Swan Song | Cover Story | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

August 21, 2019 News » Cover Story

Swan Song 

The magical 25-year journey of Swan Princess from box-office flop to beloved franchise.

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EDEN YOUNG
  • Eden Young

There's not much mistaking Seldon Young when he walks into his Layton office for an interview. The smiling, round-faced man is decked out in a tuxedo-style suit patterned with pink-and-white diamonds, each one filled with characters or logos from 1994's The Swan Princess—an animated feature film, based on the same story as the beloved ballet Swan Lake about a princess under an enchantment. Before we begin, he encourages me to step out to the parking lot; outside the front door, there's an SUV with a similar checkerboard design. "It stands out," Young says with a laugh. "We get a lot of interesting looks, along with people doing some distracted driving."

Young has a savvy sense for marketing, but he's also selling a product he believes in with all his heart. You'd have to be that committed to still be hawking the same brand 25 years later, especially after the original Swan Princess flopped in theaters, leaving Young and his company millions of dollars in debt. Yet this month, the Swan Princess franchise released its ninth installment—The Swan Princess: Kingdom of Music—with a 10th film already in production and set for release in 2020. A gala anniversary celebration is planned in Los Angeles. How did a potential disaster become one of the longest-lived feature film franchises in history?

"I consider myself a turnaround artist," Young says. "And I consider this property the greatest turnaround of my career."

Once upon a time ...
Young's path toward show business wasn't intentional, but instead more of a natural progression for a guy who describes himself as a "serial entrepreneur." Fresh out of college in the 1970s, he started selling illustrated books of scripture stories under his then-manager, Jared Brown. From there, the Utah-based company branched out into dramatized audio versions of biblical and historical stories, producing more than 500 30-minute installments. Taking the next step—into the nascent market of home video in the mid-1980s—came as a result of Brown's inspiration.

"Jared and I were on the road, staying in a double bedroom in a hotel, and he's sitting on the edge of the bed watching cartoons," Young recalls. "I was not heavy into cartoons, but he loved them [and] was just cackling. And he turned to me, real serious, and said, 'Do you know what? We need to turn all these stories into cartoons.' And that was the launch."

Young and Brown explored a variety of potential animation partners for their planned Living Scriptures series—including Hanna-Barbera, the company behind kiddie classics like Scooby-Doo and The Flintstones—before they became aware through composer Lex de Azevedo of a director named Richard (Rick) Rich, a Utah native, who was just leaving The Walt Disney Co. after having co-directed features like The Fox and the Hound and The Black Cauldron, in addition to Winnie the Pooh and Mickey Mouse shorts.

"Disney was at this point starting to change to digital animation, just barely," Young says. "They weren't doing as much ink and paint. That gave us the opportunity, because there was a whole flood of people available [from Disney] to start doing our own stories."

"When I was trying to start my own studio," Rich recalls, "I wasn't thinking of doing my own feature to start with. What was interesting then was the Living Scriptures fell right into that. They were featurettes. I knew that format really well."

The half-hour Living Scriptures featurettes were a success, but the idea of a feature film began to percolate. "As we were producing these, every time we would go to the studio, they were pitching us with storyboards this story of Swan Lake, the ballet," Young says. "Rick had been working on this idea for some time and hadn't figured out how to solve some of the problems with the story, but he was looking for someone to help him finance it."

Rich recalls, "I wanted to do a fairy tale that would have equal impact as Cinderella. That was my burning desire. Fairy tales just last, they don't go out of style. I wasn't keen on contemporary stuff—that passes.

"I always thought that Seldon or Jared thought, 'If we didn't do [Swan Princess], we could lose them.'"

There was a beautiful princess ...
Work began on The Swan Princess, including developing storyboard treatments and folding Rich's animation studio under the Nest Family Entertainment umbrella. But Young admits that he was not keen on the project at the outset from a business standpoint. "To me, you finish and do what you're best at," he says. "We were good at direct sales. We had built tremendously emotional stories that had great music behind them. We didn't know anything about the movie business. Zero."

Swan Princess had an initial budget of $12 million, most of the funding coming directly from Brown and Young's own pockets. Soon, Young realized that it would be necessary to raise outside financing to complete the project, something else Young had no prior experience in. Yet ironically, he says, it was thanks to the ongoing process of selling the idea of The Swan Princess to others that he ultimately sold it to himself. "Once you're fully engaged, your passion kicks up," he says. "You hear that story [you're telling] over and over again, and you think, 'You know what? This could be a really cool story.' You're blinded by everything. But those blinders really help, because you have such confidence convincing people to put up money, allowing us to go forward."

Meanwhile, on the production side, Disney alum Rich was putting together a voice cast that included veterans like Sandy Duncan, John Cleese and freshly minted Oscar-winner Jack Palance. Finding his Princess Odette, however, was proving to be a challenge, despite traveling to New York to audition Broadway performers. "What I was trying to find was a voice that had the sound of a princess voice, innate in the voice itself," he says. He finally found it in Michelle Nicastro. "She was Odette in every way, shape and form."

