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Moves perk Mouse ears

The Walt Disney Co. has changed drastically since the new regime came in: Deals – big deals – have been signed with Robin Williams, Whoopi Goldberg, Eddie Murphy, Robert Redford, John Hughes and Tony and Ridley Scott. The studio has shed its tight-fisted ways: More money is being splashed about for marketing, the Walt Disney Pictures label is moving more into live-action, and, joked studio chairman Joe Roth, “If we don’t come in first or second in market share for the next couple of years, I’ll fire myself.”

Cutting costs

The studio has cut its overhead, reduced personnel by consolidating certain areas such as business and legal affairs and significantly cut back its development activity in its feature film operation.

Underlying all of this, however, is a subtle hint of paranoia running through the executive ranks, reflecting the myriad abrupt changes in policy and personnel.

Of the 15 people interviewed for this article, none would go on the record – even when they were praising the company. The reason, as one executive said (off the record, of course), is “Everyone is just getting used to the new management, and nobody wants to piss anyone off.”

The other reason could be that, under new management, the executives know that outgoing calls from the studio have been checked. After an internal film meeting had been reported on last year, studio management had phone lines checked to find out who made calls to the press. Those executives’ hands were then slapped.

This Big Brother episode seems to be more prevalant throughout Hollywood over the past few years, and insiders said that when Jeffrey Katzenberg was chairman it also happened at Disney. One source who worked closely with Roth at Fox said that outgoing phone logs were checked to find who was talking to the press. Others said that they had no knowledge of any security checks.

On more than one occassion, employees warned Variety in furtive whispers (usually reserved for extramarital indiscretions), “Call me at home tonight. I’d be committing career suicide.”

“The sweeping changes that began when Frank Wells died aren’t finished yet. It will probably be another three or four months before it’s over,” said one insider. “The whole corporation was in a state of shock after the death of Frank Wells. There have been changes with the theme parks, stores and animation. It’s not over yet.”

Omniscience

Meanwhile, it seems that Michael Eisner has taken a keen interest in a wider range of the company’s operations. “Michael always keeps his hand in. Some see it as being more supportive,” said one source. “He removed himself from the process before because there was so much else going on.”

Eisner began attending the company’s Tuesday film meetings, which executives say don’t really have an agenda. “They’re very social. I think they’re done to keep him up to speed. They are for him to get a sense of what’s going on.”

Eisner’s involvement is apparent in TV as well, as the studio chief was seen breakfasting with CapCities/ABC president-chief operating officer Robert Iger shortly before ABC set its fall schedule. Dennis Hightower, who was seen as a surprise hire to replace Richard Frank as the head of Walt Disney TV & Telecommunications, has maintained a relatively low profile while the former consumer-products exec gets his bearings.

Good TV

In the meantime, Disney TV came through the current primetime selling season in good shape under network prexy Dean Valentine, selling five new shows for the networks’ fall lineups, with nine series scheduled in all. That ties with Paramount for third among all suppliers, behind Warner Bros. and Columbia TriStar TV.

That may come as a relief in some respect, since Frank’s exit at the height of network TV development season was seen as being particularly ill-timed. It’s also notable that Disney and DreamWorks are in what could turn into a major shoving match over their midseason ABC comedy series – respectively, “Buddies” and “Champs” – with both players wanting their show to get a shot at airing in the coveted timeslot behind Disney’s “Home Improvement.”

During the first six months of the fiscal 1995 year (October through March), revenues for filmed entertainment increased 31% to $3.33 billion and operating income grew 51% to $755.2 million, due to the success of films “The Lion King” and Miramax’s “Pulp Fiction” plus the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” video release.

The year started with a slew of weak offerings that included “Houseguest,” “Jerky Boys” and “Heavyweights.” But Disney followed with a one-two punch in April and May with “While You Were Sleeping” and “Crimson Tide.” Both pictures got significant marketing pushes. Roth spends more money, dumps the dogs and directs, rather than meddles, in marketing.

