19 April 2009

What will Disney do to reflect French culture?

Disneyland Paris turned 17 last week, my how time flies when you are having fun. In honor of the park across the Atlantic, today’s Back Issue comes from the November 1988 WD Eye, the publication for Walt Disney Imagineering. Inside this premiere issue of the periodical, Joe Rohde offered his into the project, almost four years before the park in Marne-la-Vallé opened.

“What will Disney do to reflect French culture?” This question was critical during the Franco-Disney contract negotiations. The irony in this is that Disney’s culture in many ways already parallels the French culture – even appearing closer to the French value system than to the American value system. I submit that one could list the material contributions of French culture to America, to Disney, and the methods by which we might return them, till the next ice age without addressing the issue in a way productive to both parties. Three essential elements unite the culture of our company with the culture of France.

First, the French have a long tradition of philosophical development. The decisions and judgments they make are weighted against a background of values based on the works of generations of French philosophers. The French evaluate circumstances in a centuries-old philosophical context, thus sometimes choosing a solution which may not be the most expedient, but which has the most philosophical integrity.

So do we. Our philosophy was developed by Walt Disney. It is the foundation of every action this company has taken for decades. This may not be apparent unless one weighs what we choose to do with our abilities against what we could do. We do not do Las Vegas revues with our entertainment design skills. We do not do teen sex farces in our films. We do not build trashy housing on our land. We are constrained and guided by a philosophy, rather than the pure chaotic drive for profit. Thus we sometimes make choices which may not be the most expedient, but which preserve our integrity.

Secondly, the French people over the centuries have developed a highly polished sense of aesthetics. The mark of this refinement can be seen in virtually all aspects of their culture. The Académie Française is a kind of aesthetic watchdog, guarding the beauty and balance of French language. In architecture, painting, theatre, cuisine, fashion, and music, the French have led the world for centuries.

The Walt Disney Company deals in aesthetic issues daily. The viability of projects depends absolutely on the ability to do them with quality, and artistically. Touchstone Pictures, which seeks to expand the scope of Disney’s dramatic subject matter, does so with international recognition. We at Imagineering have our own Académie Française in the Show Quality Standards group, which guards our product against decay and compromise. These are expensive habits, founded in a culture which understands the rewards that come from quality.

Finally, the French consider themselves the masters of rationality. The long line of precise thinkers, dating back to Peter Abelard in the Middle Ages, substantiates this claim. The rationality which the French have honed for so many centuries involves the systematic and thorough assessment of each part of a system, philosophical and physical, and its relationship with all other parts. The aim is to discover, or produce, a result that reaches perfection. In the hands of the French, rationality has served philosophy and aesthetics for ages.

Rationality often seems like the last thing that anyone would attribute to our organization – especially if you work here. While our rationality may seem, at first, limited to science and its application to production, whether in architectural engineering or “Audio-Animatronics”, our network of knowledge is actually comparable to that of the French traditions in its complexity. We Imagineers assess our designs in a vigorous series of rational challenges before proceeding. What appears to the public as a magical wonderland of fantasy is actually the product of multiple disciplines tightly and logically interbalanced. And our rationality serves our philosophy and aesthetics, rather than leads them.

“What will Disney do to reflect French culture?” Meld our philosophy of quality with theirs. Inspire and educate our aesthetics by exposure to theirs. And mutually seek with our powers of creativity and rationality to produce a result that both cultures will recognize and proudly call their own.

I am sure that someone with greater knowledge of French culture and custom, and greater experience with our own company, could elaborate on and amend my theory. Still, I hope that the ideas I have suggested might offer a way of replying to this question, from whatever quarter, in a way that is flattering to both parties, and holds out the hope for great cooperation.

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