NEST FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
  • Nest Family Entertainment

Young continued raising money, while discovering that there would be expenses beyond simply completing the film. They found a willing distributor in New Line Cinema, but the company was involved only in booking the film into theaters, not with providing any financing. Eventually, the independent producers raised the funds required for prints and advertising in addition to production costs—a total of some $45 million.

The Swan Princess team was optimistic, however, that they could find theatrical success, even as Disney had begun the resurgence in its animated features like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. There was even a model for independent animated features overseen by an ex-Disney employee: Don Bluth, creator of the An American Tail and Land Before Time films. "What it did to us is, 'If they did that good, we should do that good,'" Young says. "American Tail did good, we should be able to do that kind of thing. We thought everything would fall into our hands. That's what happens to you. There's not wisdom, and some of the people we were hiring didn't give us some of the wisdom we should have had."

Who was threatened by a villain ...
New Line prepared to release The Swan Princess into theaters on Nov. 18, 1994—a family film primed for the holiday movie season. But as the date neared, a massive threat appeared. Disney's blockbuster The Lion King had been pulled from theaters after Labor Day, and the company scheduled a re-release—on Nov. 18, 1994. In its review of The Swan Princess from November 1994, Variety bluntly referred to Disney's decision to release on the same date as "sabotage."

Young, for his part, is more politic about Disney's actions from a 25-year remove. "At the time, yes, we were really upset," he says. "We saw all kinds of things that were sabotage in nature. Now I say, 'Look, Disney does their job,' and I have to navigate around that and not hold feelings about that."

When they learned of the Lion King plan, Young says, they had some people recommending that they postpone the release until the following spring. "But everyone knew we had huge product tie-ins out in the marketplace [for Christmas], 95 licensees," he says. "I would have had every one of those companies suing my butt off. I had no choice—I was blocked."

Seldon Young at the 1994 premiere of The Swan Princess. - COURTESY NEST FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
  • Courtesy Nest Family Entertainment
  • Seldon Young at the 1994 premiere of The Swan Princess.

Still, it became immediately obvious to Young during that opening weekend that The Lion King was going to eat The Swan Princess alive. And it did, in fact, outstrip Swan Princess's weekend take by a 2-1 margin. He knew the trouble they were facing when he went to a Layton theater on opening night, and observed the dynamic as families would walk up to the box office to decide what to see. "You'd have four girls and one boy in the family, and they're looking at these choices and the girls are going, 'I want to go to Swan Princess,' and the one boy is saying, 'No way, I'm not going,'" he says. "And they would go to Lion King. You knew as you were going around to theaters, we're going to get crushed."

"We were getting hourly reports," Rich adds, "and we knew we were getting crushed. And I was devastated. I can remember lying in bed with my wife, and she turned over and said, 'Rick, you have to realize you made a great film.' That changed everything for me. I knew I'd made a good film. I made a film that should not have failed."

Nevertheless, the production was facing a loss of somewhere in the neighborhood of $18 million, and the various advances and other financing deals that Young had made seemed to make it unlikely that the film would ever be in the black. There was enormous disappointment, and some depression, in the sense of, 'How do we overcome this?'" Young says. "We got fortunate to be the No. 1 selling video for a week or two when it was first released, but all that does is pay off some of the people that put up advances for us. Swan Princess got buried in debt. One of the deals with Sony, was, 'We'll give you an advance if we can have international marketplace.' Because Sony had that, they technically had control of my film, even though we owned the IP [intellectual property]. So, how do you get that out of jail? And that's part of the fun of the story."

Then a hope appeared ...
Young, Rich and the rest of the Nest team had retreated to their core Living Scriptures business in the wake of The Swan Princess' theatrical flop, when they received a call from Sony's Columbia-TriStar Home Video division, which was handling the film in overseas markets. The video was selling well, to the extent that the Columbia-TriStar CEO had described it as "energizing our international team." Would Nest consider producing a Swan Princess 2?

"I said, 'OK, we're going to have to act fast. If we have animators leaving, we're going to have a hard time,'" Young says. They quickly put together a contract, with Sony once again handling international distribution and Warner Home Video handling domestic. "Now I'm in a little bit of a different game," Young says. "They pay for the film, I get producer fees out of it. So we get something for it. ... And as we were finishing [the second film], this is where you get real bold: You ask again. And they said, 'Why not? We love Swan Princess, we've made a lot of money on Swan Princess.' So we did Swan Princess 3"

The Swan Princess: Escape from Castle Mountain was released direct to video in July 1997, with The Swan Princess: The Mystery of the Enchanted Treasure following in August 1998. The videos continued to make money for Sony, as Young would see on balance sheets over the years. But Nest still owed advance money to Sony. It required a bold move more than a decade after the release of the third film for the franchise to have a chance at another life.

