Interview with Peter Schneider, first CEO of Disney Animation

15 September, 2019

Peter Schneider is a well-known name in the American film industry, he is the first CEO of Disney Animation and he was a key person in Disney’s golden yeats (1985 – 1999). But Peter is much more than the first CEO of Disney, he is an experienced and famous theatre and film director. I had the chance of meeting and interviewing Peter while he was in Bucharest for BIDFF (Bucharest International Dance Film Festival), where he was part of the jury. You can get to know him better in the following pages.

Peter, I would like to go way back with you, to when you were a teenager.

This is not fair, I did not like my high school years.

What were you like in high school?

I discovered theatre when I was in the ninth grade, in Santa Barbara, California and I suppose that was the moment I decided I want this to be my profession. I had a really good mentor in high school that cast me in a play.

So you discovered quite early what you like. 

No, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life, I didn’t wake up at three saying I’m going to be an astronaut. What I discovered quite early is that theatre is a very safe and caring environment, that as long as you could pound a nail or sweep the floor, they were very happy to have you as part of the theatre.

What about bridge? I know you’re a world champion.

Bridge appeared a few years ago, it was after many things. I learned a little bridge when I was young but I started playing bridge 20 years ago. I like things that come from passion, things that are challenging, that challenge both the human spirit and the human mind.

Let’s talk a bit about Disney Animation, it’s been a big part of your life. How did you get there?

Before I went to Disney, most of my life was in theatre: New York, then London and Chicago. I ran theatres, I was producing, directing some shows, working basically in the small arenas of non-profit theatres. Then I got hired to be part of the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984, in Los Angeles, and after that I was interviewed for this job – because the director of the festival, Robert Fitzpatrick knew Roy Disney who was looking for somebody who “knows  something about film, something about animation and can do this and that”, and Bob said to Roy “I know someone who knows nothing about films, nothing about animation but does this and that rather well”; and so because no one really cared who they hired, they hired me – animation wasn’t an important aspect of the Walt Disney Company in 1985, so I got lucky to be in the right place, at the right time.

I had a certain number of skills that I brought to the job and was able to figure out how to structure a department to make animated movies.

Peter Schneider, Roy Disney & Jeffrey Katzenberg. Disney, early 1990s.

And how was the team at Disney?

The artists there were young, hungry and interested and wanted to change the world, all they needed was encouragement. They really wanted to do better than Walt and I think that they challenged Walt’s legacy from 1984 to 1994 to 1999.

That period of time which are actually your years spent at Disney were the golden years of animation, the years that changed everything.

I think what you see today in the film business is that animation is now a market for everybody, not just for one segment of the population. Every studio is making animation movies, it’s not just Disney anymore, it’s Dreamworks, Universal, Warner Brothers – they all are making animated movies. The use of computers, the mixing of animation and live-action, all these techniques overlap, which is very exciting.

What was the most useful thing you learned in the 18 years spent at Disney?

The most important thing I’ve learned is all about collaboration, how to collaborate with groups of people. It’s not a collective, but a collaboration – a collective means it’s equal democratically but in a collaboration is about how do you find the best idea for any particular moment and that is also a process of rejecting and to some extent allowing all the bad ideas to be expressed. Out of a bad idea might come a good one, but if you suppress the bad ideas, you’ll never find the good one.

When you left in 2001, you opened your own theatre production company. What were the reasons behind your decision?

You can do theatre without a lot of money, you gather a few people in a room, you write a script , find some music, hire some actors and make a show. To make a movie requires some heavy resourcing, it requires equipment and film, then distribution.

So you see theatre as a more personal type of art.

I’m not sure it is anymore. The connectivity today allows us so much more interaction.

Then why you left Disney in that particular moment?

Because it required no money and I could do it on my own: work with whom I wanted, directing what I wanted, and by the necessity of less resources, you cannot have so many projects. At Disney we had 20 or 25 projects in the same time, while in the individual life you have 2 or 3 in the same time because you don’t have enough time or resources to do it on a large scale.

You came back to film a few years later, when you made Waking Sleeping Beauty –  about the story behind the screen of the golden period of Disney Animation.

If you look at the way the movie was made, there are no talking heads, it was all pulled from footage that existed in that 10 year period. Anybody was talking to anybody, you put a microphone in front of anybody and they’ll chit chat, so Don Hahn interviewed most of the people. We also had a scriptwriter who helped structure the story, what the film is going to be about because most of our discussions were about what should be included, there was so much material; Don wanted to talk about the earthquake in 1994 which was right before “The Lion King” came out but it wasn’t important – not for our storytelling.

It was important for your team though. Even though there was a 6.7 magnitude earthquake in the state where the film was being produced, the film had to be finished in time.

I still remember sitting on the steps after my chimney fell down and the house was destroyed, but my children were safe and I had to go to work and think how to get people to work because the roads have collapsed and everyone lived in the valley. It was a very important moment for the animation department.

But it wasn’t in the film.

It wasn’t in the film but we argued about that, because Don was very emotional involved.

Did you have the support of everyone at Disney while making this film?

Dick Cook was the Head of Production at Disney at that time and it wasn’t even a question, Dick put two and a half million dollars and said “go make the movie”. The only problem was that Dick left the company just as the film was about to be released and the new management didn’t support the movie as much as the old management, so we got caught in the transition from one boss to the other boss. However we are having a 10 year anniversary this year in California, very exciting.

You have a long history with both film and theatre. What do you think is the key element for a good script?

Finding an idea that has some relevancy, but ultimately is about characters for me: do we like or hate them. We as human beings attach to characters so therefore you must be interested in that character: could I be that person, am I impressed by that person and so on. And there’s also the music.

What is music to you in a film?

I’ll tell you in the case of a musical, I think the fundamental description of a musical is that people open their mouth and they sing, so on the most simple basis a musical makes people sing and is telling you a story while the characters sing, through the lyrics of the song – which are really important in telling the story. In a really good musical, people sing because the emotion is too big to speak.

Have you learned anything precious from all the actors your worked with in all these years?$

To allow people’s instincts to control some moments. My idea of what is good might not be your idea, so I should let you explore your bad idea to arrive at a good idea.

Laura Musat Laura Musat
Film producer and founder of ADFR, she dreamed since she was little of having a magazine one day. Alongside her job as editor-in-chief, she writes the Thursday interviews with Flavia. She loves animals, jazz music and films festivals.