Splash at 35

(Welcome to The Disney Discourse, a recurring feature where Josh Spiegel discusses the latest in Disney news. He goes deep on everything from the animated classics to the theme parks to live-action franchises.)

1984 was a transitional period for Hollywood. You don’t have to be deep in the weeds of film history to know this is the year when the MPAA introduced the PG-13 rating, a response to frustrated parents who felt that the PG-rated films Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were far too inappropriate for their children. But while the PG-13 rating had, and continues to have, major ramifications on the industry and the types of films it makes, 1984 was a transitory year for the Walt Disney Company too. This month marks the 35th anniversary of a major step forward for the company as a whole: the release of Ron Howard’s Splash.

The Beginning of a New Touchstone

How, you may wonder, does Splash represent that much of a sea change at Disney? (I’m not sorry for that one.) The film’s high-concept premise feels especially unbeatable in a post-Little Mermaid world: an average guy stumbles across a jaw-dropping discovery – a gorgeous, real-life mermaid with whom he falls madly in love. You probably know Splash best for being the film that featured Tom Hanks’ breakout leading role. From this film, Hanks became one of the most enduring movie stars of the last three decades. (He’d appeared briefly in a low-rent horror film in 1980, before taking the lead here.)

Splash was generally a massive success – made for less than $10 million, it grossed nearly $70 million at the box office at a time when most films didn’t make $100 million. (Splash ended up as the tenth-highest grossing film of that year.) Not only that, and not only did it boost Hanks’ career, but the film’s screenplay was nominated for an Oscar. But for our purposes, Splash is most impactful to Disney for one big reason: it wasn’t released by Disney.

Kind of. Splash wasn’t released by Walt Disney Pictures. Instead, Splash was released by a brand-new subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, called Touchstone Pictures. The creation of Touchstone Pictures by then-Disney CEO Ron Miller was, in a way, a microcosmic version of the response the MPAA had in creating the PG-13 rating. Just as families grew annoyed with finding out too late that a PG-rated film might be inappropriate for kids, so too did they feel like some of Disney’s output of the late 1970s and early 1980s was getting a little too un-Disney.

Nowadays, most of the films of this era have been largely forgotten, except by those who treasure them for nostalgic purposes. And it’s for mostly good reason: if you look at the output from Disney in the 1980s, it’s kind of a grim picture, and a short list to boot. While a movie like Tron has lasted as a cult hit (inexplicably inspiring a massively budgeted and unsurprisingly financially unsuccessful sequel in 2010), few of the other movies resonate even that deeply with audiences. Films like Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Watcher in the Woods, and Never Cry Wolf were certainly daring, and a mercifully far cry from the days of the slapstick-heavy family comedies Disney made in the 1960s and early 1970s. Unfortunately, they were also losing a lot of money.

Banking on A Sex Comedy

It’s to Disney’s credit that they didn’t turn tail instantly – instead, just a few weeks in advance of the release of Splash, Miller announced a new division at the company dedicated to making more adult films than you might expect under the Disney banner, from Touchstone Pictures. Splash was an extremely obvious choice for the new studio arm of Disney, in part because if you watch Splash now, it’s hard to imagine Walt Disney Pictures ever releasing the film. At the time, Disney was the only studio willing to greenlight Splash, which is wild considering that once Allen Bauer (Hanks) meets the willowy blond mermaid eventually named Madison (Daryl Hannah), there is a whole lot of sex in this movie. It’s not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey, but considering that the film is rated PG and could have been a Disney movie, there’s a lot of sex and sex humor, closer to the raunch of films like Animal House and Caddyshack than to family fare like The Love Bug.

Splash being such a success likely helped keep Touchstone Pictures afloat (again, I am not sorry) through the continued transitions of 1984. In September of that year, the company was given quite the shakeup, as Ron Miller was ousted and replaced by three very important figures to the next decade of Disney: Michael Eisner, Jeffrey Katzenberg, and Frank Wells. Though Miller was gone, Eisner wasn’t the kind of leader to dismiss all of his predecessor’s choices. He didn’t shy away from Touchstone Pictures.

In fact, it’s because of Touchstone Pictures that we have…well, a wide array of films that are among the finest of their respective years. Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, Barry Levinson’s Good Morning, Vietnam, Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, and more all were released by Touchstone Pictures. As hard as it is to believe, Splash was the first step forward for Disney, both in branching out into releasing such films as these and in blanketing the movie marketplace with different studio arms.

Expanding Disney’s Reach

In the 1990s, the success of Touchstone Pictures led Disney to create another studio arm that was similarly dedicated to releasing the kinds of films you wouldn’t associate with the Walt Disney name. That studio, Hollywood Pictures, didn’t last quite as long, shutting down in 2007. But in its nearly 20 years of operation, Hollywood Pictures also released a slate with some impressive names: Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, Oliver Stone’s Nixon, and M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense were among their ’90s-era releases.

And the 1990s became a high watermark for Disney, not just for its revitalization of animation or these other studios’ titles. The company also purchased the indie darling Miramax Films. Now, of course, that distribution unit is justifiably, inextricably associated with the Weinstein sex abuse scandals. At the time, though, Disney was simply associating itself with the potential of high-quality films, everything from Pulp Fiction to Best Picture winner Shakespeare in Love.

By the mid-2000s, both Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures had essentially gone dark. Touchstone Pictures still technically exists, but hasn’t been active since the conclusion of a deal that Disney made with DreamWorks Pictures to co-distribute a handful of its live-action films in the 2010s. Those films were as wide-ranging as the puerile video-game adaptation of Need for Speed and Steven Spielberg’s War Horse and Lincoln. For a long time, it felt like Disney’s desire for acquiring Miramax, or distributing more mature films, was based on a thirst for awards. But as these deals wound down – Disney sold Miramax in 2010, while Hollywood Pictures’ last film was released in 2007 – incoming CEO Bob Iger has instead centered his legacy around an expanded, on-steroids version of Michael Eisner doubling down on Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures.

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