Disney had brought its prodigal son back to produce whatever he wanted. When he decided to produce a stop motion film, Disney was overjoyed that maybe this could be a way for it to bridge the gap between Aladdin and The Lion King. Disney Pictures chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg had even publicly stated that he hoped the film could help lift the studio’s stodgy reputation.
At practically the last minute, however, the company got cold feet. This film was too macabre. Too stark. Too scary. Like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Dick Tracy before it, the film was sent to theaters with the more adult Touchstone Pictures brand on it. An odd choice, considering that the company had already regretted doing that to WFRR. By 1993, Roger Rabbit had already been welcomed into Walt Disney’s Magic Kingdom with his very own attraction. Jack Skellington would be similarly exiled.
Without the Disney name, the studio put minimal effort behind promoting the film. Instead of a traditional Thanksgiving Weekend release, the film would premiere days before Halloween with a muddled promotional push. Early trailers referred to the film as being from Walt Disney Pictures, but viewers looking for the latest Disney film were greeted with the Touchstone logo. The shift in marketing allowed some toy licensees to drop out while others hastily covered the Disney logo with Touchstone Pictures stickers on the packaging.
The film would be a modest success, but wouldn’t be a Lion King sized success. The merchandise would fail to find very many buyers and the film would soon make its way to the Disney vault, destined to become just a trivia question. Disney might have had little faith in the picture, but its fans wouldn’t let it just disappear. The film gained a massive fan community in the years after its release. By 1998, dolls based on the character Sally that had languished on clearance shelves in early 1994 were fetching $800 on eBay. Disney obviously took notice. Small amounts of Nightmare Before Christmas merchandise were produced for Disney Theme Parks and were eagerly snapped up. Licensees lined up to produce even more merchandise for sale. Most films sell the bulk of their merchandise during their initial release. Jack and the gang were selling 20 times more merchandise than they did in 1993 seven years after the film came out.
Disney would make up for lost time. In 2001, Jack Skellington would take over DISNEYLAND’s Haunted Mansion for both the Halloween and Christmas seasons. Despite the huge drop in tourism that year, Jack’s takeover would be a huge success. Florida’s Magic Kingdom ordered its own version and The Magic Kingdom at the Tokyo Disney Resort wanted one too, but initially had to wait. When Florida canceled the overlay, Tokyo eagerly jumped at the chance to add a little madness to its Haunted Mansion. Both seasonal overlays have become cherished additions.
Who could have guessed that the little project that Disney originally rejected would become such a huge phenomenon. Jack and his crew might not have succeeded in stealing Christmas, but they did succeed in stealing the hearts of their millions of fans.