Marketing made savvier

After bumping chests on distribution dates with 20th Century Fox’s “Die Hard With a Vengeance,” “Crimson Tide” opened one week before on May 12. The actioner opened strong and – as expected – got side-swiped the following weekend by the “Die Hard” bow. Exhibition sources suggest that in retrospect, “Crimson Tide” possibly needed one more weekend before “Die Hard.”

In the latest move, the studio took “Dead Presidents” out of the July 19 slot, which leaves Paramount Pictures’ “Clueless” and Warner Bros.’ “Free Willy 2” in that slot.

Those at the studio call the marketing department the “Dick and Terry Show,” meaning that Richard Cook runs the marketing meetings with Terry Press acting as his right hand. Sources said that a head of distribution and a head of marketing will be named under Cook. Inside word is that Press will be named president of marketing and Phil Barlow will be named president of distribution.

Exploitation under way

Roth has also been redefining the labels. “I want to exploit the brand name of Walt Disney Pictures in live action like we did in animation,” said Roth. “We’re looking for our version of’ ‘Jurassic Park.’ There’s no reason that we can’t do that. I firmly believe that we can have big (live action) pictures twice a year from (Disney).”

The banner already has its “Jurassic Park” in a project called “Dinosaurs,” which will be the first collaboration between live-action and animation.

Looking ahead

In addition, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” will bow next summer. Promotional partner Burger King and Disney are joining hands once again on the animated pic, much to the dismay of BK rival McDonald’s Corp.

Live-action projects planned for the Disney label: Filmmaker John Hughes’ “101 Dalmatians,” “The Absent-Minded Professor” and a big-budget “Journey to the Center of the Earth.”

“It’s very gratifying that he is being so strongly supportive of Walt Disney Pictures and is encouraging the label to be so competitive with the biggest family movies at other studios,” said Disney production president David Vogel.

Arnold Schwarzenegger also could join the Disney label with “Crossbow,” which he has been developing for some time.

At Hollywood Pictures, he got Robin Williams for “Jack” with Francis Ford Coppola and grabbed Whoopi Goldberg to star in two comedies: “Eddie” and “The Associate.” Touchstone Pictures has put a number of projects into turnaround, and Roth said he wants to get “larger, star-driven dramatic projects” out of Touchstone such as the John Travolta starring “Phenomenon,” and the Robert Redford/Michelle Pfieffer starrer “Up Close and Personal.”

And the studio is also talking to Harrison Ford about teaming with director Ron Howard on “Ransom.” On the studio’s 1996 summer slate is “Eddie,” “James and the Giant Peach,” the animated “Hunchback,” and the sports film “Celtic Pride.”

The Eddie Murphy starrer “Metro” and the live-action “101 Dalmatians” are in line for Thanksgiving, with the Madonna-starring “Evita” and Robin Williams in “Jack” in at Christmas.

Executives are still trying to come to terms with the vast changes that have occurred in terms of personnel.

Several sources noted that Katzenberg was much more concerned with details, where Roth puts elements in place and then lets the executives take charge. As one Roth supporter appropriately put it, “He puts his players in place and let’s them play ball.”

Parenthetically, there are more sports pictures than ever at the labels. Hollywood has two basketball pictures, “Eddie” and “Celtic Pride”; Touchstone has the baseball drama “Mr. 3000”; while Disney has two soccer movies: “The Big Green” and “Cardiac Express.”

“I was involved in five baseball movies in my career and they’ve always done well,” said Roth, who produced “Major League” and oversaw the basketball comedy “White Men Can’t Jump.” “I like sports movies. They are very easy ways to tell stories.”

“It’s become kind of a joke. I had a meeting with someone who said, ‘Joe’s not going to go for this.’ He said, ‘Just put some basketball in it, he’ll love it,’ ” said one source who added – in a furtive whisper – “identify me only a s ‘a source.’ “

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