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Dick Cook's ouster signals shift in direction for Disney

September 21, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

The message that Bob Iger just sent to Hollywood couldn't be more coldbloodedly clear. Friday's news that the Disney chief executive had ousted studio head Dick Cook -- coming less than three weeks after the company acquired Marvel Entertainment -- is a strong signal that the Disney we've known in the past is not going to be the Disney we'll be seeing in the future.

If the Marvel deal was a bold move by Iger to grab hold of the demographic that Disney has the most trouble attracting -- young men -- then Cook's abrupt departure was a sign that the studio would soon be in the hands of someone without any strong ties to Disney's storied, safe-as-milk past. After all, Cook, who began his career 38 years ago as a 21-year-old Disneyland tour operator, was the last active Disney executive who'd been at the company before the arrival of Michael Eisner, Iger's former boss. It was Eisner, of course, who was the first man to reinvent Disney, taking over the sleeping entertainment giant in 1984 and transforming it into a hugely profitable modern-day family entertainment conglomerate.

When Eisner first stepped in to run Disney, the fabled studio was so out of the Hollywood mainstream that when he drove to work on his first day as its new president, he had to call his lawyer to ask for directions. It's unlikely that Iger's new choice to run Disney will have trouble finding the studio lot. But what is likely is that the studio chief will oversee a wholesale reinvention of the Disney brand, which after a long, successful run, has begun to show its age, slowly losing much of its stranglehold on young audiences to other edgier, more vital youth culture brands, including Marvel.

I got quite a laugh reading in the media accounts of Cook's ouster that Iger might have been frustrated by the Disney veteran's personal style, which was described as genial but uncommunicative to the point of secretiveness. When it comes to playing it close to the vest, no one is more covert than Iger himself. After all, when everyone else in the world, starting with Ron Meyer, assumed that DreamWorks was doing a new distribution deal with Universal, it was Iger who was secretly negotiating a deal with Steven Spielberg last February, stealing DreamWorks right from under Universal's nose.

While he's keeping mum on the subject, it's becoming increasingly apparent that at some point in the past year Iger decided that Disney needed a radical restructuring, starting with the film division, which is still the engine that drives most of Disney's other businesses. The studio's family-oriented offerings have been losing momentum, with recent efforts to age up its young audience (via films like "G-Force" and "Bedtime Stories") falling flat while the studio has had little success in launching a new all-ages franchise to take the place of its aging, increasingly costly "Pirates of the Caribbean" cash cow.

At some point, Iger must have decided that the youth market was moving in one direction while Disney, which had been cutting back on film production outside of its core Disney and Pixar brands, was moving in another. Either Iger and Cook disagreed on exactly how to retool the studio or Iger came to believe that Cook, as a Disney traditionalist, was the wrong person to execute a sweeping creative realignment.

It's the only way to view Cook's departure, which was done in such a hasty fashion that Cook had to scramble to call friends and top talent on Friday to let them know what was happening, including some people who'd had meetings with him just days before without any sign of unease.

As the longtime maestro of the Disney brand, Cook had no equal. There has been speculation in the media that Cook was let go because of the studio's poor performance in recent quarters, but that's a very shortsighted way of looking at the question, since all sorts of studios have experienced bad patches -- look at 20th Century Fox's performance last year -- without making wholesale changes at the top. The timing of Cook's departure signals a bigger set of issues, since no one knows better than Iger what a strong lineup of films the studio has set for release in the next 12 months.

Even if you buy into the reinvention explanation, Cook's departure is a huge loss. Having cut his teeth in distribution and marketing, Cook was brilliant at transforming films into events. From "The Lion King" to "Toy Story" to "Pirates of the Caribbean," he made movies into something more than just theatrical experiences, realizing their value as pop-culture juggernauts. Only someone who began his career as a tour ride operator could have possibly envisioned the astounding global success of "Pirates," which was initially derided in more sophisticated media quarters -- meaning by people like me -- as an impossibly hokey, retro idea.

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