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Disney's clash at the top

Studio chief Dick Cook's 38-year career that began as a Monorail operator ends abruptly after he chafes CEO Bob Iger.

September 21, 2009|Claudia Eller and Dawn C. Chmielewski

After 38 years, the end for Dick Cook came in less than 10 minutes.

The chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who began his career as a Monorail operator at Disneyland and went on to launch billion-dollar franchises like "Pirates of the Caribbean" and woo filmmaker Steven Spielberg to the studio, didn't know what was in store when his boss casually mentioned Tuesday that he wanted to see him for a few minutes later in the day.

Cook had back-to-back meetings that afternoon but was finally free to see Bob Iger at 5:30. He left his office on the sixth floor of the Team Disney Building in Burbank and walked down the hall to the chief executive's suite.

Iger got directly to the point. He told Cook that after a "lot of thought," he wanted to "make a change" at the studio that would affect Cook's job, according to accounts of the meeting. "We need to go in a different direction," said Iger, offering little explanation other than to say that people were complaining that the studio was overly secretive, uncooperative and isolated from the other divisions. When Cook pressed for examples, Iger demurred. The two executives shook hands, and Cook left Iger's office.

Cook, who has more than three years remaining on his contract, afterward told colleagues that he was stunned by the sudden turn of events.

He shouldn't have been.

It had been clear for some time that Cook and Iger were traveling different paths. The 59-year-old Cook knew he didn't fit Iger's mold, and they differed in both style and substance. The movie chief had steadily climbed the Disney corporate ladder over a nearly four-decade career but is not the prototypical Hollywood executive. The Bakersfield native wasn't embarrassed to wear Mickey Mouse ties and say "gosh," and he could be equally comfortable among ego-driven movie stars and small-town theater operators. His folksy nature stood in contrast to Iger, who is controlled, contained and cerebral. Iger, a onetime TV weatherman, oversaw the ABC network and ultimately assumed the helm of Walt Disney Co.

Iger has limited his comments about Cook's departure to the prepared statement he released last week, saying, "On behalf of everyone at Disney, we wish him the best."

The most recent moment of tension between the two executives came just four days before their Tuesday meeting. The studio had deliberately withheld the names of the big stars and filmmakers whom Cook was going to present at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, the inaugural convention for Disney fans that the company hoped would attract tens of thousands of attendees, a perfect opportunity for the entertainment giant to promote its movies, TV shows and theme parks.

Although Cook allowed his corporate colleagues to publicize the appearance of Nicolas Cage, who stars in the studio's big 2010 summer movie "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," he nonetheless intentionally didn't disclose to them his biggest headliners: "Pirates of the Caribbean" star Johnny Depp, teenage pop sensation Miley Cyrus and directors Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton. Cook, angling for a showstopper, wanted to wow the paying crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center with a surprise, and he didn't want it spoiled by a leak. Attendance at the four-day event, initially below internal projections, finally sold out.

The move, rather than impressing Cook's superiors, instead exacerbated relations. It was viewed as a classic example of Cook's play-it-close-to-the-vest style, said people at the studio who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak.

Once again, Cook had demonstrated a preference to go with his gut over the "Team Disney" style of management that is ingrained in the company's ethos. Iger is known to value collaboration across Disney's various operating divisions and grew increasingly irritated by the studio's flying-solo approach.

"He felt the studio was an island," said one person familiar with the situation. "And he couldn't penetrate that island."

Almost from the moment Iger was named to succeed Michael Eisner in 2005, there were signs that he and Cook had conflicting views about the future of the movie business.

In 2005 Iger publicly raised the notion of closing the gap between a movie's release in theaters and its sale on DVD to give consumers the choice of seeing films whenever they want it, be it on the big screen, in their living rooms or on portable devices. He was the first Hollywood chief executive to suggest changing the age-old practice of showing movies in theaters months before they're available in other media.

"I think that all the old rules should be called into question because the rules in terms of consumption have changed so dramatically," Iger said at the time, conceding, "I'm sure we'll get a fair amount of push-back there from the industry."

Iger got push-back, all right.

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