Markets & Finance

The Happiest Place on Earth -- Again


There was plenty of applause to go around on Mar. 10 at Disney's (DIS) first annual meeting under CEO Robert Iger, who replaced Michael Eisner in October. Iger got a healthy reception from the estimated 4,000 Disney faithful in Anaheim as he strolled past Mickey, Donald, and other costumed Disney characters who were parading through the arena.

There was wild cheering -- and some whoops -- for former Disney board member Roy Disney, who led the shareholder revolt that eventually forced Eisner's early departure. Even Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, founder Walt's pre-Mickey Mouse creation, got a hand when his image flashed on the giant screen behind Iger. Rights to Oswald were recently reacquired from Universal Pictures (NBC), Iger explained.

"After 78 years we had a bit of fun bringing Oswald back to the place where he belongs," said Iger. "While this is a small gesture, it speaks volumes about commitment to honor, respect, and appreciate our past."

But the biggest hand was reserved for a guy who wasn't even at the meeting: Steve Jobs, the mercurial Apple Computer (AAPL) founder. Jobs is scheduled to join the Disney board in a few months, when Disney's $7.4 billion deal to buy Jobs's Pixar (PIXR) Animation Studios becomes official.

DISNEY DOWNLOADED. Indeed it appears that peace again reigns at the Magic Kingdom, which had been under seige for most of the last two years. Notably absent from the lovefest was Eisner, the company's largest shareholder with a 1.7% stake.

Also missing was the kind of self-deprecating humor he often used at the annual meetings. Instead, Iger won the crowd over with his nod to Disney's past and with straight talk about its future.

Iger unveiled a service on ABC.com to allow consumers to download selected shows from the Disney network, set to start in the next few months. To placate advertisers nervous about losing eyeballs to network shows that are popping up on the net, Iger said two versions will be offered: one that consumers can get for free, with ads, or ad-free ones for a fee -- likely the same $1.99 that an iPod download costs. He promised more details on the service in the next few months.

While Jobs didn't make the trip to Anaheim from Northern California, the studio was represented by its top creative guru, onetime Disney animator John Lasseter, the creative force behind such Pixar hits as Toy Story and A Bug's Life. Under the terms of the Pixar deal, Lasseter is scheduled to become Disney's top creative officer, with influence both at the company's theme parks and in animation.

TOTALLY ANIMATED. "To build upon the legacy of Walt Disney and achieve the full potential of the company that bears his name, we have made animation our top priority," said Iger in introducing Lasseter.

The animation wiz then introduced film clips of the next two films that Pixar is making for Disney -- Cars, debuting in June, 2006, and Ratatouille, scheduled to come out in June, 2007. A good sign for Disney shareholders: The place was rolling with laughs as Lasseter played the 10 minute trailer for Cars.

As he bounded onto the stage in his traditionally downscale attire -- jeans, an untucked Hawaiian shirt, and blue blazer -- he got a rock star reception. "Oh, stop it," he shouted, and then, pointing to his black sneakers, joked that he had dressed up for the occasion.

But when he began talking about animated films, the mood was half comedy show, half revival meeting. "Quality is a great business plan," Lasseter said to more cheering.

And the applause got louder when the former guide on Disneyland's Jungle Cruise announced that he will also be designing rides for Disney's theme parks. "I will make rides that you will want to get back on as soon as you get off, no matter how long the line," he promised.

MUTUAL ADMIRATION. It was hard -- no, impossible -- to miss the upbeat feel of a company in turnaround. Iger could show off Lost, Desperate Housewives, and other hot ABC shows, pitch live-action films that will include this summer's Pirates of the Carribbean sequel, starring Johnny Depp, and talk realistically about double-digit growth into the future.

But if the cheers were as loud for Jobs in absentia, it was Lasseter who gave the greatest praise. "Ladies and gentlemen, you are led by a great man," he bellowed at one point. "Bob Iger is the reason Pixar joined up with Disney."

Great praise from the man some call the current Walt Disney, for the man who brought the magic back.


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