Updated: Jan 17
A Nightmarish Glimpse Behind the Scenes at the Mouse House -------------------
I’ve done copywriting work for Disney’s merchandise division for over two decades, but I was only on staff as a salaried employee for the first five years from 1997 to 2002. That was a strange, but ultimately fun time. There was oddly no real ladder for me to climb as the writers existed separately, just outside the creative team. As a result, my job title was never anything impressive. I did, however, earn the creative and intellectual respect of my peers, often getting invited to meetings I had no business attending on paper.
One such day, a few artists and I met with an internal business team from Disney’s offices in Japan. They told us Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas was so popular there that it was hard to keep products on the shelves. They feared a plateau coming and had an idea to expand the property, allowing for the creation of brand new merchandise.
“What if . . .?” they asked us, “Jack Skellington went to the other holiday lands?”
Everyone agreed that would be cool, but the idea didn’t strike anyone (except me) as feasible. The studios created new stories. The products team supported what they did by making stuff. (Actually, we didn’t make anything. Ours was a licensing business, but that’s in the weeds and beside the point.) On top of that, our Japanese colleagues were suggesting we create new content for a property that wasn’t even entirely owned by Disney.
Pipe, meet Dream.
Everyone legitimately saw the virtual impossibility of getting Tim Burton to approve a Nightmare sequel that he had nothing to do with in order to sell more dolls and hoodies. The problem was they were looking at the process out of order. There was no reason to consider approval until we had something to approve.
And that something would have to be a new, original story featuring Burton's beloved characters.
And I was the only writer in the room.
This is not a slight on any of my team members because I was, without a doubt, the one with the most free time on my hands. For those five years I did what was asked of me with relative ease and spent the rest of my time looking for ways to help in larger, more creative, conceptual ways. A Nightmare sequel quickly shaped up to be the best such opportunity yet. I had the time and, quite frankly, the conceit to take this on.
Some of you may not know but Burton’s iconic 1993 film was an adaptation of the picture book he wrote and illustrated that was published that same year. I started there, borrowing the rhyming verse format to author The Nightmare Before Easter. I know that’s a lazy title, but it was necessary from a branding perspective. Kind of a precursor to SEO.
I was so pleased with what I’d written that I kept going and soon completed a second long-form poem: A Midwinter Nightmare Scream. This tale was Jack and Sally’s Valentine story told as a parody of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (I was confident we would not need approval from any Shakespeare estate.)
This is where the story gets infuriatingly interesting. I showed the stories around my ecosystem and at Disney Publishing where I had an Art Director friend. Each presentation was met with the same take: “These are great, but we can’t do anything with them.”
So I retreated to Setback City to contemplate my next move. As it turned out, Burton still approved all Nightmare products and their packaging. I knew the woman who sent him these items and had the relationship with Tim’s assistant. I printed out both stories, created a cover featuring (approved) Jack Skellington art and my phone number, then had her send them along with the next batch. Simple.
About a week later I got a call at my desk from Tim Burton’s assistant, who said: “Tim loves these stories. He wants to meet you.”
I thought aloud in response: “Well, there’s this afternoon . . . and then, when I die . . . yeah, pretty much anytime in between those two works for me!”
So yes. I had a very cool, one-on-one meeting with Tim Burton after his office called me. I’m not a “claim to fame” kind of guy, but I guess if pressed, that’s a decent one. He was cool, cordial, and curious in all the right ways. We talked about the popularity of the Nightmare characters, recent shifts in the licensing and retail industries, and what could become of what I’d written. He made it clear that he didn’t want to take on a sequel movie. I was only thinking about publishing the new stories as books, and he agreed with that plan.
I almost wasn’t going to mention this, but I will. He didn’t have any notes, not one edit, on either story I wrote. So yeah.
