Friday, September 25, 2009

Strange Tides

Two weeks ago today at the D23 Expo, Walt Disney Studios Chairman Dick Cook offered a star-studded, crowd-pleasing look at Disney's ambitious upcoming film slate, showcasing stars and celebrity filmmakers such as Johnny Depp, Miley Cyrus, John Travolta, Nicolas Cage, Tim Burton, Robert Zemeckis, Jerry Bruckheimer, Guillermo del Toro, and even the Muppets.  One week ago today, Cook was fired from the place he had worked for 38 years.

All the messy details have been widely reported, but suffice it to say that 1) Mr. Cook was completely blindsided and 2) he probably should have seen it coming.  For the last couple of years, the studio has released a steady stream disappointments and under-performers.  Some recent examples include "Bedtime Stories," "Race to Witch Mountain," "Confessions of a Shopaholic," "G-Force," and the 3D Jonas Brothers concert movie.  "Bolt," which was supposed to be the animation studio's return to quality and was well-reviewed, couldn't even match the box-office haul of the much maligned "Chicken Little."  Disney CEO Bob Iger has been so frustrated by the studio division that he called them out during a conference call with financial analysts. 

Since 2006, the only real bright spots for Disney have been been sequels to established franchises (Pirates and National Treasure), Pixar films, 2007's surprise hit "Wild Hogs," and this summer's Sandra Bullock comeback vehicle, "The Proposal."  Even some franchises have fallen short.  Disney killed their own golden goose when they botched the release of "The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian;" and "High School Musical 3," the first film from Disney's crown jewel franchise to be released in theaters, could only muster $90 million in box office, far less than other recent movie musicals such as "Hairspray" and "Mamma Mia!".  Today marks the release of another likely high-profile bomb, the Bruce Willis sci-fi flick "Surrogates."  Never heard of it?  That's okay, it seems like Disney only started marketing it a couple of weeks ago, as if they expected it to fail.

Clearly, then, some changes were necessary.  The studio's recent strategy already seemed to concede that they couldn't figure out what they were doing wrong, and thus they were going to outsource alot of their filmmaking to other people and hope they could do better.  This has led to long-term relationships with other production companies and filmmakers such as Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis, Jerry Bruckheimer, and now Guillermo del Toro.  This was also part of the motivation for Disney's acquisition of Marvel.

At this point, you may be thinking, "well no wonder they fired him," but there is still more to the story.  Cook is what you could call a Disney lifer.  He started his career running the monorail at Disneyland and gradually worked his way up into the studio and eventually became Chairman.  He was a company man who understood the Disney brand and culture.  On top of all that, he was well-respected in the industry and had tremendous relationships with Hollywood talent.  They guy got Johnny Depp to appear in character as Jack Sparrow on stage at the D23 Expo.  Do you think just anybody could do that?  He was there to announce with Cook that a new Pirates movie is slated for 2011.  After learning about Cook's departure, however (Cook called him personally), Depp said "There's a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment," for a new sequel.  Whoops.  Spielberg was also reportedly shocked by Cook's firing, as Cook was a big part of the reason why Spielberg took DreamWorks to Disney.  Double whoops.

It's probably a bad idea to jeapordize Disney's relationship with the star of its most important film franchise and with the most powerful filmmaker in Hollywood, so Iger better have a handle on these and other talent relationships.  Disney has alot of encouraging projects in the pipline right now, and it would be a disaster if Cook's departure sank any of them (may I personally make a plea for the Muppets?  Please?).  Another wrinkle of the story is the out-of-the blue handling of the announcement, which seems very reminiscent of the kinds of things former studio chief Michael Eisner would do (which isn't the kind of comparison you want). 

For now, all eyes are on Iger.  Does he have a clear vision for the future of Walt Disney Studios?  What are his plans for Cook's replacement?  Will he pick a Disney insider or perhaps divide the role into multiple parts reporting to him (John Lasseter already works quasi-independently as head of Pixar and Walt Disney Feature Animation)?  To me, the most important thing is to maintain the uniqueness of the Disney brand.  Although there have been a few missteps, Cook did an admirable job of restoring the Disney label as a signifier of family-friendly quality.  I hope the future promises more of the same.

No comments:

Post a Comment