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Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger outlines role of modern studio chief

October 17, 2009 |  5:16 pm

IGERkevdwwnc The recent upheaval at Walt Disney Studios — with the departure of Chairman Dick Cook and the  appointment of former Disney Channel Worldwide President Rich Ross — has spurred debate over the role of the modern studio chief at the Walt Disney Co.

Is the studio chief a creative leader, the visionary who identifies original stories that blossom into full-grown franchises, or, as Los Angeles Times columnist Patrick Goldstein suggested, a brand manager who is deft at wringing value from familiar, established properties, as is suggested by the planned $4-billion acquisition of comic book giant Marvel Entertainment?

Walt Disney Chief Executive Bob Iger weighed in on the issue today in a keynote address at a business and entertainment conference sponsored by the USC Gould School of Law and the Beverly Hills Bar Assn.

The answer is: both.

"The primary responsibility, aside from creating value for the shareholders, is to choose good movies," Iger said. "I also think it's really important that the person who's making those decisions has a business sense as well. Those two go hand in hand."

Iger talked about the effect of eroding DVD sales on the movie business. The chief executive was the first in Hollywood to publicly address the elephant in the room, telling investors earlier this year that the lucrative home entertainment business was suffering from more than just an economic downturn. It's undergoing permanent change.

The average household with a DVD player has amassed 80 titles, Iger said, but the era of such libraries "already has waned." Although the new-generation Blu-ray DVDs offer high-definition images and enhanced sound, the players also work just fine with the old discs — so consumers don't feel any urgency to replace their entire video catalog, Iger said.

Meanwhile, other forms of entertainment like updating Facebook statuses and playing online games are vying for viewers' free time. 

"As I look at our company, the business model that formed the underpinning of the modern-day motion picture business is changing right before our eyes, in profound ways," Iger said. "That means you're going to have to change your business in profound ways, or you will no longer have a business."

Movie theaters are feeling the heat too.

Iger applauded theater owners for investing in digital projection and 3D exhibition, but he said the pressure's on to keep improving customer service and the overall experience if the cineplex hopes to compete with ever-larger-screen TVs that have Internet connections.

The Disney chief hinted of another impending threat: shrinking periods between films' theatrical release and their availability on DVD.

"In order keep the DVD business vital, that product has to be perceived as being fresh in the marketplace," Iger said. "Things in demand and viewed as successful and great can lose their luster quickly because so much more is released into the marketplace every day. The press to move the DVD window up, be it  physical or digital, will grow will because of that phenomenon."

Iger acknowledged it's a sensitive topic; it elicited howls of protests from the National Assn. of Theater Owners when he first broached it in 2005. "I don't want to make too many headlines today."

--Dawn C. Chmielewski

Photo credit: Bob D''Amico / Disney

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