Jared Brown, left, and Seldon Young in the 1980s. - COURTESY NEST FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
  • Courtesy Nest Family Entertainment
  • Jared Brown, left, and Seldon Young in the 1980s.

"We went away and did our own thing," he says, "until the opportunity came that I could see how much they had promoted Swan Princess worldwide, and how much money they'd made, that I finally did the ask: I asked if they would forgive all the advances. And they did. That put us in a category where, from then on, we started getting royalties.

"I'm now experienced, and once you have that experience and gumption, you figure out that relationships are everything. Once I figured out that way to start getting royalties, I had the financing mechanism for the next piece. After Sony had forgiven the debt, then they're saying, 'We'd be interested in doing a fourth story.'"

By this point it was the 2010s, and the home video market had largely collapsed. "In the DVD world, things were really going down," Rich recalls, "but these films were holding their own. They asked if we'd consider doing another one. By this time, we had left the 2D world and gone into CGI. Sony was a little bit leery, wondering if the Swan Princess audience would follow us. We showed them what it was going to look like."

That fourth installment, The Swan Princess Christmas, came in 2012, an improbable 14-year gap since its previous installment. How did this one-time box-office flop maintain a fan base that would continue to support more stories for another decade?

The princess' friends came to the rescue ...
It wasn't until around the time of the sixth installment in 2016 that Young began to hear fans' anecdotal stories—about how much they'd loved the original Swan Princess growing up and how eagerly they continued to follow the stories. That was also around the time when Young saw a colorfully clad family on Family Feud, and ordered his custom-made Swan Princess clothing from a golf attire company.

"I went to a FanX here in Salt Lake, just roaming around in Swan Princess pants, my daughter dressed in a Swan Princess outfit," Young says. "So I'm having a lot of people coming up and telling me they love the movie. ... That's when the recognition came, that this brand was bigger than I ever thought. Despite Sony selling all kinds of [DVDs], I didn't know that happened where fans would remember it from their childhood. The engagement with fans is the most humbling experience, to know what your film has done to them."

click to enlarge COURTESY NEST FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
  • Courtesy Nest Family Entertainment

Rich is equally astonished. "I don't think I really knew what was going on out there," he says. "I have to say, though, I knew there was something, because all through these years, when people would find out I was the director of The Swan Princess, I would hear, 'Oh that was my favorite movie.' That's quite remarkable, after all of the films that are out there. That means they still remember it."

These convention interactions convinced Young that the Swan Princess movies had moved beyond the realm of nostalgia and were captivating a new young audience. He recalls how a girl around 8 or 9 years old came up to the Swan Princess booth at the April 2019 FanX event and started rattling off trivia and asking when the next movie would be coming out. "I'm going, 'How do you know all this? You know things I don't know,'" Young says. "And she says, 'Oh, I watch them every day on Hulu.' So you get on a big streaming site, and all of the sudden, your fan base is binge-watching. Their parents hadn't even grown up on it. These are new fans."

Yet, it's also clear that the connection of older fans who grew up with The Swan Princess can't be underestimated. "We're still shocked today when we go to a comic con, our No. 1 selling product is DVDs," Young says. "How come so many people are buying DVDs? They still like collecting. I have people come with VHS copies to have signed, even if they can't play it. We had our original films available in the old 'clamshell' VHS packaging, and our fans bought them. Just to have the tradition. That's the fanatical nature of a passionate fan."

click to enlarge COURTESY NEST FAMILY ENTERTAINMENT
  • Courtesy Nest Family Entertainment

And they all lived happily ever after ...
A quarter-century into the Swan Princess franchise, Rich—who has directed every one of the Swan Princess features—is amazed and delighted that it's still a part of his professional life, even at a time when other creators might have retired. And Brown, his manager from the '70s, is still co-president of the franchise. Rich believes that the basic decency of the love story is part of the appeal to fans, as well as what keeps him interested in these stories. "It's that chemistry that has driven the series, that [Derek and Odette's] love is absolutely pure," he says. "We have a hard time writing for them, because they have pure hearts and don't have a lot of flaws.

"At the end of each one, it was never a given that we'd be doing another one. Here now, in the twilight of my career, I'm having the most exciting time in my life," Rich says. "I get up, and I'm so excited to come to work. What's on the screen is what I believe and the way I feel. And very few people get to do that. I get to make people cry, because it makes me cry. I can make them laugh, because I want to laugh. ... I thought it was a chapter of my life that was over. Boy, am I glad it's not."

Young, too, remains amazed that the movie he was once reluctant to make has become such a part of his life that he literally wears it on his sleeve. "If you take the whole story of being able to resurrect a franchise, find a fan base, turn it around to where it's actually making money for us, year on year ... how did that happen? ... The humbling standpoint of this film is the attachment of the fans has caught me by complete surprise. I will never lose that as focus. Those are things I didn't recognize early on, what it would do to people.

"What was created here was created out of a whole group of people. I just happen to be the one that has the energy today to go out and spend time with fans. And I am so lucky to be that one."

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