Nina Jacobson realized how "prudish" she'd become when she took her two children, ages 3 and 5, to see "The Lizzie McGuire Movie" in the theater. The 38-year-old president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group had made the movie, so she thought she knew what to expect. What she hadn't made was the trailer playing beforehand.
"There were allusions to drug use and someone getting the munchies. I was horrified!" She riffs on trying to explain to your children a G-rated meaning for munchies. "My kids aren't ready to be finding out about drugs. There were allusions to sex. I've not only become my mother. I've become worse than my mother," she says with a laugh. "I don't want my kids seeing that."
Unlike most moms though, Jacobson could do something about it. She called up the head of distribution, who in turn called the theater owner to complain. "Childhood is so truncated, at least in America and in most Western cultures," she says. "I want to prolong it as long as possible for my kids and other people's kids."
In retrospect, it seems like it should have been an obvious decision to put a mom in charge of the biggest family label in the world -- especially since mothers drive the market, influencing what their children see and usually chauffeuring the brood to the cineplex.
Yet when Jacobson ascended to the job of picking all the live-action movies in the Disney empire four years ago, there were eyebrows raised around town. The company had recently hemorrhaged executive talent. Jacobson felt it very directly -- losing her boss, Joe Roth, as well as her former partner in the position, Todd Garner (and, soon after, her next boss, Peter Schneider).
She was hardly your classic titan-in-training, speed-dialing through multiple power breakfasts but a forthright anti-schmoozer who eschewed the town's frenetic social-work circuit, an openly gay woman in a committed relationship. She was also newly pregnant, a fact she then revealed to her bosses so they knew precisely what they were getting into.
"At the beginning, a lot of people thought she was one level under the job," recalls producer Scott Rudin, who produced "The Royal Tenenbaums" at the studio. "She's proved everybody wrong. She's had an incredible run, and she's made a bunch of movies others wouldn't have made and she was right on every one. They feel aimed between New York and L.A. while everyone else is aiming at New York and L.A. They've all scored. She has a particular personal appreciation for sophisticated things and a tremendous ability to understand the unsophisticated things, which I envy."
Four years later, she -- along with her new boss, Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook -- has presided over a banner year at the box office. Michael Eisner might be suffering through a stagnant stock price, difficulties at the network, low theme park attendance and the very public rebuke by former Disney director Roy Disney, but in 2003 the studio had the best year in industry history, grossing more than $3 billion worldwide, more than Fox during its "Titanic" glory or Sony the year it spawned "Spider-Man."
A chunk of the riches does derive from the year's biggest title, Pixar's "Finding Nemo," but the rest comes from Jacobson's divisions, which not only had the year's second-biggest title, "Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl" ($305 million domestically), but several surprise $100-million hits, including "Freaky Friday" and "Bringing Down the House." In a year long on sequels with escalating battle sequences, much of the Disney fare was fresh and clever ... even when it was derived from a lowly theme park ride.
Moreover, the films weren't just popular, they were profitable. Along with Jacobson's ascension came a mandate from Eisner to further cut costs and to make more comedies and inspirational fare that were traditionally the Disney staple.
Some of the biggest hits, such as last year's odes to Americana "The Rookie" and "Sweet Home Alabama," cost close to half the $60-million average of films these days.
The studio also borrowed a page from the earlier Jeffrey Katzenberg regime, and cast under-used but talented stars, such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Queen Latifah, Dennis Quaid and even Johnny Depp to great, career-remaking effect.
Focus on fractured families
On a recent Thursday morning, Jacobson exudes all the zeal of a young mother concerned with the effects of pop culture on developing minds. She's just dropped off her two children at nursery school and kissed her partner goodbye and is now eating a crepe in a modest Santa Monica restaurant. Small with dark, curly hair, she sports a dusky blue suit, which has somehow been reconstituted with both a black and a white T-shirt to suggest more funkiness than power.
As Jacobson describes her job, she loads the chamber with bullets, and Cook, a 32-year veteran of the company, actually pulls the trigger.