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Disney Tries to Keep its Wholesome Image Whole
by Trudy Gygi, MBA1

Walt Disney Company is having a rough time protecting its reputation as a creator of good old-fashioned family entertainment. Controversy has been haunting the studio all year. In the spring, Disney was mixed up in a mess when a wholly-owned subsidiary, Miramax, released the imported Priest. During the summer, Disney was spared a public relations nightmare when Miramax sold its rights to Kids, a Sundance Festival favorite. Now, as the holidays are approaching, Disney finds itself in another bind over its release of Powder earlier this month.

The issue that has sparked this public relations flame is the personal history of Powder's director, Victor Salva. Salva was convicted in 1989 of molesting 12-year-old actor Nathan Forrest Winters. Salva served fifteen months in a California state prison. According to the St. Petersburg Times, "critics believe the studio is violating its long-standing trust with American families" by supporting an admitted pedophile.

Winters grabbed the spotlight at an industry screening prior to the film's release. He says that people interested in seeing Salva's movie should also hear his story. "Powder" is a movie about an albino teenage boy that seems to be made of pure energy. The film stars Jeff Goldblum, Mary Steenburgen and Sean Patrick Flannery (of Young Indiana Jones fame). Winters argues that although Salva should be able to work, he "does not deserve to be around children."

Disney has little to say on the controversy. Powder was produced by Caravan Pictures and released by Hollywood Pictures, two of Disney's film holdings. Roger Birnbaum, head of Caravan Pictures, has said that he became aware of Salva's record after the film was well into production. CNN reported that Birnbaum asked key production people to "keep an eye on anything just in case."

This is not the only potentially image-damaging controversy that Disney has faced this year. Two of the other public relations problems have involved Miramax, the studio that has turned out such films as The Crying Game, Like Water for Chocolate and Pulp Fiction. Miramax is barred from releasing any NC-17 rated films and was thus not able to release Kids this past summer. Instead, the owners of Miramax, Harvey and Bob Weinstein, purchased the rights to Kids themselves and released the film unrated. Kids is a movie about a group of promiscuous teenagers that have frank discussions about sexual issues and are shown drinking and doing drugs. It also includes a character that prides himself on having unsafe sex with virgins even though he is HIV positive.

The NC-17 rule that applied to Kids (and thereby saved Disney more controversy) didn't help the family-oriented studio avoid trouble with Priest. Priest, another Miramax film, is a movie about two priests, neither of them celibate. The movie's subject matter and its originally-scheduled release on Good Friday, a Christian Holy Day, caused politicians as well as conservative Catholics to denounce Miramax and picket theaters.

Mike Rugg, MBA1, worked in the licensing division of Disney for the past three years. Although he worked almost exclusively with pictures produced under the Disney label, he said that his "gut feeling is that at some point Disney will step in, especially if the pictures become too much more controversial."

© The Monroe Street Journal 1995, All Rights Reserved.
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