Under the Influence

Walt Disney was told Snow White would be a costly mistake

In the 1930s, the Disney studio was the leader in animated short films, but had never attempted a full-length film. So when Disney came up with the 80-minute Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Hollywood was skeptical.
Walt Disney introduces each of the Seven Dwarfs in a scene from the original 1937 Snow White theatrical trailer. (Wikimedia Commons)

One night in 1934, Walt Disney summoned all his animators into an auditorium. For the next four hours, he told them the story of Snow White, her cruel stepmother, the evil Queen and the Seven Dwarfs. When he finished, the animators were entranced. Then Disney shocked them. He said they were going to make Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs into a feature-length motion picture.

It had never been done before. The Disney studio was the leader in animated short films, but had never attempted a full-length, 80-minute film.

Meanwhile, Hollywood scoffed. They said Snow White was a costly mistake. That it would sink Disney. But the question remained: would an audience sit through an animated feature film? Even Disney's wife said nobody would pay a dime to see animated dwarfs for 80 minutes. But Walt Disney was visionary and determined.

It was going to cost an enormous amount of money, especially in the middle of a crippling depression.

Disney funnelled all its financial resources into the film and Disney even put up his own house as collateral. But part-way through the expensive production, the studio was running out of money. They needed a huge bank loan. But would the bank finance a risky, full-length animated feature film?

Walt Disney realized that in order to secure a $250K loan, he would have to show the bank a half-finished movie. He didn't want to do it, but he knew he had no choice. He invited the vice president of the Bank of America over for a screening. Disney sat all alone with him in a theatre watching the partially-finished movie and nervously explaining what was yet to come. As Disney later said, he was trying to sell the bank on a "quarter-of-a-million-dollars-worth of faith."

When the lights came back up, the banker didn't show the slightest reaction to what he had seen. He walked out of the projection room into the sunshine, and yawned. Disney's heart sank. Then the banker said, "Walt, that picture will make a pot full of money."

With that, Disney got his wish, was able to finish the film and history was made. 750 artists created 362,000 animation cels that comprised the ground-breaking film.

Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs would change Hollywood forever. When it debuted on December 21, 1937, the reaction was unprecedented. It got a standing ovation from a bowled-over audience. It would go on to become one of the most profitable films of all time. When adjusted for inflation, it would gross over $1.7 billion.

Walt Disney's gamble would forever establish him as a major force in Hollywood and the world of animation would never be the same again.

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