In 1934, Walt decided to take his biggest gamble yet - a full length feature film that was completely animated. Lily was shocked that her husband would even think of it. “Walt,” she told him. “the short subjects are doing well! The studio is successful! Why risk everything on a movie that could ruin us?” Roy, equally skeptical about the idea, was worried about how much that would cost.
At that time, the cost of creating a seven minute technicolor cartoon was approximately $23,500. A feature length film, Walt figured, would be about twelve times that length. In the end, Walt estimated a budget of $250,000 for the movie. Roy, knowing Walt’s history of over-optimizing their budgets, put the cost at around $500,000. Despite his wife and his brother telling him no, Walt had no intention of giving up on this new venture.
A few days later, Walt called together forty of his top animators. He pulled out his wallet and handed them some cash, saying, “I want you fellas to go have dinner and relax a little. Then come back to the studio. I have a story to tell you.”
The animators left and when they returned they found Walt standing on the recording stage surrounded by a semicircle of folding chairs. The room had been darkened until only a single lightbulb shined down on Walt, who stood bouncing on the balls of his heels, ever the showman.
Once everyone had taken their seats, Walt began to not only tell, but perform the story of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
With every new character, he would act out the part to the letter, making the proper facial expressions. He would skew his features and arch his eyebrows as the queen, and tilt his face just right so that the light gave him the pale innocent complexion of Snow White.
When Walt finished, he said, slightly breathlessly, “That is going to be our first feature-length animated film.” If he had said those words before performing, no one would have been on board. But the fact that he showed them it would work and that they were able to see the story before their very eyes — everyone joined in the idea with full enthusiasm. All because Walt knew how to lead.
But it wouldn’t come without hard work. He sent his animators all to art school to learn to draw what he needed for the film. He had to ask for loans to pay off the film. Yet behind his back the distributors were laughing at him, calling the project “Disney’s Folly.” When Roy told Walt that people were talking about the film in such a way, Walt replied confidently, “Let them. All that talk is doing is generating more buzz about the film.”
When the film premiered on December 21st, 1937 at the Carthay Circle Theater, it was a huge hit, earning $8,000,000 in its first release. “Disney’s Folly” became a thing of triumph!
The Disney Studios corporate offices are held up by the seven dwarfs because the company was built on the success of this first even animated feature film.
Growing up in Los Angeles in the 70s/80s we visited Disneyland on a regular basis and often after school, before "Annual Passes".