By Ronald Grover From a public-relations standpoint, it hasn't been a great week for Disney (DIS). First Roy Disney, founder Walt's nephew, quit the board of directors in a much-publicized huff (see BW Online, 12/4/03, "Eisner's "Very Repressive Regime"). Then his longtime financial adviser, Stanley Gold, followed him out the door. Both Gold and Disney lobbed grenades at CEO and Chairman Michael Eisner, calling him "rapacious" and "soulless" and lambasting him for driving creative folks away from the entertainment giant.
Well, apparently enough of those creative types stuck around the Mouse House for its studio to have a standout year. Despite all the craziness at Disney -- indeed, the events of the last few days were the culmination of months of boardroom back-biting and anguish over theme-park woes and tepid ABC-TV ratings -- the movie studio has been hitting mostly home runs. The day after the boardroom drama broke, Disney announced that it had made "industry history" by becoming the first studio to pass $3 billion in annual worldwide box-office receipts.
DISNEY LIFER. Even if you factor in the usual degree of Hollywood hype, box-office inflation -- and the not-so-accidental timing of good news in the midst of the turmoil -- it's hard not to admire what Mickey's friends have accomplished. With nearly a month to go this year, Disney's 2003 films -- which include Pirates of the Caribbean and the kiddie thriller Holes -- had generated a cool $3.08 billion, easily beating the nearly $2.9 billion Sony collected in 2002.
A lot of the credit has to go to Walt Disney Studio Chairman Dick Cook, who may be the nicest guy in Tinseltown. Cook is a cherubic 53-year-old who loves his University of Southern California football team, is prone to say "golly" a little too often, and started his Disney career 30-odd years back operating the Jungle Boat ride at Disneyland. He even met his wife of nearly 30 years at The Happiest Place on Earth, and he's a rarity in Hollywood circles for having spent his entire career at one place -- Disney.
When Cook was named studio chief in early 2002 -- after an outside search to replace the hyperkinetic Peter Schneider -- a little cheer went up among the Disney faithful that calm was returning to the jungle. And rather than heading upstairs to the top floor of the Team Disney headquarters building -- right down the hall from Eisner -- Cook chose to stay in his fourth-floor office overlooking the parking lot.
BETTER THAN GOOD. What he brings to Disney is the imponderable quality of decency, which is one of the reasons creative folks like working for him. Last year, he helped re-sign blockbuster-maker Jerry Bruckheimer, who told me some months ago that Cook is "a one of Hollywood's good guys, someone you just love to work for."
Cook is more than a good guy, however. He has good business sense, as evidenced by his letting Bruckheimer, the producer behind such megahits as Armageddon and The Rock, take on the flick Pirates of the Caribbean. Modeled on a popular theme-park ride, Bruckheimer made the movie for $125 million, but it has so far grossed more than $304 million in the U.S. and Canada alone. No surprise that a sequel in the works.
Cook is also the guy to whom Eisner has delegated the delicate task of dealing with Apple (AAPL) Chairman Steve Jobs, who's also the majority owner and CEO of Pixar Animation Studio (PIXR), the computer-animation goldmine that created such megahits for Disney as Toy Story, Monsters, Inc., and this year's $340 million blockbuster Finding Nemo. Disney and Pixar are in the midst of renegotiating their contract, which expired this year, although Pixar still must deliver two more films to Disney: The Incredibles next summer and Cars probably the year after.
How important is Pixar? According to Merrill Lynch analyst Jessica Reif Cohen, the little animation house provided about 50% of Disney's $620 million in studio earnings this year.
LOW BUDGET, BIG GROSS. Playing diplomat, Cook won't say how the talks are going. "There hasn't been a lot of talk lately," he says. Jobs figures a deal will get done in the next few months, he said in one recent conference call, and he hints that Disney is still his first choice as a partner. Jobs say simply: "They've been great partners, super to work with."
Beyond the Pixar connection, Cook and his sidekick, Studio President Nina Jacobson, have reinvented moviemaking at Disney. It has largely gone out of the big-picture business, other than a few large-budget flicks, mostly Bruckheimer productions. They seem more interested in movies like Bringing Down the House, starring Steve Martin and Queen Latifah. It cost $35 million to make and grossed more than $132 million in the U.S. Cook and Jacobson have also reached into Disney's trunk of oldies. They remade the 1976 comedy Freaky Friday for $23 million and watched it gross $108 million.
Shrewdly, they've also invested in other studios' flicks, mostly taking the foreign rights. Among their winners were the Jim Carrey film Bruce Almighty and the horse-racing drama Seabiscuit.
DOUBLE THE PRESSURE. As for the coming year, Cook figures he has a few winners, including the big-budget flick The Alamo, which cost north of $95 million and was moved back from this Christmas to the coming spring because, Cook says, "it just wasn't ready." O.K., so not everything has gone smoothly.
But his coming lineup also has Tom Hanks in one of his increasingly rare comedies, and that's not so shabby. Hanks is scheduled to star in a remake of the 1955 British comedy The Ladykillers, in which he'll play a professor who puts together a group of thieves to rob a bank.
Such accomplishments would be impressive were they done merely amid the chaos in which any studio chief operates. But you can add to this scenario the pressure of Wall Street looking over one of Cook's shoulders and Eisner over the other. The Disney boss, a pretty fair movie executive in his day at Paramount, sits in on Cook's story meetings many a Tuesday, offering his comments and ideas on scripts.
TACTFUL, TOO. Cook says Eisner hasn't been having as many meetings of late -- you wonder why? -- but insists that Eisner's input is welcome. "He's probably the best editor I have ever worked with," Cook says. "He makes every film better."
Such a comment makes you think Cook ought to be known not just as the nicest guy in Hollywood but also the most tactful. But there's no denying that, at least for now, you could add "most successful." Grover is Los Angeles bureau chief for BusinessWeek. Follow his weekly Power Lunch column, only on BusinessWeek Online