The Surprising Financial Failures of Walt Disney


I’m in the middle of a Walt Disney biography marathon. As I read about the origins of the Disney studios, I’m struck by the endless financial trouble Walt found himself in. Even after his classic films hit theaters, the studio was constantly in debt and faced a dismal future.

Walt Disney’s challenges reminded me of the difficulties Pixar’s John Lasseter overcame. It might be interesting for students to look at some of the parallels of these two men.

Forgotten Failures

To my modern mind, Walt Disney was an unparalleled success, yet the financial failure he experienced was unrelenting.

Look at the initial returns on Disney’s earliest feature films:

  1. Snow White – Made $8.8 million
  2. Pinocchio – Lost half a million
  3. Fantasia – Lost more than Pinocchio
  4. Dumbo – Profitable, but only 64 minutes long and made for half the cost of Snow White and a third of Pinocchio.
  5. Bambi – Lost money

Three out of five films lost money, largely due to the effects of World War II, but also due to the high cost of producing a quality animated film. As Dumbo shows, making a film on the cheap is one way to improve returns.

An Eight Year Hiatus

After Bambi, Disney stopped making feature-length films, resorting to “packages” of shorter segments. In fact, for nearly eight years there are no full-length Disney films!

Once the feature films began again, the finances were still quite a mixed bag:

  1. Cinderalla was quite successful
  2. Alice In Wonderland lost about half a million dollars
  3. Peter Pan was profitable
  4. Lady And The Tramp was profitable
  5. Sleeping Beauty was a financial flop, leading to animation layoffs and a company-wide annual loss.

Failures That Became Successes

You could talk to your class about the dogged determination of Walt Disney to push through this adversity. But even more interesting is how many of these early failures are now among the most celebrated Disney films. Who would have guessed that Pinocchio and Bambi were financially unsuccessful? Further, the immediate successes include movies of a lower quality. I love ’em, but Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp are certainly no Sleeping Beauty.

It’s easy for our kids (and us!) to assume that people in successful positions were somehow born into them. It’s important to hear the battles these people have fought along the way!

Further Reading

The information in this article comes from these books: