Chapter 24: The Giants Win And Lose
I didn't know what to tell this fellow. He was so sincere in his belief that his little films would be loved by small children, and that they should be on TV. But even then - and this was in 1957 - such simple, quiet little films of still pictures would be almost impossible for Terrytoons to market. I tried to be sympathetic and polite to the man. These were indeed charming stories, photographed from some of the best children's picture books.... but commercially hopeless. There would be no way I could sell this kind of thing to Bill Weiss. All I could do for Morton Schindel was to wish him luck. But just after he left my office, a thought struck me. There was perhaps one chance to help the guy!
We were at that very moment in production on the first series of Tom Terrific films, but about six months from completion. Just a couple of days earlier I had gotten a call from Bob Keeshan's Captain Kangaroo office, urging us to hurry, as they were in great need of new film material. As Mort Schindel left I picked up the phone and dialed the Keeshan office. Here was something they might be interested in as filler until Tom Terrific was ready. They called Mort, reviewed his films, and thought they were just the things for their Captain Kangaroo show! They leased all twelve of them! So Mort got his dream of seeing his pure little children's films on nationwide network television. I was delighted that I was after all able to help him, and was surprised to see that even after Tom Terrific went on, and had its great success, the Schindel films also continued on the show. So Mort was happy.
But of course the Captain Kangaroo show was an exception to the way kid's TV was heading at that time, and Mort was forced to look to a different market to be able to continue to produce his lovely story films. Almost as an afterthought, he began to show them around to schools and libraries. There, in a market largely ignored by filmmakers, Mort struck gold. He lived in Weston, Connecticut, in a log cabin in a patch of woods, so he formed a company he called Weston Woods. Within 10 years Weston Woods had grown to be the leading producer and distributor of audiovisual materials based on children's literature, and developed into a complex of buildings on Mort's wooded property. He was now ready to expand from modest "iconographic" films to full animation. I knew nothing of all this, having already been working in isolated Prague for 8 years. Mort was looking for me, ready to return my favor, but in the meantime I had disappeared from the New York map. He heard that I had been working for William L. Snyder/Rembrandt Films. The fact was, however, that my contract with Snyder had already ended.
However, Snyder being Snyder, he was not ready to just politely give Schindel my address. "Of course! Gene is under exclusive contract to me, working on my projects in Prague, where I have exclusive production rights." Two full-frontal lies, but why let a little thing like truth and common courtesy stand in the way, when a lucrative deal is sniffed? The truth was that Snyder owed the Czechs a huge amount of money, and not only had no exclusive rights whatever to produce in the country, but was no longer welcome here at all. But he smoothly assured Mort that he was in a position to get his films produced in Prague, directed by me, at an excellent price. He went on to say that he liked Mort's projects so well that he would personally finance half the costs, for a 50/50 split of the returns.
Sounds good? Poor Mort, didn't yet know that the price Bill quoted was exactly double the actual cost, so that Bill would be getting a 50/50 split of the income from the films without actually investing a nickel. Weston Woods would be in fact paying the full cost! Bill was also counting that I would be so hungry, which I was, and so eager to do high quality children's films, that I would be willing to work for peanuts, and not spill the beans to Mort. He managed to pull it off. I knew the true cost of animation production in Prague. After all, the studio producer was my wife Zdenka. But I was in an ethical bind, not feeling able to directly tell this new client that he was being shafted. I had to let him find that out for himself. Unfortunately for Bill, he inadvertently left a copy of a letter to Czechoslovak Filmexport, giving the actual price of the productions, in a script, where Mort came across it.
When next we spoke, I was able to fill in Mort on the facts, and from then on was able to work directly with him. Otherwise, I would have had to quit after the first two films; Bill Snyder, for no investment and no input of any kind, would have gotten half the income from every film I did for Weston Woods, and I would have been limited to a peanuts, one-time direction fee. As it was, even after finding that he had been taken, Mort honored his contract with Bill, who got his unearned share of my first two Weston Woods films, ("Drummer Hoff," and "The Happy Owls"), for the next thirty years! Only then did his son Adam right this wrong, and rewrote the contract to repay me for all those lost royalties.