The Legend of Max Howard

Max Howard

Seeing Max Howard’s name as one of the judges of Animation Magazine‘s Pitch Party reminded me of a link I’d been meaning to share. First, a little background: back in the Eighties and Nineties, for reasons nobody fully understands, almost anybody who worked in musical theater could become an animation executive at Disney. Someday, someone will write about it and explain this weird aberration of animation history. Until then, we can piece it together through bits and pieces, like this three-page Orlando Sentinel article from July, 1990, about Max Howard’s beginnings in the animation industry.

The article reveals that Howard had an impressive background in British theater, but was thoroughly unqualified to be running an animation studio, which is what Disney animation v-p Peter Schneider hired him to do during the production of Who Framed Roger Rabbit. Howard says in the article (a bit indiscreetly) that, “They thought I was the person to run their London animation studio; incidentally, I didn’t. I told Disney I had spent my years in the theater and didn’t know a thing about animation.”

As a historian, I find it fascinating to revisit articles like this decades later. The piece is especially interesting now that Howard has aggressively begun to promote himself as an animation consultant and all-knowing guru who flies around the world to share his wisdom. In his lectures, I’m sure he doesn’t use many examples from his stint as president of Warner Bros. Animation where he oversaw the legendarily inept production of Quest for Camelot. He also doesn’t mention the film in his official bio, though he does make sure to take responsibility for The Iron Giant. Thankfully, that means he’s learned a few things throughout the years about what constitutes quality animated filmmaking.


  • simon

    Max was an awesome studio chief. Kind, smart and caring. I’d be really surprised to hear anything negative about Max.

  • Gene

    Believe me–I worked with Max at WB–and now I know, for once, he’s right about something: He knows NOTHING about animation. But he sure produced Iron Giant REEAAL good(!).

  • Ju-osh

    Another lesson Howard learned: When posing for photos, everyone in the animation biz goes for ‘wacky.’

    (Note: Points deducted for lack of Hawaiian shirt and/or cluttered animating desk.)

  • cbat628

    I’m really curious as to what reasoning the “higher-ups” at Disney used that led to the employment of Max Howard as a production manager. From what I gather, it had to be Disney who played the larger part as it seems that Howard wasn’t actively seeking the position until it was brought to his attention.

    I’m not in the animation business, but I’m willing to bet that theater production is a lot different than animation production. I mean if he did some pretty nice art direction and wanted to hire him on as an art director, I can understand. Otherwise, it just seems counter-productive to take the route Disney did.

    And it’s not like you can’t find good people in unexpected/unusual places, but it seems like theater would be a little further down the list.

    • cbat628

      I just want to point out that I don’t mean any disrespect towards Howard. Anyone who made “The Iron Giant” possible is okay by me.

      • http://www.spitandspite.com Totally agree

        Guess that would be Brad Bird.

  • http://www.damianosketchblog.com DamianoD

    The only reason I can think of (behind Disney’s hiring) is because of the string of success they had with songs during the Disney Renaissance. Flaky reason at best if it’s true. Anyway, this doesn’t come as a big surprise. Executives are rarely put in power for deserving reasons.

  • Was My Face Red

    Not fair! Camelot might suck but what did the guy do on all those other films that didn’t suck? I’m no fan of pro consultants but I hate it when you stitch people up to please the mob, under the usual stupidest picture you can find. Historian or mean minded fanboy? One day you’ll decide.

  • Sam Orr

    Peter Schneider had a history in theater production, at some level. He may be the one who pushed for Howard to get that gig. The musical theater meme was in the air in the executive suite then. Ashman and Mencken came from musical theater, hey, anybody with that cred can do it! It’s like “From Here to Eternity” where everyone promoted by the corrupt authority figure had to have firsthand knowledge of boxing. They were cranking out musical hits at Disney in that era. Once Howard got to WB Feature Animation, where there were no genius creative or organizational souls above him at the outset, his animation skill level was laid bare. Only when Brad Bird showed up was Howard suddenly able to produce something that was not an embarrassment.He later spent years hiding at DreamWorks and now is on the consulting gravy train. Hollywood at its best!

