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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?

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.

Dickcook

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.

Cookdepp

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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The first film John Lee Hancock directed was HARD TIME ROMANCE - saw it at AFM. Wrote about it back in whatever year that was in Script Magazine.

- Bill

I didn't get it until I read this line: "Cook -- a big baseball fan -- would occasionally invite my colleague John Horn and myself to join him and Lasseter at a Dodgers game." My first thought was: I'm glad the author has friends and all, but accepting gifts as a journalist from people you're covering is actually allowed at the LA Times...? My second thought was a little more broad-based...

Okay, here's a guess on Cook's firing: the media business too often let's "fraternization" pass for "good business performance" - Disney was under-performing like the other media companies, but historically, Disney doesn't under-perform and when it does, it doesn't do as badly as the others. So, Iger cannot exactly just keep letting this happen without doing something (even, if say, god forbid, that Iger's decision-making was really at fault for the under-performing stock).

Yes, Cook was a swell guy who made actors rich and gave these same actors new relevancy in the eyes of the global mainstream (I loved Pirates, the first one), however, that does not always (and usually doesn't) translate into profits for the regular-guy employees at Disney (and regular-guy Disney stockholders) at the end of the day. And Disney, an uber-competitive company that prides itself in hiring MBA grads from HBS (nary another media company with a goal of hiring ANY MBAs will you find, btw) and alums of McKinsey, tended to over-perform it's rivals (Viacom, News Corp).

Why not spend a paragraph of the blog posting about how these uber-millionaires (like Depp, Cook, Iger) ONLY have happy-endings? And while ultimately this firing thing is not a big deal -- except a bit of a blow to Cook's ego which I imagine will only last a day, and he will be on to bigger-better things?

And then, spend the rest of the blog writing an article covering how the media industry's fraternization and nepotism -over time- translate into bad business performance in normal economic times? and ESPECIALLY bad business performance in a recession?

I'm guessing the Gentile will be replace with a Jew.

It's a little amusing to see such an outpouring of emotion and "shock" at the ouster of the guy responsible for Disney's studio operations posting an operating LOSS on revenue of $1.3 billion in a single quarter. On that level alone, Disney's studio side had become a disaster.

Having worked for nearly 20 years with Disney, both as an employee and as a business partner, there was no studio less enticing to work with than Disney. Making a call to the Disney lot meant running the gauntlet of a lot of assistants and low-level managers who were focused on not telling you anything. It's absolutely true that Disney reveled in the secrecy and plain arrogance of thinking they were better than anyone else, and when this was finally combined with bleeding money, well, is it any wonder, no matter how "nice" a guy he is?

Don't forget, too, that this "nice guy" was the same one who got rid of hundreds of jobs and fired (or had his lieutenants fire) many, many people over the years for sins far less grievous than his.

I was at the D23 Expo earlier this month, and it was, overall, a great experience. Except wherever the studio touched it. The studio embarrassed Bob Iger by making his presentation run 30 minutes late while they had their biggest fans check in their cameras and cell phones (even laptop computers) because they were so worried someone might post a few moments of their precious "Princess and the Frog" movie to the Internet. Imagine! Someone might actually help build word of mouth! The "Princess and the Frog" presentation (hosted by the Studio) itself ran more than an HOUR late for the same reason. And were you to complain about this, a studio representative would have rudely told you that you didn't need to go.

Dick Cook's presentation with Johnny Depp and John Travolta might have been even BETTER attended and could have helped the D23 Expo sell tickets had the studio not only allowed anyone to say anything in advance -- but had they actually shared the information internally. But at Disney, more than any other studio in town, what the film side of things wants to do, they do. And they'll tell you off, scream at you, and complain about you if you dare question them. Dick Cook may have been a nice guy himself, I don't doubt that, but he built a culture of intimidation, hostility, arrogance and greed. He built the most unpleasant, unfriendly, uncooperative studio in town.

