2023 marks the centenary of The Walt Disney Company. The story of Disney’s success is often dominated by the iconic figures of Walt Disney and his brother Roy O. Disney. Yet behind the scenes, there was another key player who played a crucial and profound role in shaping the destiny of the Disney brand during its formative years – Margaret J. Winkler.
Margaret J. Winkler was a trailblazer who recognised the potential of animation as a storytelling medium and played a pivotal role in bringing animated content to a broader audience. As the leading distributor of animated cartoons in the 1920s (and indeed the only female leader in this male-dominated world), her company, M. J. Winkler Productions, distributed and financed several of the most significant animated series of the period.
In 1923, Margaret Winkler agreed to produce and distribute Alice Comedies, a new series by Walt Disney. That contract is considered the founding document of The Walt Disney Company. The foundation she helped lay became the bedrock upon which The Walt Disney Company built its empire.
Here we take a look at Winkler’s pivotal role in the professionalisation of the animation industry, and her integral role in Disney’s story.
Margaret Winkler was born in Hungary in 1895 and moved to New York City as a child. She was aged 18 when she began her career in entertainment as the personal secretary for studio executive Harry M. Warner – one of the founders of Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers was strictly a film distributor through most of the silent era, and Harry Warner was the man who made the deals.
In 1917, Warner Brothers began distributing cartoons of Mutt and Jeff in New York and New Jersey. Through working with Warner and attending conventions, Winkler gained considerable knowledge and experience in film distribution through the nationwide network of film exchanges and the process of selling state rights
Warner also recognised Winkler’s aptitude for business, and when Max and Dave Fleischer (owners of Fleischer Studios), came to him with their Out of the Inkwell series, he suggested Winkler handle its distribution.
Creation of M. J. Winkler Productions
Winkler’s responsibilities expanded from distributing to producing. In 1921 when she was aged 26, Warner encouraged her to start her own company to produce and distribute animated cartoons – a time when the industry was still in its infancy and reliable distribution channels were key.
Disguising her gender, Winkler named her company ‘M. J. Winkler Productions’ – an important professional tactic at a time when discrimination could lead partners to disregard or underestimate her business ability. While a number of trade press articles referred to her as “Miss Winkler”, her directly-placed advertisements typically only referred to the company name, as did the cartoon title cards.
In late 1921, Winker signed a contract with Pat Sullivan Productions to distribute a standalone series of Felix the Cat cartoons. These were already one of the most popular features of the Paramount Magazine reel, but thanks to Winkler’s talent for identifying and building a market for them, this standalone series made Felix the most famous cartoon character of the 1920s worldwide. Within months of the first instalment’s availability, Winkler had sold the series on a state-rights basis across much of America.
Winkler’s strategic business practices included promoting her successful sales in trade press. This marketed the cartoon to exhibitors but also created a perception of the series’ popularity and scarcity.
Securing prestigious first-run venues for Felix also garnered attention from industry figures, enabling further widespread promotion. Winkler also capitalised on Felix’s popularity through tie-in arrangements, including soft toy dolls and a syndicated coloured comic supplement, setting the series apart from other cartoons of the time.
In 1922 Winkler gained another contract to distribute the Out of the Inkwell series for Fleischer Studios – cementing her reputation as the cartoon world’s top distributor. After this, a number of trade press articles addressed her unusual status as a female distributor. However, by the end of the year, the Fleischer brothers, flushed with success as a result of Winkler’s work, left to form their own distribution company, Red Seal Pictures.
Meanwhile, although the Felix the Cat cartoons helped Winkler’s business, producer Pat Sullivan and Winkler were constantly bickering over his unrealistic demands.
Winkler was therefore particularly open to a pilot reel, Alice’s Wonderland (1923), submitted to her by a fledgling yet ambitious animator called Walt Disney.
Recognising Disney’s talent and innovative approach to animation, Winkler struck a deal with Disney, signing a year-long 12 episode contract to distribute a series of short films called the Alice Comedies, despite the fact that the small animation studio, ‘Laugh-O-Gram Studio’, who made the cartoon was now nearly bankrupt. These films featured a live-action girl interacting with an animated world, creating a unique and captivating blend of live-action and animation that intrigued Winkler.
