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The man who reinvented the Disney classics for today’s world

For more than a decade, Sean Bailey has run Disney’s animated film “reimagining” factory with quiet efficiency and superhero-sized results. The live action of him”Aladdin“grossed $1.1 billion at the box office, while a photorealist”The Lion King” grossed $1.7 billion. A live action”Beauty and the Beast” delivered $1.3 billion.

Disney likes cash. The company also sees the Mr. Bailey remake operation as crucial to staying relevant. Fans treasure Disney’s animated classics, but most show ideas from another era, especially when it comes to gender roles: be pretty, girls, and things just might work out.

Reimaginings, as Bailey refers to his remakes, find ways to make Disney stories less retrograde. Its heroines are empowered and its cast emphasizes diversity. The live action film “Snow White”, which will be released next year, stars the Latina actress Rachel Zegler as the princess known as “the fairest of all”. Yara Shahidi played Tinker Bell in the recent “Peter Pan and Wendy,” making her the first black woman to play the character on screen.

“We want to reflect the world as it exists,” Bailey said.

But that worldview — and business strategy — has increasingly landed Disney and Bailey, a low-profile, unassuming executive, in the middle of a very loud and rude culture fight. For every person who applauds Disney, there seems to be a counterpart who complains about being force-fed.

Many companies find themselves in this situation: Aim, Anheuser-Busch, Nike — but Disney, having a powerful impact on children as they form life beliefs, has faced a unique challenge. In this hyperpartisan moment, both sides of the political divide have been banging at disney to be with them, with movies coming from Mr. Bailey’s corner of the Magic Kingdom as prime examples.

Consider his remake of “The Little Mermaid,” which hit theaters two weeks ago and cost an estimated $375 million to make and market. The new version messes up troublesome lyrics from the 1989 original. (“It’s she that bites her tongue that gets a man”). In the biggest change, halley bailey, who is Black, plays Ariel the mermaid. Disney has long portrayed the character as white, including at its theme parks.

I support Ms. Baileyparticularly from people of color and film critics, has been offset by a torrent of racist comments on social media and movie fan sites. Others have criticized “The Little Mermaid” for not recognize the horrors of slavery in the Caribbean. Some LGBTQ people have criticized Disney for hiring a straight male makeup artist for the villainous Ursula, whose appearance in the animated film was inspired by a drag queen.

Disney has long regarded these kinds of social media storms as teapot tempests: trending today, replaced by a new complaint tomorrow. In 2017, for example, a theater in Alabama refused to show the live-action film “Beauty and the Beast” because it contained a three-second glimpse of two men dancing in each other’s arms. became a world news. Ultimately, the fight appeared to have no impact on ticket sales.

The result? Disney expected”The little Mermaidwould generate up to $1 billion worldwide, and the hype would evaporate once the movie hit theaters. Feedback scores from test assessments were strong, as were early reviews. “Alan Menken just told me that he thinks this is better than the animated movie,” Disney CEO Robert A. Iger said at the film’s premiere last month, referring to the Oscar-winning composer.

Instead, “The Little Mermaid” will approach $600 million, box office analysts said Sunday, largely because the movie flopped abroad, where it was “bombarded with reviews,” with online trolls flooding the sites. of movies with racist one-star reviews. The film has done well in North America, beating out “Aladdin” and receiving an A rating from ticket buyers in CinemaScore exit polls, though attendance from white viewers has been low in some parts of the United States. United States, according to analysts. Support from black and Latino audiences has made up for the void.

Bailey declined to comment on the racist responses to the film. “While the international opening was smoother than we would have liked, the film is playing exceptionally well, which we think sets us up for the long haul,” she said Saturday.

Bailey, 53, has survived box office slumps that were far worse. Her faults include “The Lone Ranger” and “jungle cruise.” Less said of his live-action”mulan,” the best. But Disney has always supported him. “I’ve made some big changes and I’ve had some big failures,” Mr. Bailey said. “I’m grateful that the company’s leadership understands that’s part of any business creative”.

Mr. Bailey has been president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production for 13 years, an eternity in Hollywood, where movie bosses are often thrown overboard every few years. During that time, Disney has been disturbed by executive layoffs, multiple restructuring efforts and changing strategies for film distribution. The steady-handed Mr. Bailey, who is popular with stars and their agents, has helped provide stability.

