Last November, Disney Plus rolled out with over 600 launch titles, including many animated favorites from the company’s back catalogue. But while Disney reaps the rewards of beloved childhood classics, the wave of new viewership is a reminder that Linda Woolverton, who penned Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, and other screenwriters involved with Disney’s classic animated films won’t get a cent.
Woolverton, who wrote this month’s Maleficent: Mistress of Evil and spoke with Polygon about her long career in screenwriting, was frank about the reality of the situation.
“Zero,” she replied. “I got zero for the live-action remake of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King, because animation, feature animation, is not covered by the Writers Guild of America and therefore there are no royalties that were negotiated.”
Beauty and the Beast was the first feature film Woolverton worked on, a gig she got by leaving a copy of her young-adult manuscript at the front desk of the Disney office. A few days later, she got a call from chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg, who wanted her to join a new screenwriting department. At the time, Disney was in transition and Woolverton found herself caught in the middle. It wasn’t just being a woman in a mostly male-dominated industry; Disney was also pivoting from screenplays being done by the story department off of boards to having written scripts from non-animators.
For Beauty and the Beast, Woolverton essentially remade the Disney heroine to be a proactive agent of her own story. The earlier princesses Snow White, Cinderella, and Aurora always had something happen to them; after Belle, every Disney leading lady made their own choices in their own stories.
“I don’t think a Disney heroine ever went back after that,” Woolverton says.
Beauty and the Beast was the first animated film to get nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, but still, that wasn’t the movie that secured Woolverton’s eventual membership with the WGA, which secures its members payment upon reuse of their material, be it via reruns of television episodes, remakes of movies, or availability on a streaming service.
“It was Homeward Bound, the dog movie,” laughs Woolverton. “I got into the Academy off of [Beauty and the Beast], but I didn’t get the WGA. I got in from Homeward Bound. The talking dog movie.”
To this day, the WGA does not secure animation feature writers residuals for their work. Individual studios and projects may sign contracts under the Writer’s Guild in order to guarantee their screenwriters residuals, but animation features do not count as one of the 24 “units” necessary for Guild membership.
Woolverton went on to make money from her reputation as a star writer in the Disney family. She later adapted Beauty and the Beast for Broadway, and wrote the screenplay for the Tim Burton-directed Alice in Wonderland, which, despite all the CGI, was a live-action film protected by the WGA. The 2010 film reimagined Alice as a determined young woman returning to Wonderland. The blockbuster earned Woolverton the title of first — and currently still only — solo female screenwriter of a billion dollar movie. It’s an honor she still has a hard time wrapping her head around, especially considering the protagonist of her movie was a girl.
“I was always told when I was coming up as a writer that boys don’t go see girl movies. I was also told I should partner with a man. As a female writer, you had to write a male protagonist when you really wanted to do a female protagonist,” she recounts. “Finally with Alice, I think it broke that barrier down because it actually showed the studios that a young female can bring in money, can break box office records. Suddenly everything changed. Now we see all these female protagonists because it is a commercial operation after all.”
Woolverton has garnered so much praise for her work to invigorate women on screen with agency that a section of her Wikipedia page is dedicated to the term “Strong Female Characters.” It’s a phrase that’s been more than a little warped today, thrown around as a blanket statement to hype up any movie with a female lead. Woolverton thinks the term has become “trite.”
“There are so many more facets to a woman than just ‘strong,’” she explains. “I think it’s a catch-all phrase, that hopefully as we explore the dimensions of female protagonists will fade away into more specifics about that particular character.”
The nuance goes further. It’s not so easy as swapping out male leads for female ones, Woolverton argues.
“Women don’t do things the same, don’t make the same choices, don’t have the same struggles,” she says. “You don’t just take out a male protagonist and plug in a female and put a sword in her hand and call it good because that’s not gonna change anything.”
That storytelling mindset is evident in both 2014’s Maleficent and the sequel, both of which boast stories focusing on the relationships between women. The original put a twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairytale. Maleficent, cold and wounded after the man she loved in her youth violated her trust, finds herself caring for the child that she originally cursed.
“A lot of women, boy, did they respond to that,” Woolverton says. “Love can mend so much, and children particularly, but also that true love doesn’t necessarily have to be romantic love.”
With Maleficent 2, Woolverton dives deeper into the complicated mother-daughter relationship between Maleficent and Aurora, one that reflects a struggle every mother goes through (only perhaps, without the magical component).
“[Aurora] wants to explore more about her own other half of herself and also wants her own autonomy and wants to make her own decisions. Just like every teenage kid,” Woolverton explains. “When does Maleficent have to let go? Just like every mother. When do you have to let go? When do you have to let your kid make up their own mistakes — or not be you. You have to recognize that your child is not you.”
After grossing $491 million worldwide, Maleficent: Mistress of Evil is now on Disney Plus, with Woolverton’s legacy of multidimensional female leads once again bolstering the platform. The difference between the early days and now? She’ll keep getting paid for this one.