Chapter 25: In And Out Of The Woods
Weston Woods, that is. I feel that my best films are the least known. My greatest fans still are teachers and librarians, and I spent 25 years of creative fulfillment in pleasing them.
The "Giant" step for me was the arrival in Prague of Morton Schindel of Weston Woods. My second meeting with Mort, 10 years after Terrytoons, was another crossroad in my career. It was the beginning of a 25-year collaboration. Mort was a thinker, and he had built something terrific from what had seemed hopeless to me when in 1957 he first called on me at Terrytoons. He was able to build his modest productions into a thriving business because of the policies of Lyndon Johnson! Yes, the very man who destroyed his presidency by escalating the Vietnam War, had begun his administration with a generous policy to upgrade audio-visual usage in the nation's schools. His program granted schools two dollars for every one dollar they spent on audio-visual equipment and materials. Overnight Weston Woods sales tripled!
To take full advantage of this windfall, and to attract the highest quality of talent to contribute to his film library, Schindel offered gross income participation to people making key contributions. Once our production had become untangled from the Snyder stranglehold, Mort offered me 5% of the gross income of the films I would adapt and direct for Weston Woods, after basic production costs were recouped. When my films proved to be the stars of his catalog, he granted me that percentage from the first dollar - and it was in perpetuity, to me and to my heirs. After 25 years of producing films for Weston Woods, even in this tiny market, compared to the "bigtime" of network TV, syndication, or feature film production, this annuity has become my financial bedrock.
Tiny this market may be, but remember, there are always new children. Films carefully made, adapted from carefully chosen books, do not fade from fashion. They are perpetually new. When Mort finally was ready to retire, he sold Weston Woods to Scholastic, the huge distributor of educational publications to schools, and my commissions carry over. I had been working personally with Mort, and had no wish to continue with the corporate substitutes, yet my sales commissions continue. In my further work, I have used my Weston Woods deal as my basic model, and am now in a position to accept nothing less. A 5% share of the gross from the first dollar. I also write songs for many of my films, and that too is a solid additional source of royalty income.
Morton Schindel was the first producer I worked with who voluntarily proposed this concept of a continuing sharing in the financial results of my work. I can say that my small good deed eventually came back to me in spades.
But the money involved in making Weston Woods films was actually very small in the short run. The school market is not a rich commercial market - far from it. What worked out for me was that being in "the low-rent district," and not having to make a lot of money immediately, meant that I could afford to work on the kind of films I had always dreamed of making: honest story films for children, from the greatest author/illustrators in the world!
I had made some children's films before, but only sporadically, and never with the assurance that the films would actually be distributed and appreciated. Mort fed me one great children's book after another to adapt, and he had the distribution system in place, which assured that the films would actually reach children in their schools and libraries. I was now into something several notches more meaningful than kiddie films; I was expected to understand and project Chilren's Literature!
I immersed myself in this work, and developed conceptual approaches to it that brought me rich rewards of acceptance and appreciation, and over 100 top awards in all the world's film festivals with categories for children's films. So the satisfaction was there. After all, how many are lucky enough to have school teachers and librarians fawning over them? In 1967, Weston Woods commissioned a documentary film about my work, in which I explained how I went about my work. I was also invited to speak at schools, libraries, universities, and other rarified venues in America and Europe. Those who invited me rarely knew anything about my Popeyes, Tom & Jerrys, or Tom Terrifics - they expected me to expound on the glories of children's literature. Here is a typical talk I would give to groups of teachers, book illustrators, and students of film animation - especially in reference to adapting picture books to animation:
"It is said that prostitution is the world's oldest profession. Well I have reason to believe that our profession, illustrated story-telling, is even older, and I hope, more socially useful!