  • Gene

    The reason for the Theater hires in the animation industry is because of the similarities of “workshopping” a project to completion.  Valid enough.  But max’s involvement in theater, beyond being born into a family who hit the planks, is tertiary at best (he’s certainly his own best PR person).  max was an mildly effective, run of the mill middle management functionary, with nary a creative bone in his body–although he often  wanted to believe that’s what his role involved.  Far from any kind of “visionary,”  he merely parroted the random acts of lower tiered so-called “creative executives” left overs from Disney.

  • Useless

    [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, "It is OK to post with a nickname or alias, but your email address (which we will NEVER share publicly), must be a real, permanent email address. Comments with fake or non-permanent emails will be deleted."]

  • 90′s WDFA Vet

    It’s not a mystery, Amid. Peter Schneider, who was appointed by Roy Disney to run Feature Animation, had a strong live theatre background. In his new role, he found running an animation studio a lot like running a theatrical repertory company. He therefore hired many of his colleagues and cronies from the theatre world to help him do his job. Some succeeded, and are well-regarded by current and former Disney staffers to this day. Some failed miserably, and are justifiably loathed by the same.

    Whether this ultimately was a good or bad decision can be argued about till the cows come home. What can’t be argued, however, is that Disney had their longest winning streak at the box-office while Schneider held the job. (I’m not saying one is directly related to the other, or that many other artists and executives didn’t play a part, I’m just pointing it out.)

  • Employed animator

    Ah Max Howard, I was there at Warners during those glorious years and so let us state what Max did. He was there during “Quest for Camelot” and he hired all of his British friends and promised them green cards and because of that he was showing favoritism and wasnt much cared for. Now on to “Iron Giant”. Max gets it quite wrong here. Max wasnt even there when we made the film. This is how the story goes, as Quest was winding down there was much talk that the studio was being shut down and us artist were all worried. Max held a company meeting with all of us and basically said that he would not bail on us and would fight for us. Well within a week of that he was an employee of DreamWorks so another reason I dont like the guy. He may of gotten Brad Bird for “Iron Giant” but that was all he did and should take none of the credit. Max is another example of someone who knows nothing of the animation industry but has honked his own horn enough to make a wonderful living out of it. Also the term consultant is just another word that basically means I know nothing but I make you all think I do and I get paid well to give you false info and hope. Max please go away. On a final note, dont bash Amid for posting the stupid picture of Max, if he could of found a dorkier picture that would of been better but Max is clown.

    • Gene

      And don’t forget, Brad Bird was asked by execs at WB to direct Iron Giant, not max. Max was told to stay out of the way. Appropriate since the first 2 directors on Iron Giant were smart enough to flee WB once they realized what a mess max and frank had made of the place.

    • still moving on

      didn’t do anything where ever he went

    • cbat628

      This sheds some new light on my earlier position if this is indeed true. Thanks.

      BTW: Were you the “Unemployed Animator” commentor, because, if so, congrats on the new job.

      • Employed animator

        I was not the “unemployed animator” I was just trying to come up with a quick screen name to post about Max. Most times I post by my real name by in lieu of the subject I opted not to use that. But I am an animator and working in L. A.

  • BBL

    “Peter Schneider, who was appointed by Roy Disney to run Feature Animation, had a strong live theatre background. In his new role, he found running an animation studio a lot like running a theatrical repertory company. ”

    Yes, and if he had come from convenience store management, he would have determined that running an animation studio was a lot like running a 7-11.

    When I was at Disney in the mid-90s (NOT in the animation department) there was a corporate meme for finding those screwball hires from other disciplines. Sometimes it appeared to work, but IMO it was only because most of Disney functions due to talented people who find ways to do quality work despite ill-equipped (and creatively delusional) Disney executives.

    However, WDFA Vet is FAR more qualified than I to determine if that applied to Peter Schneider. My contact with DFA was limited and at the Don Hahn, Eric Goldberg level. However, considering the executive trash talk about Schneider that I regularly overheard, Peter may have been OK. Entrenched Disney executives hate competence in their peers. (OK, I admit that last IS sour grapes. LOL)

    • 90′s WDFA Vet

      “Yes, and if he had come from convenience store management, he would have determined that running an animation studio was a lot like running a 7-11.”

      Hah! You’ll get no argument from me there.

  • Max Howard is Useless

    In Max’s stint at Dreamworks, he further proved he knew nothing about animation…. Daily.

    Why do animation studios perpetually hire people that know nothing about animation at all, and put them in charge?

