time, John Madden announced he would be joining NBC Sports which had just acquired the NFL broadcast rights to Sunday Night Football. 

As time went on, speculation arose that Al Michaels wanted to get out of his contract at ABC/ESPN to join his friend John Madden on NBC’s Sunday Night Football.

It should be noted Al Michaels was a professional through all this. This was a situation where someone had a great working relationship with someone else, something magical and they wanted that to continue. 

The NBC Network is a part of NBCUniversal. When word got to Bob Iger that Al Michaels wanted out of his contract with ESPN to join Madden, he knew this was an opportunity to bring Walt Disney’s original animated creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, back to the Disney family. Iger told head of ESPN George Bodenheimer “that he’d be willing to let Al Michaels go if Bodenheimer could deliver Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back to Disney.” The ESPN head had no idea who Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was. Iger explained to Bodenheimer Oswald’s legacy and his importance Disney. Bodenheimer then called his counterpart at NBC,  Dick Ebersol, telling him of Disney’s willingness to let Al Michaels go to NBC, on the condition of getting Oswald the Lucky Rabbit back to his home at Disney. Ebersol has no idea who Oswald was but Bodenheimer would fill him in, restating Iger’s commitment to having Oswald return to Disney. “Within a week, Ebersol had run the traps at NBC’s sister company, Universal, received approval, and the deal was worked out.”(1)

Who is Oswald the Lucky Rabbit?  YouTube Jon Solo did a very in depth video on the complete history of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. Be sure to check that out here.

Before there was a Mickey Mouse or a Walt Disney Company, Walt Disney along with his partner animator Ub Iwerks created “The Alice Comedies” which combined live action and animation. “By 1927 Walt was looking to do something else. He felt constrained by the mounting costs and technical limitations of the live-action-girl-in-a-cartoon-world conceit. Charles Mintz, an American producer and distributor who had handled the Alice shorts, had entered into negotiations to provide a new character to Universal Pictures…‘They seem to think there are too many cats on the market,’… Walt sent them sketches of rabbits. On March 4, 1927, Mintz signed an agreement with Universal, for 26 animated shorts starring a brand new character designed by Walt Disney–Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.(2)”

So Walt, Iwerks and his team of animators began to create the Oswald shorts with some success. Long  story short, in 1928 Charles Mintz would sign all of Disney’s animators, except for Ub Iwerks, to a deal to produce the Oswald Cartoons without Disney for Universal as they owned the rights to produce the Oswald shorts. As bad as this sounds, this was a common practice during the day. Walt had no legal right over Oswald even though he had created him and the circumstances were less than ideal. From there on out, Universal would have the rights to Oswald which would ultimately lead Walt to create Mickey Mouse. At first Mickey’s name was Mortimer, but Walt’s wife said she didn’t like the name and suggested Mickey instead. In 2006 Oswald would join Mickey for the first time and be a part of the Disney Company.

With the deal between Universal and Disney done, Oswald would soon be reincorporated into the Disney family.  Oswald would be featured in the video games Epic Mickey and Epic Mickey 2 as a key character to the storyline. He would also have a prominent spot in Disney’s California Adventure Theme Park in the Disneyland Resort and as reported by TheDisInsider.com, an animated series for Disney+ is in the works (3).

So why is all this important? Because this was a situation where Iger could have demanded money, other sports rights, or IP to allow Al Michaels out of his contract, but he knew and understood the history of the Walt Disney Company and asked for a little known animated Rabbit that had not been featured on a screen in over 60 years. 

This move went far to build trust among a disheartened Disney fanbase. The company had just ousted their CEO Michael Eisner after Walt’s nephew and former company board member, Roy E. Disney led a campaign to “Save Disney”.  Roy E. Disney took issues with  Eisner’s ‘micromanagement’ style, a ‘brain drain’ of talent on his watch, his ‘consistent refusal’ to set a succession plan and the perception that [the] Disney Company has become a ‘rapacious, soul-less’ conglomerate ‘always looking for the quick buck.’”(4)

FILE PHOTO: Walt Disney CEO Bob Iger attends the European premiere of “The Lion King” in London, Britain July 14, 2019. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

Though, like any other CEO, Iger has had his fair share of criticism leveled at him. Yet, this move to bring Oswald back to the company at the start of his tenure as CEO would build an amazing amount of trust with the Disney fan base and family. Iger would later say “I wanted to complete Walt’s mission. I knew there was an empty spot in his [Walt Disney’s] heart since Oswald left…There was something about bringing Oswald back that seemed right. So the move was meant to do something that was positive for Disney’s culture and to tap into that legacy.”(5)

Diane Disney Miller, Walt’s daughter, would say in a press release, “When Bob was named CEO, he told me he wanted to bring Oswald back to Disney, and I appreciate that he is a man of his word,”(6)

The deal left everyone happy; the Disney company, the Disney Family, Universal, the fan base and even Al Michaels himself was happy saying “ ‘I feel good about it…I have a lot of friends in that world of freeing all the animals…. Now I can say, ‘Hey, what more do you want? I let this guy [Oswald] out of the hoosegow after 55 years.’ “(7)

The reacquisition of Oswald would be the start of new IP coming to the Disney family and would usher in an era of success and growth for the Disney Company. The deal showed how much Iger loved Disney and respected it’s history by saving Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.

References

  1.  THE UNBELIEVABLE HISTORY OF OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT https://ohmy.disney.com/insider/2016/09/05/oswald-the-lucky-rabbit/
  2.  Ibid
  3.  Oswald The Lucky Rabbit Series In The Works For Disney+ https://thedisinsider.com/2019/07/06/oswald-the-lucky-rabbit-series/
  4.  War of words erupts at Walt Disney By Michael McCarthy, USA TODAY https://usatoday30.usatoday.com/money/media/2003-12-01-disney-words_x.htm
  5.  THE UNBELIEVABLE HISTORY OF OSWALD THE LUCKY RABBIT https://ohmy.disney.com/insider/2016/09/05/oswald-the-lucky-rabbit/
  6.  Disney Loses a Voice, Pulls Rabbit Out of NBC’s Hat, LOS ANGELES TIMES https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-2006-feb-10-fi-rabbit10-story.html
  7.  Ibid

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