This collaboration would mark the beginning of a partnership that would significantly impact the future of animation.
Disney subsequently formed a new studio, ‘Disney Brothers Cartoon Studio’, on 16 October 1923 (the first cartoon studio in Hollywood), and soon changed its name to ‘Walt Disney Productions’. Under the tutelage of Winkler (who insisted on editing all of the Alice Comedies herself), Disney fulfilled the terms of their contract. It’s thought that Walt Disney would not have been able to make the Alice films without his contract with Winkler due to the financial return it guaranteed.
Winkler’s contract with Disney stated that their cartoons needed to be produced in a ‘high-class manner…and satisfactory to the Distributor’, and Winkler regularly pushed Disney to improve the quality and timeliness of their films.
One of Winkler’s suggestions was the addition of a suspiciously Felix-like character called Julius. This was the last straw for Pat Sullivan, who then signed Felix the Cat with a rival distributor, ‘Educational Pictures’ in 1925.
Winkler’s role and experience as a distributor was pivotal in bringing Disney’s creations to a wider audience. Her keen business sense enabled her to navigate the complex landscape of the film industry, securing deals that allowed Disney’s work to be seen by more people. Winkler’s understanding of the needs of exhibitors also shaped the production practices of animation studios, implementing the business practices used for the Felix the Cat series in the distribution of the Disney cartoons.
The success of the Alice Comedies led to a growing demand for Disney’s animation, and Winkler and Disney continued their collaboration, creating more innovative and entertaining content.
Marriage and later support of Disney
In November 1923, Margaret Winkler married Charles B. Mintz, another distributor who she had met during their time at Warner Brothers and who had been brought on to Winkler’s production company as a business partner in 1922.
As an independent distributor with savvy marketing expertise, Winkler had demonstrated the economic viability and potential of animated cartoons. Ironically, this helped exclude her from the industry as – like most American woman of the time – after her marriage, Winkler’s involvement in the business declined. By 1926 she retired from the film industry following the birth of their two children, Katherine and William, turning her now-established company over to her husband.
Mintz began demanding lower budgets and increased production from Walt Disney, marking a shift in their working relationship. 1927 saw Disney’s new fully-animated short series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, debut to the public, but although Winkler had played a role negotiating the initial deal along with Mintz, significantly she now had little other involvement.
As the series gained popularity, tensions arose between Disney and Mintz over creative control and financial matters, and Disney discovered that he had lost the rights to Oswald due to legal loopholes in the contract.
Amidst this turmoil, Winkler continued to support Disney. Recognising his talent and determination, she encouraged him to develop a new character. Walt Disney had conceived the idea of a new character, Mickey Mouse, during a train ride from New York to Los Angeles, and Winkler, understanding its potential, stood by him to help secure a distribution deal for the new series.
In 1928, Steamboat Willie premiered (Disney’s first film with sound), introducing the world to Mickey Mouse and marking the beginning of a new era in animation. Its success was unprecedented, catapulting Disney into the forefront of the entertainment industry with the character becoming a cultural phenomenon. Winkler’s role in navigating the aftermath of the Oswald incident and supporting Disney’s transition to Mickey Mouse cannot be overstated.
The success of Mickey Mouse laid the groundwork for Disney’s future endeavours, including the creation of other iconic characters like Donald Duck, Goofy, and Pluto. Although no longer involved, Winkler’s influence persisted, with the lessons learned during their early collaboration with Winkler shaping Disney’s approach to storytelling, character development, and animation techniques.
Margaret J. Winkler died aged 95 on 21 June 1990 in Mamaroneck, New York.
While Winkler’s contributions to Disney’s success are often overshadowed by the legacy of Walt Disney himself, her role as a pioneering distributor, negotiator, and supporter of innovative talent cannot be ignored. In the male-dominated industry of the early 20th century, Winkler broke barriers and played a crucial role in the evolution of animation as an art form and a lucrative profitable business, as well as a vital part of film worldwide.
As Disney continued to grow, diversify, and shape the entertainment landscape, the lessons learned from their early partnership with Winkler – resilience during challenging times, the importance of creative control, and the significance of iconic characters – remain ingrained in the company’s DNA.