Personally, I've had my doubts about Iger in the past, but this goes a long way toward validating him. It's an unpopular decision, but absolutely the right one. Let's hope the dismissals don't end here -- there's a lot of rebuilding at the Studio to do. And Disney needs to seriously work on its corporate culture of bullying, screaming and general unpleasantness and arrogance. Disney could have an AMAZING company if the different businesses would cooperate, and Iger has sent a strong message with this: They'd better start.

In all the articles about Dick Cook, I haven't seen a mention about his firing of Nina Jacobson as Production President in 2006.

If you look back, the coverage of her firing is very similar. She didn't see it coming, had no warning, and received the news while in the hospital waiting for her partner to give birth to their third child.

In general, Hollywood was stunned. Jacobson too was loved by talent and adored by the people who worked for her. The difference then was that she was actually in the middle of a winning streak, with a slate of films that was performing very well. But Cook wanted to make a change and decided he needed someone else running production.

This is not to say that Dick Cook is getting some sort of karmic payback. Just that playing on that level can be brutal. And just as he one day decided to get rid of Jacobson, Iger has now made the same decision about him.

(But here is something that is not about karma, but about the effects of decisions: it seems that the decline in performance of Disney titles started after Jacobson left.)


To Sam:

Nina was useless as the studio head which was why she was fired. For the first year of her tenure, she was out 6 months on maternity leave. She also greenlit such disasters as BUBBLE BOY and SORORITY BOYS when it was going to be a de facto writers strike. That winning slate you're talking about had little of her fingerprints on it.

She's the one that had it coming. Cook saw where the studio needed to be and knew that Aviv could take it there.

Dick Cook was a helluva nice guy and an effective Disney leader. He'll be missed. But, frankly, so was Roy Disney when he was squeezed out and it's his name on the company letterhead.

Here are some important facts that were overlooked by the media.

In 2002, Dick Cook worked closely with Nina Jacobson and they had brought in Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio into the Pirates of the Caribbean project. However, it is clear that via Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio that my original supernatural pirate story is being plagiarized.

In 2006, after discussions fail with the Walt Disney Company, my attorneys proceeded to re-file my lawsuit against the Walt Disney Company over the Pirates of the Caribbean movie franchise. Then several days later, just after the premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean Dead Man's Chest, Nina Jacobson was abruptly fired/dismissed.

In 2009, I had personally notified the Walt Disney Company, using their own published book as further proof, that they had been deliberately concocting facts, lies, had committed fraud, engaging in conspiracy and other criminal acts in regards to my claims against them and Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. As my correspondence went out, it was one week later when Disney suddenly announced that they were moving the Lone Ranger movie to the back burner and was stepping up Pirates of the Caribbean 4. Meanwhile, I had sent out more of my correspondence which I demanded accountability and investigations into these serious charges. Then about one week later, Dick Cook is abruptly forced out of the company too.

I welcome all communications. my website has photo proof -

Royce Mathew

I just hope that Disney stays on the family friendly trajectory that Dick Cook has placed them on.
They have focused MUCH more on the Disney label and haven't done a whole lot on Touchstone or Miramax (and ignored the Hollywood label altogether).
The family friend movies are what makes Disney different from everyone else.

I am not sure about cast member's idea that Jacobson had a bum run at Disney -- it is why people were surprised when she was fired. During her seven year run, from the time she was named co-president in 1999 until she was fired, the studio made The Princess Diaries, Remember the Titans, The Rookie, Pirates of The Caribbean, Freaky Friday, Narnia, Sweet Home Alabama, and more. And the next year saw the release of films whose development began during her tenure, including Enchanted and The Game Plan.

My understanding is that one of Cook's strengths was in letting his executives run their movies. So the successes and the failures belong to the executives. Not sure whose fingerprints cast member thinks is on these. But I would say they were the prints of Nina, her team of execs and her producers. Any exec has movies that don't work. Yeah you can blame her for Bubble Boy -- and you can lay Bedtime Stories and Race to Witch Mountain on the current team.

But cast member says a lot about himself (assuming it is a him) when he criticizes someone for taking maternity leave.

My point in my post was that it is a tough business. People have good runs but still get fired when someone above them decides on a new direction. Cooke made the same decisions Iger is making.


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