EXCLUSIVE: D23′s Steven Clark on Free Membership, New Archive Finds and D23 Expo

D23 Membership CardD23, the official Disney fan club, today announced a brand new free membership level option as well as a ‘re-imagined,’ gated website launching this summer. We had the opportunity to talk with D23 head Steven Clark who told us about the exciting changes as well as some of the amazing things D23 members of all levels have to look forward to in the upcoming months.

A few years ago, D23 introduced introduced its Gold and Silver levels. Separated by price, the two levels are identical save for the fact that Gold members receive a subscription to the oversized, full-color Disney twenty-three magazine with an exclusive gift. Then, silver members and non-members alike were able to purchase the magazine (without the gift) at newsstands or DisneyStore.com, but a recent announcement has now limited the magazine to just gold members. According to Clark, even back issues currently available on the DisneyStore.com website will no longer be available to anyone.

Now, there is an additional third level, which will offer D23 membership for free. ‘The free level of membership is something we’ve wanted to do since the beginning of D23,’ Clark told us, ‘but as you can imagine sometimes something as simple as a free level of membership has complexity to it and we’ve finally been able to actually make that happen. We’re in a position with where D23 is now that we are able to actually offer that free level of membership; we’re able to put in some of the bells and whistles into our website that we’ve wanted to do since the beginning. We’ve finally come to that point where we’re going to be able to offer varying levels of D23 experiences so any Disney fan — at no cost — can now have a certain amount of access to the Walt Disney Archives and Disney Legends and the access we have to all of Disney’s various business units.

‘It’s something we’ve heard of from a lot of our fans domestically, but also especially internationally. There are quite a few barriers as you could imagine to be a part of D23 if you don’t live in the U.S. So this really helps facilitate giving fans that live outside the U.S. their Disney fix,’ he added.

The free level, which will be available directly from DisneyStore.com, will grant members the same access to the newly revamped website that silver and gold members have, but it will still have its limitations. A key difference is that while free D23 members will receive a membership number as well as the Weekly D23 FanFare E-newsletter and the ability to purchase member-exclusive items from DisneyStore.com, they will not receive the physical benefits such as membership card, membership certificate and annual gift, that silver and gold members enjoy. With no membership card, free level D23 members will be unable to partake in many of the D23 member discounts with partners as well as many D23 member events. While Clark says there may be such opportunities afforded to free level members, popular events such as Destination D, Sip ‘N Stroll and ‘probably even Fanniversaries,’ will require a paid level of membership. That said, free level members will be eligible to purchase the 2013 Disney D23 Expo tickets with a D23 member discount and will fully receive D23 member benefits at the Expo, such as early access to the floor each morning.

Arguably the much bigger news, however, is the relaunch of the D23.com website on June 17. The newly ‘re-imagined’ site will feature rich multi-media content that’s exclusive to D23 members, featuring content inspired by the monthly magazine as well as newly discovered finds inside the Walt Disney Archives that have never been displayed in public, or perhaps even seen by many inside the company for decades.

Some content will still be publicly accessible on the new website, but it will serve primarily as a teaser for all levels of D23 members to ‘unlock the magic’ by clicking a Mickey keyhole icon associated with the article. One example of content that is likely to be featured is newly discovered art from Disney Legend Herb Ryman. ‘I think there’s about ten in this case,’ Clark explains, ‘we might put one up, but if you’re a member, you can see the other nine.’

And newly discovered art from some of Disney’s most revered artists and imagineers is only the tip of the iceberg. Clark explains: ‘Since I took over the archives in 2006, we’ve been squirreling away really great — whether it’s a memo or artwork or sketches, it could be from anything to animation to live action to parks — you know, little things that we’ve found just — you know maybe they’re not big enough to put together a whole story behind or maybe it’s not enough to do a presentation at the D23 Expo about, but really cool stuff that we know that our fans will love and we’re looking at doling that out, to start with, 23 days of really great archival finds. After that, we’ll have more of a weekly or a certain cadence after that.

‘Some of the things that we’ve been discovering in the archives, you see some of them from time to time during various presentations that we do like “Weird Disney” that we’ve done during our “Destination D” events or our Fanniversary events, but this gives us a more regular venue by which we can really share all the stuff that we’ve uncovered.’

And from the sounds of it, Clark is being rather modest in terms of what we can anticipate when the new D23.com site goes live. He tells us about one of the first items to be featured (which we can’t reveal to you just yet):  ‘It wasn’t too long ago, [Walt Disney Archives Director Becky Cline] and I and a couple of the archivists were in one of the warehouses of the Archives — it’s not like a jaw-dropping “wow, look at all this amazing cool Disney stuff on the shelf,” they’re all in boxes. So it’s rows and rows and rows of boxes. And we happen to come across one box that said “Walt’s Office” and we pulled it off the shelf and when we looked inside… it was just an amazing find.’

As it turns out, the recent unearthing of many of these rare treasures from within the warehouses owes itself a lot to D23 itself. ‘[Walt Disney Archives founder] Dave Smith really did an excellent job of preserving all this stuff because when you think about it, when he started the archives, he had 50 years of Disney history to catalog and collect from ground zero and he did a great job, you know, starting that process, but then as the company grew during the Eisner era, the archives staff didn’t grow at the same rate, so a lot of it was just trying to keep up and keeping things that were essential for research at their fingertips, while the rest of the stuff went into boxes and went out to the warehouses — it’s just not possible to catalog it all. With a lot of the D23 events and Disney twenty-three magazine articles we’ve been doing, we’ve been doing more and more research, so we’ve had more and more people that are really scouring through these files and that’s where you’re finding all these gems. There are a lot of things that no matter where you fall on the Disney scale… we found the early WED assignment sheets — which Imagineer was assigned to which project, things like alternates for the Haunted Mansion scripts and sketches from a lot of the different upcoming animated features or scenes that weren’t used.’

