Disney has been having a rough time of it at the box office this year. The films range from disappointments like Elemental to outright flops like Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny. Even the once-might MCU is struggling, and a key reason is because Disney has gone all out with budgets so astronomical that they can't possibly make a good profit at the box office.
Which is why now is the perfect time for Disney to dust off what was once a very great division of their film studio and let it be home once more to the lower budgeted but still fun fare that can help the company.
For Disney fans of a certain generation, that lightning bolt in a blue circle logo was unique. It promised a Disney touch but with a certain edge and built itself into a unique property in its own right. Its successes included some of Disney's biggest live-action hits and launched scores of careers. Best of all, it provided movies with lower budgets than other fare, something Disney can use.
It's often forgotten that in the early 1980s, the Disney Company was in such terrible shape that there were serious worries it would be bought out and broken apart. The movie division was the worst; the live-action films were unable to capture the old magic, and the animation department was a mess.
Then-CEO Ron Miller recognized that if Disney was going to survive, they'd have to break away from pure family films into the new world of PG-13 movies. So he established Touchstone Films, using the idea the average moviegoer wouldn't automatically associate them with Disney and take a chance on more adult fare.
Their very first film showed the experiment paid off. Splash, released in 1984 with Tom Hanks and Daryl Hannah, featured cursing and even brief nudity and became a monster box office hit, grossing over $68 million (about $200 million today) off an $11 million budget.
That set the tone for the label, movies with big stars but not breaking the bank budgets. Two years later came the first-ever R-rated Disney film, Down and Out in Beverly Hills, which likewise became a huge hit.
At this point, Michael Eisner took over Disney, briefly considering renaming Touchstone Hollywood Pictures (which became its own entity in 1989) but settled for Touchstone Pictures instead. He also used his old studio connections to get more names on board and crafted a stunning legacy.
The Touchstone legacy
Granted, not every Touchstone Pictures film was a success. In fact, they had more than their share of duds: The Rescue, Hello Again, Scenes From a Mall, The Marrying Man and more.
But when Touchstone had a hit, boy, did they have a hit. Look at the list of smash box office successes: Ruthless People, Adventures in Babysitting, Three Men and a Baby, Good Morning Vietnam, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beaches, Cocktail, Dead Poets Society, Turner & Hooch, Pretty Woman, Dick Tracy, Father of the Bride, Sister Act, What's Love Got to Do With It, Phenemeon, Ransom, Con Air, Armageddon, The Waterboy, 10 Things I Hate About You, Shanghai Noon, Coyote Ugly, Sweet Home Alabama, Flightplan, The Proposal.
Then there are films that may not have been as huge at the box office but still "sleepers" and even awards darlings like Quiz Show and Ed Wood. Those and more are stunning successes most studios would kill for.
There were unique cases like Pretty Woman, which survived a rough early script to become an epic hit that made Julia Roberts a star. Or 3 Ninjas, a kids' movie that ended up earning ten times its budget. For a time in the late 1980s and early '90s, Touchstone was the primary money maker for Walt Disney Studios and their successes majorly outweighed any losses.
Sadly, as the 2000s began, Touchstone began to lose some luster. Disney was pushing Hollywood Pictures more as a secondary adult studio, with that spot getting bigger projects. Touchstone still had some successes like Gone In 60 Seconds, Coyote Ugly and Unbreakable. However, the huge budgets of The 13th Warrior, The Alamano (two of the biggest box office bombs ever) and Pearl Harbor pushed them down.
Disney themselves were changing their views on movies and in 2009, Touchstone and Dreamworks were basically co-producing movies with far more flops than hits. The final Touchstone Pictures release was 2016's The Light Between Oceans. It's a shame as the label's legacy is amazing and its lessons can be something Disney could use today.
Why Touchstone should be revived
It's not just the Touchstone label itself that should be brought back, but rather their mantra. While they would go for some big-budget epics now and then (Pearl Harbor, King Arthur), the label was better using lower-budgeted fare that could pay dividends at the box office.
Even some of their later films could still make it work, like 2007's Wild Hogs, made for $60 million and making over $250 million, or The Proposal, over $300 million off a $40 million budget. Compare that to the Disney films of today, which seem to think if it's not costing $100 million, it's not worth making. The problem, of course, is that the higher the budget, the higher the risk, when Touchstone was smart about balancing it out.
Disney needs that back, the lower-key movies and not just the blockbusters. Granted, it's a different business as the pandemic and shorter theatrical-to-streaming windows changed moviegoing habits. But given how bad Disney was with the box office this year, a half dozen low-budget movies as sleeper successes is better than one big $300 million film that comes off as a loss.
A return of Touchstone itself would be great, but at the least, Disney has to realize some moviegoers will respond much better to lower-budgeted fare than high-budget spectacle and getting back to the older formula can help Disney avoid more box office embarrassments.