Mouse ups Johnson to prexy

In a major reshuffle at the top of Disney’s international operations, Michael Johnson was upped Wednesday to president of Walt Disney Intl. His promotion came the same day that Etienne de Villiers ankled his post as prexy and managing director of Walt Disney Intl. Europe.

Johnson and De Villiers held similar titles as toppers of all Mouse House international activities in Asia and Europe, respectively.

Johnson’s appointment comes on the heels of Robert Iger’s ascension in January to the roles of president and chief operations officer of the Walt Disney Co. Given his increased corporate responsibilities, Iger had been looking for a hands-on executive to relieve him of day-to-day oversight of the international operations.

Johnson will in effect be the numero uno for all theatrical, homevideo, free and pay TV, channel launches and business development outside of North America. The accent, under Johnson, is likely to be put on this last activity:

“I see us becoming a new business incubator, getting involved in new business startups in a variety of territories,” Johnson told Daily Variety. He added that the company would soon unveil some Internet-based businesses in Asia, for example.

Unify divisions

Johnson, 45, will also lead the company’s efforts to ensure that the various international divisions operate in unison and with the same strategic vision around the world. He will be responsible for regional marketing, brand management and consumer research, and will help identify acquisition opportunities and strategic alliances.

Individual managers for specific geographic regions or countries will report to Johnson. One of his first tasks will be to replace De Villiers, whose resignation leaves the most crucial and lucrative foreign region without a topper.

A Disney rep said that Johnson, De Villiers and Diego Lerner, the Latin America regional prexy, have spent the past nine months beefing up their own management teams to handle theatrical, homevideo, TV and channel development in their respective regions.

It’s likely that an exec from within those ranks will be promoted to the top Euro job. Johnson will also need to be replaced in Asia.

Johnson had served as president and managing director, Walt Disney Intl. Asia, since last June. He had been commuting back and forth between the regional office in Tokyo and Burbank for the past nine months.

“Michael has tremendous skills as an international manager and has overseen a broad range of business initiatives with great success,” Iger said in a statement.

Disney is the only Hollywood major to structure its international operations regionally and vertically, with single execs overseeing an array of different businesses.

Several sources at other Hollywood majors said at the time of the restructure last June they found the Disney structure “perplexing” because it tasked three execs in three different foreign regions with oversight of many disparate activities. Other sources, however, argued that the new structure was bound to improve synergies across the company’s various divisions.

Those divisions are indeed complex and layered. On the film side, for example, Buena Vista Intl. president Mark Zoradi, who like Johnson is based in Burbank, has management responsibilities over both foreign theatrical and foreign homevideo for the Disney studio. Zoradi reports to Walt Disney Motion Picture Group chairman Dick Cook. Johnson reports to Iger.

Johnson joined Disney in 1986. He was appointed president of Buena Vista Home Video Intl. in 1992 and was named president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment in 1997 when the North American and international homevideo organizations were merged.

Reorganized groups

Johnson reorganized the U.S. and international video groups into a single business, established a worldwide marketing organization, boosted Disney’s video rental markets and established Buena Vista Home Entertainment as the worldwide distributor for Hayao Miyazaki, one of Japan’s leading animators.

Under Johnson’s direction, Disney’s original 34 homevideo markets were expanded to more than 80. In addition, Johnson spearheaded Disney’s early entry into the global DVD market.

The South African-born de Villiers, 50, joined Disney 14 years ago. He oversaw the expansion and regionalization of Disney’s overseas TV operations. Based in London, he will leave his Euro job at the end of April to pursue opportunities in new media.

De Villiers told Daily Variety that Mouse House supremo Michael Eisner had recently wanted to offer him a position in the U.S., but he was unwilling to leave the U.K.

“I’ve got to a juncture in my career that makes it the right time to leave,” de Villiers said. “And at this stage of my life I really don’t want to go to L.A.”

It is not clear if the overture from Eisner was the same international job that Wednesday went to Johnson.

De Villiers’ previous post was head of Walt Disney Television Intl., a job he was upped to in 1994 after six years as managing director of the Walt Disney Co. in Britain.

Disney’s international reach more than doubled under de Villiers’ tenure.

Among his achievements was the launch of eight Disney channels, the acquisition of a 25% stake in ITV network channel GMTV, the popular morning TV service in the U.K., and sealing a partnership with Germany’s Super RTL.

De Villiers also negotiated long-term programming deals with Germany’s Kirch Group and Italy’s Telepiu.

(Don Groves in Sydney contributed to this report.)

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