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Blindsided: Disney Studios Head Resigns

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.

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5 comments to Blindsided: Disney Studios Head Resigns

  • philphoggs

    Ding Ding Ding…
    Good luck Mr. Cook, I bet JD’s comment rings true.

  • Another Voice

    There is a lot going on here.

    Dick was a good and honest guy in a town built for jerks and the scum of the earth. He was Real Disney working for a CEO to whom that name ain’t nothing but a brand and Walt is nothing but Col. Sanders with a pencil. Dick could spin tales about the old days when Disney struggled and produced genius; Iger can only talk the time his lunch at the Four Seasons was ruined by tepid foie gras. Dick thought that Disney should make family movies for a large audience while the rest of the company focused exclusively on hormonal pre-teen girls.

    Then again.

    Disney live action has been a disaster for years. ‘Pirates’ went from being a surprising hit movie into a mis-managed, corrupt and money-crushing bloated trilogy. A string of remakes of 1970s embarrassments were turned into a string of 21st century embarrassments with a few new ones to boot (WTF was ‘Underdog’?). Potential mega hits like ‘Tr2n’ and ‘Princess of Mars’ suffered for years and years in development hell while summer after summer went by without a Disney blockbuster. Disney continued to chase franchises well beyond their expiration date – all those millions of screaming tweeny girls that were supposed to go to see the ‘Jonas Brothers’ went instead to see the pouty vampires of ‘Twilight’.

    The one thing for sure is that Dick Cook’s firing is not taken as a “good thing” at Disney or in Hollywood. Some of the bits in the article are true; some of it is hogwash (Spielberg is going to like anyone who hands him a billion dollar check to keep DreamWorks out of liquidation – that’s the jist of the Disney deal). Some of it hasn’t come out – such as Dick Cook sticking up for Pixar when the rest of Disney management was trashing their movies (as in Eisner with ‘Nemo’ and Iger with ‘Up’). There is a tremendous undercurrent of disquiet at Pixar…is this going to help or hurt them?

    Dick Cook had a vision of what Disney Studios could be, but that the vision was poorly executed. Some of it was because of Dick Cook himself, some of it because of the malfunctioning corporation which Disney has become. But that’s life in Hollywood. Disney is no longer different or special from the rest of the town, especially now that they’ve booted a forty year veteran.

  • Thanks so much for the insight…

    This is the vibe I’ve gotten from everything I’ve read since I wrote this story – that Dick had the right ethic and the proper vision, but the execution was often poor. What’s clear, though, is that people in Hollywood *love* Dick Cook. I mean, like no other person I’ve seen. Usually when a studio chief gets the axe you have plenty of people willing to throw them under the bus – with Cook, you have people coming out of the woodwork to talk about how great he is. For pete’s sake, you have Johnny Depp calling up from France to spread the love.

    There were just too many dogs, though… no pun intended re: “Underdog”. But there were so many truly awful releases like that, that I had wondered myself what was up. Most releases were a disaster from the start, while other franchises got run into the ground (I still think the first Pirates was a great adventure film, but the others were giant vats of molasses and crystal meth). Yet when you find out the causes that Cook championed, in many cases he was the single light of sanity in the entire enterprise. You mentioned Pixar; I was reading yesterday about how he would secretly fly to Emeryville behind Eisner’s back to try and keep lines of conversations open. Lee Unkrich bemoaned Cook’s departure yesterday – I’ll bet the guys at Pixar aren’t pleased.

    I don’t get it. I don’t get Iger, either. I’ve never been able to figure him out, and every move confounds me more. He’s the guy that bought Pixar… and Marvel… and Oswald the Rabbit. He’s the opposite of Eisner-era technophobia. He’s done a lot of good – but what is his vision? Part of me laments the loss of the last pre-Eisner executive, but then again that era brought us Condorman.

    I guess my main fear is that soon Disney won’t make anything for people older than ten. Not that Bedtime Stories was the answer to my prayers, but Jonases and pouty vampires don’t fit the bill either…

  • Also, as you allude, Disney needs to find a way to make themselves *unique*. Again, this raises the issue about Iger having no faith in his people generating their own IP. Marvel movies do well, so Disney buys Marvel without even going to their own people first to see what they can do. Iger needs to worry less about branding and start to think about why the brands exist in the first place.

    As will no doubt happen, more continues to leak out. The emerging narrative is not favorable towards Iger despite the studio’s performance; despite the actual facts I expect this to be the trend because Cook seems to be so beloved. The story certainly does make you feel for him, especially as a fellow Disney-lover (how many execs can you say that about?). That last walk around the lot must have been murder.

  • Another Voice

    The LA Times article was good (I’ve been traveling and been out of touch with the world). From first hand experience, leaving Disney after a stay measured in decades is a heart-mangling moment.

    For me Iger has always been easy to figure out. There’s a saying in Hollywood – both the cream and the scum float to the top. The man has spent his entire adult life at ABC and ran the network for a disastrous decade. It’s clear he didn’t get to the top because ABC was run so brilliantly, so he must have taken the cream-free path.

    In Hollywood, everyone is on the look-out for the competition; everyone needs to smack the other guy down before he gets you. You surround yourself with toady’s and yes-men. Iger is simply incompetent enough never to have posed a threat to anyone. He is the beige of management ability – the “safe” choice when things are important or controversial. No one with talent or ability survived Eisner. That alone has got to tell you what he thought of Iger’s skills to be CEO.

    I actually think that Dick Cook is partial responsible for Disney’s lack of uniqueness. He joined Iger in eliminating Touchstone Pictures to focus on the Disney brand. At the time Dick said he could “expand” what Disney meant. That wasn’t so, nor could “Disney” overcome it’s already strong brand image. If you want to make money as a Big Time Hollywood Media Conglomerate Studio, you have to make a wider range of movies.

    Iger sees Disney as just another name like ‘MGM’, ‘Columbia’, ‘Universal’ or ‘Warner Brothers’. Disney doesn’t have to be unique, it just has to make goobs of money – the only value in the word is the “lifestyle branding” that makes generic products easier to sell.

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