Emerson Elementary has received an outpouring of support after dealing with a licensing fee demand from Disney. Photo: Frances Dinkelspiel

The Walt Disney Company has not only waived a $250 fee it previously demanded for a Lion King screening at Emerson Elementary, but the conglomerate’s CEO has pledged to personally donate to the Berkeley school.

Over the last week, the story of the entertainment giant extracting a fee from an elementary school PTA has become international news.

Berkeleyside first reported on the circumstances Friday, the day after Disney’s licensing agency sent a letter to Emerson’s principal and PTA. The letter accused the group of violating copyright law by screening The Lion King at a movie night in the fall, where the Emerson Dads Club raised funds for the PTA through an optional $15 entrance fee. Movie Licensing USA said Emerson could make amends by paying $250 or buying a $536 annual license.

By this Wednesday, a laundry list of local and national publications, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, had stories on the incident.

On Wednesday evening, Barbara Nelson of Swank Motion Pictures emailed Emerson.

“Disney has instructed us to not pursue the fee for this situation,” she said. “While we, and the Studios we represent, take unauthorized works seriously, we understand that this situation, done in error, was not a malicious act.”

Our company @WaltDisneyCo apologizes to the Emerson Elementary School PTA and I will personally donate to their fund raising initiative.— Robert Iger (@RobertIger) February 6, 2020

On Thursday morning, Disney’s Chairman and CEO Robert Iger said on Twitter that the company apologizes to the PTA.

“I will personally donate to their fund raising initiative,” he Tweeted, garnering nearly 2,000 “likes” in an hour.

Lori Droste, the Berkeley City Councilwoman and Emerson parent who publicized Disney’s demands, said she wasn’t shocked that the company backtracked.

“They’ve generated significant bad PR,” she said in a phone interview Thursday morning. ” I think it was too much for them to bear.”

Droste and BUSD said donations have poured in for Emerson’s PTA in the wake of the licensing demand. A BUSD spokeswoman said she’s fielded phone calls from celebrities who want to make private contributions. Droste said Emerson’s gotten donations from almost every state — so many, in fact, that she tweeted that concerned citizens should donate to their own neighborhood school’s PTA instead.

“We thank everyone who’s been so supportive,” she told Berkeleyside. “We’re certainly not going to turn down donations, but there are plenty of deserving schools throughout California. That clearly is the issue resonating with folks across the nation: why are schools struggling?”

Droste has repeatedly linked the Disney saga to Proposition 13, the 1978 California law — up for partial repeal in November — that capped property tax increases and slashed revenue for the state’s public schools. The 2020 reform effort would allow property taxes to go up for large companies like Disney.

Not everyone has been cheering Emerson on. Several people on social media and in Berkeleyside’s comment section have said one school shouldn’t get special treatment for breaking a law, however inadvertently, that thousands of schools across the country follow.

Berkeleyside has reached out to the Emerson principal and PTA for further comment.

Ed. note: This story was updated after publication to correct information about the Proposition 13 reform effort. 

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...