    It demoralizes a crew, seeing somebody without credentials at the helm, and really makes you ponder at who hired them in the first place… Ahem…..Katzenburg.

    And then these douchebags fall upward into even better positions at other studios…. They make a lifetime career out of being ABSOLUTELY INEPT.

    And people actually pay this stooge money for his lecture tour???? WTF?

    • Michael Grabowski

      Isn’t this typically what executives in any industry do? It’s surely not limited to animation.

  • Darkblader

    I have a theory that Max howard is the person responsible for messing up with Quest for camelot. I have heard Lauren Faust(yes she was an animator on that movie) has stated that all the animators that worked on it hated it for it being toned down from a PG13 cartoon to a terrible Don Bluth wannabe film.

    • Anonymous for Obvious Reasons

      There is no one person responsible, though the single best candidate from where I sat would have to be Frederick. Max’s main role in Quest being screwed up was to be too removed from actually running the studio, and allowing chaos to reign.

  • Employed animator

    When Quest was first pitched it was pitched as the Braveheart of animated features with fighting and blood the whole works and I was sold, of course I was 23 at the time and this was my first real animation job. And Frank Gladstone, that is a whole other thing there. We referred to Frank as “Coco the Clown” because he wore those suspenders and he was a bozo as well. The thing is no one knows what exactly these two guys do at a studio. We dont see what work they produce or how they further anything good along. I see Max and Frank’s name still popping up and it just frustrates me that people can have such a bad track record yet studios still hire them. Who was the name of the guy who closed down the Fox studio, John somebody and he was known as “the closer”. He showed up at the end of Quest and we all got scared.

  • Was My Face Red

    O.K. so Max isn’t coming out of this too well. But hows about a discussion of when musical theatre people got it right? Were Ashman and Menkin more in tune with animation (no pun intended) so they did better work? You don’t have to be an animator to learn about the art of animation. You just need a little love for it. Did they bother, while others put all their creativity into looking good to the people above them and not getting fired? There was a time when the broadway approach really did bring large audiences back to animated features.

  • still moving on

    MAX HOWARD = impostor

  • Anonymous for Obvious Reasons

    Three Max Howard stories:

    During Quest for Camelot, Max had ‘Lunchbox’ meetings every Friday. Anyone on the production could sign up, get a free bag lunch, and ask Max anything. One Friday a guy asked if it were true that Warners was about to close Warner Digital, the in-house VFX arm of the company. Max was surprised at the question, and stated decisively that it wasn’t true. In fact, he assured everyone, if there was any thought of it on the main lot, he’d be one of the first to know, and he’d heard nothing. The guy asking the question then said that his wife worked in the payroll department at Warners, and that she’d spent the morning cutting severance checks for everyone at Warners Digital. Max looked genuinely stunned, and after a pregnant pause, the subject was changed. The next Monday, Warners announced the closure of Warner Digital.

    A couple of years later, Max was safely at DreamWorks and taking pitches, looking for a film he could produce. Two DreamWorks’ artists wrote up a novel treatment loosely based on Beowulf, with a lot of viking stuff. This was around 1999, just before the Seamus Heany translation got some press and stirred up new interest in the old poem, and well before Zemeckis had any inkling of doing a version. Max took the pitch, and said that the DreamWorks already had such a project in development. The two lads shrugged it off and went back to their drawing boards. Later that afternoon, one of the lads was dropping off some books at the DreamWorks’ reference library, and the librarian (a friend) told him Max Howard’s office had just called and asked her to send over EVERYTHING she could find on Beowulf and vikings. The lad just laughed, glad that he had wasted only one of his pitches on Max.

    A couple of years after that, Max made a point to meet one-on-one with everyone as they started working on Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, on which he was a producer. Max met with a guy who had just been promoted to animator from animating assistant, and who was very excited about the meeting. Max praised him effusively, and said that he’d really been looking forward to working with him, and that he’d heard a lot of great stuff about the guy. The animator, overcome with excitement, naively asked Max “Like what?” There was a pause. “Were there particular shots I worked on that were noticed, or something else?” Longer pause, then Max muttered something uncertain, and the guy realized that Max didn’t have the slightest clue who he was until he’d walked into that office.

    That’s Max in a nutshell: pretending to be in the loop when he’s not, pretending to know how to develop and shepherd projects when he doesn’t, and pretending to know things he doesn’t. But he IS absolutely a sweet, pleasant guy.