I went back to work the next day with what I felt was a pretty good story to tell. At the time I was, coincidentally (and soon to be ironically), part of a New Business Development group. In a nutshell, here’s what I had done: The Nightmare Before Christmas is a year-round merchandise property with a big retail push in Fall (Halloween) and Winter (Christmas). My two books were going to extend that push through Spring (Valentine’s Day and Easter), essentially guaranteeing the company substantial additional revenue per year.
But no one at Disney did anything. No one moved forward on the stories in any way. Not even a meeting, and those people had meetings about everything. It was astounding. I held on for a little while and even got Deane Taylor, the Art Director on Burton’s film, to do the Easter book illustrations you see here. (Deane and I met working on the very first Nightmare video game. His art appears with his permission. Yep, we're still in touch.) Okay, Disney. Here are the Burton-approved stories. Here’s what the art will look like. Anyone? . . . Publishing? . . . Anyone?
When it became clear the project was being ignored, I resigned.
I don’t like the word “quit.” Sounds like a juvenile tantrum. I resigned. I didn’t know what “new business” I could ever “develop” that would top what I’d already done.
A couple of years later, I reconnected with an executive I knew who had become President of Feature Animation. I happened to know she was a big Nightmare fan and good friends with the President of Publishing. I told her the whole story, and her eyes lit up. Although I pressed the publishing angle, she was thinking about her own job and immediate results. She got Dick Cook (Chairman of Walt Disney Studios) and Michael Eisner (Disney CEO) involved, and they essentially ambushed Tim Burton with a two-picture sequel plan. I was offered the screenwriting gig on both movies, an LA writer's dream. I accepted with feigned excitement, however, because I knew Burton would never go for it.
And he didn’t. My sequels were essentially killed for good. RIP.
What does this story tell us? First and foremost, that Disney is an enormous, very complex company. Despite all that happened, I never blamed any one person or department. A colleague at the time put it best when he said: “Creatively, Disney can’t get out of its own way.” I’d argue this is still the case, best exemplified with the trend of live-action remakes of animated films. It’s all driven by ROI, and the practice is creatively lazy. The same, tired stance about pleasing stockholders, blah, blah, blah.
During those first years away, I held out hope that the right person would come across the project and make it happen. To that end, I wrote an original story targeting the Nightmare audience with the same rhyming verse format. "8" was meant to be my follow-up to the Nightmare sequels, which, had they gone according to plan, would have afforded me quite a bit of street cred with those fans.
"8" features the previously unknown 8th dwarf. He's different and a little strange so his seven intolerant roommates (the group that became famous after you-know-who arrived) nickname him "Creepy" and lock him in the cottage basement. From there he affects the tale we all thought we knew.
Writing the "8" story and then two more twisted fairy tales was a blast. The trilogy was published as my first book: TaleSpins. I recently released the audiobook version narrated by that movie star guy Paul Giamatti. (Claim to fame #2?) There's a fun video preview of his reading that features art from the comic book adaptation of Creepy the 8th dwarf's story.
Okay, enough with the links.
Writing the Nightmare sequels was supposed to be my gateway to becoming a fiction author. And that's exactly what the experience turned out to be, only not at all as I envisioned it. I sometimes think about what might have been, but never with regret. What would be the point of that? Control the things in your control, right?
The response I've gotten for TaleSpins has been wildly encouraging. People connect with these characters I created, and the book has become a kind of cult hit (whatever that means). Much of the feedback is how the stories are not only fun and entertaining, but contain worthwhile lessons and morals. I'm glad readers keep picking up on that very intentional intent. At the time I remember seeing the path take shape ahead of me. The journey had begun.
Epilogue Note: I just found out Disney is publishing an all-new sequel to The Nightmare Before Christmas. Nope, not mine. The new work is a Young Adult novel titled The Pumpkin Queen that picks up where the film left off. The tale is told from Sally's point of view because of course it is. Young Adult? Finally, after 30 years, a sequel, and they exclude the Gen X and Millennial fans.
THANKS FOR READING!
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