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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Hollywood's biggest mystery: Why did Bob Iger get rid of Dick Cook?

September 20, 2009 |  5:01 pm

The message that Bob Iger just sent to Hollywood couldn't be more cold-bloodedly clear. Friday's news that the Disney CEO had ousted studio head Dick Cook -- coming less than three weeks after the company acquired Marvel Entertainment -- is a strong signal that the Disney we've known in the past is not going to be the Disney we'll be seeing in the future.

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If the Marvel deal was a bold move by Iger to grab hold of the demographic that Disney has the most trouble attracting -- young men -- then Cook's abrupt departure was a sign that the studio would soon be in the hands of someone without any strong ties to Disney's storied, safe-as-milk past. After all, Cook, who began his career 38 years ago as a 21-year-old Disneyland tour operator, was the last active Disney executive who'd been at the company before the arrival of Michael Eisner, Iger's former boss. It was Eisner, of course, who was the first man to reinvent Disney, taking over the sleeping entertainment giant in 1984 and transforming it into a hugely profitable modern-day family entertainment conglomerate. 

When Eisner first stepped in to run Disney, the fabled studio was so out of the Hollywood mainstream that when he drove to work on his first day as its new president, he had to call his lawyer to ask for directions. It's unlikely that Iger's new choice to run Disney will have trouble finding the studio lot. But what is likely is that the studio chief will oversee a wholesale reinvention of the Disney brand, which after a long, successful run, has begun to show its age, slowly losing much of its stranglehold on young audiences to other edgier, more vital youth culture brands, including Marvel.

I got quite a laugh reading in the media accounts of Cook's ouster that Iger might have been frustrated by the Disney veteran's personal style, which was described as genial but uncommunicative to the point of secretiveness. When it comes to playing it close to the vest, no one is more covert than Iger himself. After all, when everyone else in the world, starting with Ron Meyer, assumed that DreamWorks was doing a new distribution deal with Universal, it was Iger who was secretly negotiating a deal with Steven Spielberg last February, stealing DreamWorks right from under Universal's nose.

While he's keeping mum on the subject, it's becoming increasingly apparent that at some point in the past year Iger decided that Disney needed a radical restructuring, starting with the film division, which is still the engine that drives most of Disney's other businesses. The studio's family-oriented offerings have been losing momentum, with recent efforts to age up its young audience (via films like "G-Force" and "Bedtime Stories") falling flat while the studio has had little success in launching a new all-ages franchise to take the place of its aging, increasingly costly "Pirates of the Caribbean" cash cow.

At some point, Iger must have decided that the youth market was moving in one direction while Disney, which had been cutting back on film production outside of its core Disney and Pixar brands, was moving in another. Either Iger and Cook disagreed on exactly how to retool the studio or Iger came to believe that Cook, as a Disney traditionalist, was the wrong person to execute a sweeping creative realignment. It's the only way to view Cook's departure, which was done in such a hasty fashion that Cook had to scramble to call friends and top talent on Friday to let them know what was happening, including some people who'd had meetings with him just days before without any sign of unease. 

Can Disney survive the tumult that could result after Cook's departure? Keep reading:

As the longtime maestro of the Disney brand, Cook had no equal. There has been speculation in the media that Cook was let go because of the studio's poor performance in recent quarters, but that's a very shortsighted way of looking at the question, since all sorts of studios have experienced bad patches -- look at 20th Century Fox's performance last year -- without making wholesale changes at the top. The timing of Cook's departure signals a bigger set of issues, since no one knows better than Iger what a strong lineup of films the studio has set for release in the next 12 months.

Even if you buy into the reinvention explanation, Cook's departure is a huge loss. Having cut his teeth in distribution and marketing, Cook was brilliant at transforming films into events. From "The Lion King" to "Toy Story" to "Pirates of the Caribbean," he made movies into something more than just theatrical experiences, realizing their value as pop-culture juggernauts. Only someone who began his career as a tour ride operator could have possibly envisioned the astounding global success of "Pirates," which was initially derided in more sophisticated media quarters -- meaning by people like me -- as an impossibly hokey, retro idea.

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Cook was also a brilliant handler of talent. It's hardly a surprise that my colleague Claudia Eller was able to get Johnny Depp on the phone Friday night, who happily sang Cook's praises. Cook had the same rapport with filmmakers as varied as Tim Burton (whose "Alice in Wonderland" will be a big Disney event film in March), Jerry Bruckheimer and writer-director John Lee Hancock, who never forgot that Cook gave him the chance to direct his first film, "The Rookie," at Disney.

When Michael Eisner was publicly feuding with Pixar chief Steve Jobs, prompting Jobs to begin auditioning new studio distributors, it was Cook who quietly flew up to the Pixar campus nearly every month to meet with Jobs and John Lasseter, keeping the lines of communication open and helping pave the way for the eventual Disney acquisition of Pixar. Long before Pixar was in the Disney fold, Cook -- a big baseball fan -- would occasionally invite my colleague John Horn and myself to join him and Lasseter at a Dodgers game. Cook and Lasseter would often arrive a little late. It turned out that Cook was picking up Lasseter at the airport himself, driving from Disney to the airport and then back to Dodger Stadium, all because he wouldn't delegate the duty of chauffeuring Lasseter to an anonymous assistant.

Those are the classy little touches, perhaps spawned by Cook's early years in the lowest rungs of the Disney organization, that don't show up in a company's balance sheet but are long remembered by the studio's roster of A-list talent. Is Cook replaceable? Absolutely. But not easily. I suspect Iger has already decided on a new studio chief, since you can't move aside someone as connected to the studio's fundamental DNA as Cook without selling the Disney board on his replacement, not to mention Jobs and Lasseter, who have an enormously influential stake in the studio's future.

Is it someone from Marvel, who might have asked for studio control as part of its acquisition? I'd say it's unlikely, since there's no one at Marvel with the stature or experience to run the Disney behemoth. Is it Spielberg's DreamWorks partner Stacey Snider, who when she was at Universal ran an equally big studio with a theme park and has the requisite people skills and political savvy to smooth over any talent resentment over Cook's departure? It looks good on paper, but Snider has repeatedly insisted that she has no interest in running another big studio. Lasseter has also been mentioned, but Disney insiders say that he doesn't want the headaches of the job.

My guess is that the new studio chief will be someone without any close ties to the cozy old Disney traditions, since I'm betting that Iger is eager to push the studio in a new direction. It's telling that in his official goodbye, Cook acknowledged that he was unable to offer a neat summation of his years of service at Disney, saying "in the words of one of my baseball heroes, Yogi Berra, 'If you come to a fork in the road, take it.' "

But it's really Disney, under Iger's prodding, that has come to a fork in the road. It's apparent that Iger wants the studio to move in a new direction, but if he knows which way it's going, he's doing a good job of keeping it to himself.

Photo of Dick Cook by Gautam Singh / Associated Press; Cook and Johnny Depp by Kevin Winter / Getty Images

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