The Day Disney Stopped Being a Business and Became a Legend

Today in film and business history ...

Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, the first full-length full-color animated feature film, premiered on Dec. 21, 1937. It was perhaps Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS  ) greatest gamble. Its original budget was originally estimated at roughly 10 times the cost of the average Disney animated short, but production costs ballooned to $1.5 million -- equal to $24 million today, and a huge sum for Depression-era productions. By comparison, the 1925 silent-film epic Ben-Hur, which held the record for film budgets until 1939, cost about $4 million.

"Disney's Folly," as the press initially dubbed Snow White, opened to great acclaim, becoming the most successful film of 1938 (releases were far more drawn-out then). By the end of its run, Snow White became the highest-grossing film with sound ever released to that point, amassing $7.8 million in total global ticket sales.

Walt Disney himself, who'd mortgaged his house just to pay for Snow White's production, earned an honorary Oscar for the film. True to its character, the Oscar was given to Disney as one normal-sized statuette and seven miniature ones. The film spawned further full-length animated films, and Disney was soon solidly established as an entertainment company par excellence. Pinocchio was released in 1940, followed by Fantasia in the same year, and then by Dumbo in 1941 and Bambi in 1942. Disney continued to re-release Snow White from time to time, and over its many reissues, this groundbreaking animated classic earned an inflation-adjusted domestic total of $865 million, according to Box Office Mojo -- good for 10th place on the all-time charts.

Disney's battle for the small screen
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