Just a week after addressing fans at the D23 Expo, Dick Cook, the chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, has resigned. This comes as something of a shock; Cook has been at Disney for 38 years, starting as a ride operator at Disneyland. According to Nikki Finke, the resignation was less than voluntary; the L.A. Times claims that Cook has been under intense criticism for the quality of Disney’s release slate. I find this shocking in Hollywood, where quality tends to come way down the importance scale behind profitability. Sure, G-Force looked embarrassingly lowbrow, but since when does that matter as long as it made a ton of money?
It’s hard to know how to react to this news. Cook seems like a really nice guy who loves Disney, and he worked his way up from the bottom while staying involved with the fans. He’s the kind of person one would want in charge of Walt Disney Pictures. At the same time, it’s hard to argue that the quality of the studio’s output has been what it should be. Cook has done a far better job at keeping the studio’s product respectable than some previous chiefs, notably Joe Roth, but for every Pirates of the Caribbean or TRON: Legacy there’s still been a dependence on corny shlock comedies like Old Dogs. It seems that for every two steps forward, there’s often been one step back.
Disney has also shown a number of odd inconsistencies in recent years; after announcing a massive reduction in future releases, they signed new distribution deals with Dreamworks and Marvel. Their avowed pursuit of franchises, which threatens the potential for innovation, turned on its ear after they let the Chronicles of Narnia series escape to another studio after a poorly-scheduled summer release of an inferior sequel.
The official statements from Disney:
September 18, 2009
STATEMENT FROM RICHARD W. COOK, CHAIRMAN, THE WALT DISNEY STUDIOS
I am stepping down from my role as chairman of The Walt Disney Studios, effective immediately.
I have loved every minute of my 38 years that I have worked at Disney…from the beginning as a ride operator on Disneyland’s steam train and monorail to my position as chairman of The Walt Disney Studios. To wrap up my Disney experience in a neatly bundled statement is close to impossible. But what I will say is, during my time at the Studio, we have achieved many industry and Company milestones. Our talent roster is simply the best in the business. I believe our slate of upcoming motion pictures is the best in our history. But most of all, I love the people, my colleagues, my teammates, who are the most talented, dedicated and loyal folks in the world. I know that I leave the Studio in their exceptional hands.
I have been contemplating this for some time now and feel it’s the right time for me to move on to new adventures…and in the words of one of my baseball heroes, Yogi Berra, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it.”
STATEMENT FROM ROBERT A. IGER, PRESIDENT AND CEO, THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
“Throughout his distinguished 38-year Disney career, Dick Cook’s outstanding creative instincts and incomparable showmanship have truly enriched this company and significantly impacted Disney’s great legacy,” said Disney CEO Bob Iger. “We thank Dick for his tremendous passion for Disney, and his many accomplishments and contributions to The Walt Disney Studios, including a very promising upcoming film slate. On behalf of everyone at Disney, we wish him the best with all the future has to offer.”
It’s far too early to even guess at what this means for the future. Nikki Finke reports that Disney CEO Bob Iger has become impressed by Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige, and that he’s under consideration for the job. Walt Disney Pictures is a far larger, multi-studio organization than Marvel, and services a much wider audience, but Feige did do a good job getting that studio off the ground. Hopefully we’ll get some answers soon, and that it will bode well for the future quality and diversity of Disney’s release slate.
UPDATE: More details from the New York Times. It brings the focus back on what I suspected all along – concerns about money. It seems that the studio ran a $12 million deficit this quarter as opposed to a large profit for this quarter last year; Cook seems to be a scapegoat for the lagging DVD sales that are plaguing the entire industry. The Times article also makes it sound that the industry complaint about Cook’s tenure was that he didn’t do enough pandering and shameless cross-promotion; apparently, if we were up to High School Musical XXVII the analysts would be cheering.
One interesting thread running through all these articles is how beloved Cook seems to be by the people he’s worked with. He’s been very close with a lot of influential producers over the years, and it remains to be seen how these events will strain Disney’s relationship with long-time studio talent. Cook was reportedly instrumental in bringing Pixar into the Disney fold; Nikki Finke is now reporting that Steven Spielberg is very upset with Cook’s departure. Also upset is Johnny Depp, who signed onto the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film because of his close ties to Cook. In an interesting conversation with the L.A. Times, Depp talks about his friendship with Cook and how the studio shakeup dampens his enthusiasm for Pirates 4 – a film for which he has yet to sign a finalized deal. Depp calls Cook “a friend inside an insane system” and “the sweetest man on the planet and such a gent.”
The latest reports say that Cook decided the timing of his own departure; he apparently has had differences with Iger over how the studio was run, and rather than compromise his preferred methods he decided to resign. More on this from the L.A. Times.