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Disney Fires Film Production President

Nina Jacobson will be replaced by marketing head Oren Aviv as the company revamps unit.

July 19, 2006|Claudia Eller | Times Staff Writer

Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group President Nina Jacobson has become the first high-level casualty of a major restructuring of the studio's movie operation that will see 650 employees lose their jobs and will save the Burbank company $90 million to $100 million a year in overhead.

Jacobson, 40, one of Hollywood's most respected movie executives, was fired Monday morning by her boss, studio Chairman Dick Cook, when she called him from the hospital room where her partner was about to deliver their third child. Despite the record-breaking performance of Disney's current release, "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," she was hearing rumors and wanted reassurance that her job was safe. It wasn't. Cook told Jacobson -- who had two years to go on her three-year contract -- that Oren Aviv, the studio's marketing chief, was replacing her as president of production.

Cook offered Jacobson a production deal at the studio, which she declined.

"I would rather start fresh with something new," she said Tuesday. "I feel very sad to be leaving a job that I have loved."

Cook called Jacobson a "good friend, great colleague and tireless worker." Acknowledging that the timing was bad, Cook said, "I begged to see her face to face and she wanted to talk to me right then. This was not what anybody wanted."

In a news release hastily issued late Tuesday, the studio detailed its much anticipated revamping of its movie division.

The studio will consolidate its domestic and international theatrical and home entertainment marketing and distribution operations under two executives. Mark Zoradi, who was head of Disney's international operation, will oversee the distribution and marketing of Disney and Touchstone movies worldwide. Robert Chapek will head the studio's new global home entertainment division.

Cook said consolidating the studio's global operations made sense. "A significant amount of our revenue comes from international," he said. "There are some great savings to be had."

The consolidation will reduce the studio's global workforce by about 20%, divided equally between Disney's U.S. operations and its overseas units.

The only units that will not be affected, Cook said, are Disney's and Pixar's animation operations; the studio's specialty label, Miramax Films; the music group; and Disney's stage production unit.

Disney also confirmed details of its plans to focus its production and marketing muscle on its Disney-branded films that can be exploited across its various business units, including the Disney Channel, theme parks, consumer products, publishing and interactive games.

Cook said the studio planned to produce about 10 Disney live action and animated movies a year plus two to three films under its older-skewing Touchstone Pictures label. Asked why he chose Aviv, despite his relative lack of production experience, Cook called him "a great executive with fabulous taste who not only has great knowledge of the business but the Disney brand."

Aviv has worked at Disney for 15 years, during which he executive-produced two films: Disney's 2004 hit "National Treasure" and the 1997 dud "Rocket Man."

Jim Gallagher will replace Aviv as marketing president.

With Aviv's promotion, Disney becomes the second studio to put a marketing executive in charge of picking movies. In March, Universal Pictures marketing chief Marc Shmuger replaced Stacey Snider as chairman of that studio after she left.

Many in Hollywood were shocked that Jacobson, an eight-year veteran of the studio, was fired even as Disney was enjoying the riches of one of the franchises she nurtured. The "Pirates" sequel has grossed more than $250 million in 10 days.

In an interview, "Pirates" producer Jerry Bruckheimer said of Jacobson: "We had a great run together, and I wish her well."

Like any studio executive, Jacobson has had a mixed track record. She is credited with such blockbusters as last year's "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," M. Night Shyamalan's "The Sixth Sense" and Bruckheimer's "Remember the Titans." She also oversaw such costly misses as "The Alamo" and "Hildalgo."

"Alamo" producer Mark Johnson said as disappointed as she was, Jacobson "never turned on" the director of the film or Johnson himself.

"She is the best studio executive I have ever worked with. You know where you stand with her," said Johnson, who went on to produce "Narnia."

Industry insiders believe Jacobson, who also took creative risks on offbeat films such as Wes Anderson's "A Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou" and Joel and Ethan Coen's "The Ladykillers" -- both box-office bombs -- took the fall for Disney's spotty track record over the last two years.

If so, some said, that was a shame.

"She is one of the best executives in the business," said Sony Pictures movie chief Amy Pascal. "Talent loves her and she knows how to walk the tricky tightrope that all of us in these jobs have to walk, navigating commerce and art."

On Tuesday, Jacobson recalled some advice Bruckheimer gave her on her first day on the job: "There are two kinds of people in this job: the ones who think they'll have it forever and the ones who know they won't." She tried, she said, "to treat the job as a privilege, not an entitlement."

Times staff writer Lorenza Munoz contributed to this report.

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