    • Max Howard is Useless

      “…a sweet, pleasant guy.” …..And ABSOLUTELY USELESS.

  • Ken

    Hm. All I know is that Max took Bill Kroyer off Quest for Camelot and the rest is history. Quest for Camelot became the worst animated motion picture in history. As for Max’s role in getting Brad Bird? I know Iron Giant was being developed well before Brad came along, but Brad was proactive in cutting out the layers of red-tape attached to getting anything done there and one of those layers was Max.Iron Giant became one of the finest animated motion pictures in history.

    Nevertheless, Max is a sweet, pleasant guy.

    • Anonymous for Obvious Reasons

      My understanding is that Bill and Sue Kroyer quit in disgust after Frank Gladstone and Frederick Du Chau went behind their backs and put their own version of Quest together and showed it to the brass on the main lot in a back-door power play. The brass were apparently underwhelmed, and upset at the chaos happening at WBFA. In all the recriminations, Bill and Sue said enough is enough, made a deal to develop a different project at Warners, and jumped off the sinking ship. I never heard which side Max took in that fiasco, but it speaks volumes that those kinds of shenanigans went on under his watch. I never heard the full story, and I’m sure every participant in the mess has their own version, but that’s what I got from some people who were close to it.

  • Yvette Kaplan

    As it does whenever this sort of thing happens here, it makes me sad to see a site that should be celebrating animation–or at the other end of the spectrum, questioning it–attacking an individual instead.

    Please move on.

    • so what?

      he offended quite a few talented artists around him. the guy is just an nasty fake what do you expect?

  • Lucy

    Actually it was Max Howard who found the log line for Iron Giant, ordered the story treatment and went on to order the script treatment. He then employed Brad Bird to direct the movie and was increasingly frustrated by Warners lack of enthusiasm to get behind the movie and promote it.

    • Anonymous for Obvious Reasons

      Lucy, I find your post hard to believe. Where did you get this information?

      When Brad Bird gave the first presentation about The Iron Giant to the crew working on Quest (this would have been mid-1997ish), he indicated that the premise (“What if a gun had a soul”) was his idea. I don’t recall any mention of Max playing any hand in the premise, or the treatment Brad wrote, or the screenplay he had just finished. Bird also stated that he’d been shown all the properties in development at WBFA, and a particular Iron Giant development painting (I think by Mark Whiting) caught his attention, and so he selected that project to direct. In other words, he selected himself, though perhaps it was Max who recruited him to consider working at WBFA in the first place. Bird took the Iron Giant project in a completely different direction that it had been going, I know that for certain, since I’d seen some of the earlier development work. If you read the Ted White book, or see the Pete Townshend version (Townshend brought the project to Warners, hoping to do the music), you’ll know that Brad Bird only really kept the boy and the robot, and jettisoned the rest.

      Brad Bird said much the same in this 1999 interview.

      • Jon Hooper

        I believe Warners inherited Brad along with everyone at Turner Feature Animation when we were merged with Warner Feature Animation in the Turner/WB merger.

        He was working on Ray Gunn at Turner when the merger happened. So Max had nothing to do with bringing Brad on board, he was there as a result of circumstance.

    • Bud

      “Actually it was Max Howard who found the log line for Iron Giant, ordered the story treatment and went on to order the script treatment. ”

      Simply not true. The project was in active development a year before Max was even hired at Warner Brothers. And the executives at Warners (main lot) were responsible for employing Brad onto the film. max was barely involved in the project at all.

  • greg m.

    Well, I see a lot of half truths being thrown around here. I have known Max since getting hired on “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” and know him as an eager, enthusiastic and fair Producer and Employer. Being at the top, overseeing a division of a major film studio might be a little more complicated than most of us will ever know. I call him a friend and would gladly work with him again.

    • ANTI BROWN N.

      everyone’s friend no one’s friend

    • Bud

      [Comment removed by editors. Per our commenting guidelines, "Be considerate and respectful of others in the discussion. Defamatory, rude, or unnecessarily antagonistic comments will be deleted."]

  • ANTI BROWN N. dpt

    everyone’s friend no one’s friend…

    • ANTI BROWN N.

      HEY BUD, WE UNDERSTAND EACH OTHER.