Another key to discovering items is a change of focus. ‘Where we’ve been finding a lot of this really cool stuff is not just in our art files but we started really because of the research we’ve been doing for D23 stories — we’ve been digging into the actual files of the executives. So whether it’s Dick Irvine’s files… Joe Potter, Roy O. Disney — there’s a lot of really great stuff in there and so that’s been a gold mine. And then also just randomly as we’re researching things, we’ll come across boxes that are loosely categorized as art and we’ll find all the concept art for TRON, Black Hole and a bunch of other films — I think at the Expo this year, you’re going to be really pleasantly surprised, I think, if you’re a Mary Poppins fan — amazing, amazing artwork that has never been seen before.’

Speaking of Archives founder (and Disney Legend) Dave Smith, his quintessential guide to all that is Disney, Disney A-Z: The Official Encyclopedia will soon be available as a complete, updated edition electronically, accessible via the D23.com website. D23 worked with Disney Publishing Worldwide to make it possible so that the popular title will be accessible free to all D23 members and will be a living document, updated and kept current by Smith himself.

Regular features from Disney twenty-three magazine will also find new life online: ‘We have some areas that are focused specifically on Walt so the “Walk with Walt” section that’s in the magazine will be expanded and will live online and then we also have “Quotable Walt Disney,” so it’ll be an online version of the quote book, and one thing that’s really cool about that is that, again, in all of our research, we have found a lot of Walt quotes that have never been used before.

‘We’re also doing these micro-sites for Disney Legends, so a much more robust site than what currently exists. We also oversee the Disney Legends program, so I really wanted that website to be up to date and have more than just a bio but also have photo galleries and interviews where possible, sometimes we’ll actually have the legends come in and do some sort of online interview so that our fans can actually ask questions of the legends. So it’s great if you’re not able to go to one of our events, you can still have access to our legends through the website.’

Clark sums it all up with this: ‘In my view, it’s almost like there’s a whole new bumper crop of quotes and photos and documentation and artwork and information that we’ve kind of been coming across and I think that there’s noone out there in the world that cares more about this than people that are members of D23 and so it’s time to give it to them.’

We also had the opportunity to talk with Clark briefly about D23 Expo, which will take place at the Anaheim Convention Center August 9-11, 2013. Addressing concerns that have naturally come with growing pains, Clark told us, ‘This year, we have put in a lot of new procedures, larger venues, things like that, to really do our best to mitigate the capacity issue and waiting in line issue.’ He pointed out various changes such as the 2,000 seat overflow area that will provide seating and a live feed for those unable to get into the 4,000 seat arena. Additionally, the Stage 23 presentation room has more than doubled in size and a wristband system will be in place to allow attendees the opportunity to register for presentations on the 2nd and 3rd floors without necessarily having to wait in line.

Unfortunately one change that won’t be happening — at least this year — is Marvel and Lucasfilm will be noticeably absent from the ‘Treasures of the Walt Disney Archives’ exhibit. ‘Right now, Marvel retains a lot of the props and costumes from their films, just like Animation keeps a lot of their assets. We don’t have, for example, the props and costumes from The Avengers, Marvel retains all those assets, but we have a really great relationship with [Marvel Studios President of Production] Kevin Feige and he lets us borrow assets whenever we do exhibits like the Reagan exhibit.’

As for Lucasfilm, Clark says the relationship is just too soon to tell: ‘We haven’t crossed that bridge yet, what I do know is that with the new movie, we will retain all the assets. I hope that the archives will get them all because I’m a huge Star Wars fan and I really want them all in my office. [laughs].

‘We don’t have anything on those two fronts this year, but I can guarantee you’ll be seeing stuff in the future.’

According to the official press release, D23 members also have the following to look forward to:

  • 23 Questions – We enhance our popular feature with audio interviews with ‘Once Upon A Time’ star Ginnifer Goodwin who reveals her Disney favorites—and what she’s looking forward to in the next season of the hit ABC show. Plus an exclusive with Phineas and Ferb’s popular ‘evil mastermind’ Dr. Heinz Doofenschmirtz, who talks about his truly devious plans… and Christmas.
  • D’scovered – Treasures unearthed by the Walt Disney Archives. In the coming weeks the Archives will share extremely rare imagery from the proposed Mickey Mouse Park, a concept which evolved into Disneyland; spine-tingling alternative dialogue for the Haunted Mansion penned by Disney Legend X. Atencio; the illustrated story script for The Karnival Kid, the 1929 short in which Mickey Mouse first speaks; and a very special memento created for Walt by legendary artist Salvador Dali.
  • D23 Presents – A deeper dive into all parts of Disney from the opening of Mystic Manor in Hong Kong Disneyland to rarely seen footage of the former Disney Studio on Hyperion Avenue.
  • New departments and sections including: Weird Disney, looking at some of the more unusual and outrageous pieces of Disney’s past; Characters, profiling the most beloved characters from television, film and comics with concept art and complete biographies; The Quotable Walt Disney, a digitized version of the out-of-print book featuring some of Walt’s most enduring words; Ask a Legend, a video feature in which Disney Legends like Marty Sklar answer fans questions; First Look, which gives members a glimpse into what’s new and what’s next including Monsters University; Attraction Rewind, celebrating the beloved attractions of Disney’s past which once delighted theme park guests; and Muppetology, which opens up the Muppet-acular universe of our fuzzy friends. D23’s popular video series Armchair Archivist and Disney Geek will also return with all-new episodes.

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