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It was a personal rivalry that blew up into a corporate war involving both sides duking it out using some of the most state-of-the-art, never-before-seen economic weaponry of the time: animated ants.
Look, 1998 was a different time.
Twenty years later, the bitter battle between “A Bug’s Life” and “Antz,” when two studios released remarkably similar stories about ants who defied conventions to save their respective colonies, seems all but forgotten.
But now it appears there’s a new twist in the tale, and it comes from an “Antz” writer (who’s also the director of the new spy movie “Operation Finale”), Chris Weitz.
For those who aren’t privy to the backstory of the bug brouhaha, the drama reportedly started in the mid-1990s, when Jeffrey Katzenberg ― who helped champion classic Disney animated films such as “Beauty and the Beast,” “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” ― wasn’t named as then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner’s second in command.
This was back in ’94, following the tragic helicopter death of the company’s president and chief operating officer, Frank Wells. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Eisner had previously told Katzenberg that he would be named No. 2 at the company if Wells ever left the position.
But that’s not what happened.
Eisner assumed Wells’ responsibilities instead, causing a rift in the Disney power structure. Disney later dropped Katzenberg. He eventually sued the company, leading to a settlement that reportedly cost Disney about $270 million.
He would create a new film studio, DreamWorks, alongside David Geffen and Steven Spielberg.
And here’s where things start to get a little antsy
After Katzenberg co-founded DreamWorks, the company announced that one of its first animated films would be “Antz,” about a militant ant colony radicalized by one intrepid worker bug.
But Disney collaborator Pixar already had “A Bug’s Life” on the way, an animated film about an ant colony forced to serve a militant grasshopper society until one similarly intrepid worker bug steps in. According to Pixar Animation’s Steve Jobs and John Lasseter (who’s now leaving Disney after allegations of misconduct), they pitched Disney the concept before Katzenberg left the company.
“There’s no disputing the fact that the day Jeffrey left Disney, he knew we were making ‘A Bug’s Life’; he knew what the story was and everything else,” Jobs told Entertainment Weekly.
Katzenberg denied the claims. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times reported that film producer Nina Jacobson, a former DreamWorks executive and later president of Disney subsidiary Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group, said she was the one who pitched the ants idea to Katzenberg.
Still, DreamWorks’ buggy story has a fly in the ointment.
According to a BusinessWeek story, Lasseter pitched “A Bug’s Life” to Disney on the very same day that the company announced Katzenberg’s departure. So, sure, it’s possible that Katzenberg hadn’t known about the idea when he was a Disney employee. But Lasseter allegedly told Katzenberg “all about ‘Bugs’” when the Pixar creator visited him at the DreamWorks offices in 1995 ― and that it was set to hit theaters in Thanksgiving of ’98.
Suffice it to say Lasseter was taken off guard when he saw news of a DreamWorks movie by the name of “Antz” in trade magazines sometime after their meeting. Lasseter reportedly called Katzenberg to confront him, realizing that he and Pixar were caught in the middle of Katzenberg’s ongoing beef with Disney.
The similar-sounding films aside, there’s another reason Disney and Pixar ended up bugging out. “Antz” beat “A Bug’s Life” into theaters. DreamWorks’ former chief marketing executive, Terry Press, told the LA Times the earlier release date was the real cause of all of Pixar’s accusations (though apparently this was accomplished with some behind-the-scenes subterfuge that’s just now coming to light).
Fake it until you reveal you already made it
Scheduling was always the crux of the problem between Disney and DreamWorks. “The Prince of Egypt” was reportedly originally supposed to be DreamWorks’ first big animated film, its crown jewel after Katzenberg’s exit from Disney. The movie was scheduled to come out during the holiday season of 1998 ― same as “A Bug’s Life.”
And Katzenberg wasn’t happy.
There were rumors that Katzenberg called Lasseter and Jobs offering to stop production on “Antz” ― which was originally set to debut in ’99 ― if the “Bug’s Life” date was moved to accommodate “The Prince of Egypt.” BusinessWeek reports sources “close to DreamWorks” denied this offer was ever made.
Either way, the date for “A Bug’s Life” remained firm. The Disney-Pixar alliance wasn’t budging. So DreamWorks reportedly moved up the release date for “Antz,” ensuring that it would debut weeks before the “Bug’s Life” premiere of Nov. 25.
Or so the story goes.
In an interview with HuffPost this month, “Antz” writer Weitz cast doubt on these alleged machinations. According to him, the original ’99 release date was “fake.” His team was working at hyper-speed to get “Antz” out early the whole time.
“We didn’t know that there was that much of a race [to the box office] until late in the process,” he explained, “when it turned out there had even been a fake schedule, which had us completing after ‘Bug’s Life’ was going to be released. We’d been working on this accelerated pace without really knowing exactly why.”
Weitz said he and his brother Paul Weitz, who co-wrote “Antz,” were “just the cat’s-paws” for what was going on. He didn’t know the hectic pace was to beat “A Bug’s Life.” He just knew it was hectic.
“We knew that we were cranking it out because there was just a general sense of rush,” he added. “And also making an animated film is inherently very labor intensive. Everything goes through this kind of brutal process in storyboarding, animatics, back to script and you go through that over and over and over again. As well as Mr. Katzenberg being a very good but exacting boss. It was sort of a high-pressure, high-intensity environment.”
That environment fostered constant conflict with the script.
“Oh, my God. Things got changed over and over and over again endlessly,” Weitz recounted. “New gags were incorporated, all kinds of things were constantly readjusted, new casting was coming online each time. Something you were writing ... would suddenly be tailored for Sylvester Stallone’s voice or Sharon Stone’s. It was a period of total narrative pummel for a while.”
“Screenwriting has been a little easier since then,” he said. “There’s nothing quite as exercising, but I’m still glad we did it.”
Katzenberg, Jacobson and Lasseter did not reply to HuffPost’s request for comment.
A look back on the 20-year ant-iversary
For all the pandemonium around the two movies’ similar insect premises, they probably couldn’t be farther apart in tone. “A Bug’s Life” is more kid-friendly, while “Antz” incorporates more adult humor and themes. One stars Kevin Spacey as a villain, the other Woody Allen as a protagonist.
Both enjoyed critical acclaim and box office success, though one more than the other: “Antz” took in more than $171 million worldwide according to BoxOfficeMojo, while “A Bug’s Life” more than doubled that with $363 million.
Looking back on the rivalry, Weitz said, “I think there was something inherently more crowd-pleasing about ‘Bug’s Life,’ which would’ve kind of blown us out of the water if we hadn’t gotten out there first. And as it happens, we were able to coexist, which is really nice.”
In the two decades following the feud, DreamWorks and Disney have repeatedly released similar-seeming movies around the same release dates. For instance, “Finding Nemo” (Disney, 2003) and “Shark Tale” (DreamWorks, 2004). Or “Ratatouille” (Disney, 2007) and “Flushed Away” (DreamWorks, 2006). But perhaps no instance since has ever left either studio feeling so bugged.