“He’s a nice, decent, respectful, fair guy who does his job quietly, without fanfare,” said Kevin Huvane, co-chairman of the Creative Artists Agency. “But that doesn’t mean he’s passive. Quite the opposite. He gets his hands dirty. If a deal doesn’t work out, he goes in there and finds a way to make it happen.”

In 2014, for example, Mr. Bailey flew to Budapest from Los Angeles at any moment to have dinner with Angelina Jolie. He had agreed to star in “Maleficent,” but seemed to be chickening out after reading a revised script. What he told her worked; “Maleficent” and a sequel grossed a combined $1.3 billion.

“Sean is what we don’t see often these days, and certainly not in the movies,” Jolie said via email. “He is consistent, stable and decent. When we have challenges, like in all movies, he is even-tempered and fair. He may not be exciting for a story, but he’s what we need more of.”

Disney’s live-action movies didn’t typically feature women before Bailey came along, and diversity was almost non-existent. Bailey has focused almost exclusively on female-led stories. She has also championed young actresses of color—Storm Reid, Nico Parker, Naomi Scott—and directors, including Ava DuVernay (“A Wrinkle in Time”), Julia Hart (“Stargirl”) and Mira Nair (“Queen of Katwe” ).

“I think what he is doing is very important,” he said. geena davis, actress and activist for gender equality. “It’s not just about inspiring girls. It’s about normalizing men and boys, making it perfectly normal to see a girl doing interesting and important things and taking up space.”

The next film from Mr. Bailey’s division, “Haunted Mansion”, hits theaters on July 28 and stars LaKeith Stanfield (Oscar nominee for “Judas and the Black Messiah”), Rosario Dawson, Owen Wilson and Tiffany Haddish. “Haunted Mansion” was directed by justin simonthe creator of “Dear White People,” and inspired by a ride at a Disney theme park.

“I felt like we had an opportunity to try and create a really cool, Disney-appropriate PG-13 movie that has some real scares but also charms and delights,” said Mr. Bailey.

Mr. Bailey, who watched “The Little Mermaid” 18 times while working his way through the Disney pipeline, has more than 50 films in various stages of development and production, including live-action versions of “Moana,” ” Hercules” and “Lilo and Stitch.” Yes, “Hocus Pocus 3” is happening. (His division makes two or three big-budget movies a year for theatrical release and three modest-budget movies for Disney+.)

“Mufasa: The Lion King,” a photorealistic prequel directed by Barry Jenkins, the Oscar-winning “Moonlight” screenwriter, is set for release in 2024. Bailey said “The Lion King” could become “a great epic saga.” ” like the “Star Wars” franchise. “There’s a lot of room to run if we can find the stories,” he said.

Resuming the five-film “Pirates of the Caribbean” series is another priority, though nothing official has been announced. “We think we have a really good and exciting story that honors the previous films, but also has something new to say,” said Mr. Bailey. Will he be the troubled star of the franchise, Johnny Depp, come back as Captain Jack Sparrow? “I’m not committing at this time,” Bailey said, apparently opening the door a little at a time.

One of the knocks for Mr. Bailey is that he hasn’t created a new franchise; almost none of his bets on his original films have paid off. The sled dog drama “Togo,” made for Disney+ in 2019, was a critical hit who couldn’t get out. “The world of tomorrow”, an ambitious fantasy from 2015, crashed and burned. Sometime studios can’t endlessly recycle old stuff. A photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy ends up as a blank page.

“It’s very difficult to break through and get an original and hugely commercial win,” Bailey said. “We’re going to keep trying.” She pointed to a project based on “the graveyard book”, about a boy raised by the supernatural occupants of a graveyard.

Every studio has been struggling to create original hits. But the added glitz that seems to come with any Disney effort adds a degree of difficulty.

Like Iger, Bailey does not hide his political leanings. He is close with Sen. Cory Booker, D-NJ, a friendship that began in 2000, when Mr. Bailey held a fundraiser for him in Hollywood. (Mr. Bailey has many famous friends. It goes back to Ben Affleckhelped Dwayne Johnson start a tequila brand and is on the board of directors of Robert Redford’s Sundance Institute).

But Mr. Bailey is in the business of making movies for everyone. That challenge is part of what makes his job interesting, he said.

“How do you deal with audiences that are changing outside of our country, within our country?” said Mr. Bailey. “How do you tell stories, stories that matter to everyone, in an increasingly polarized world?”

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