Eisner buoys marketing maven to chairman

Just four days before what could prove a lively shareholders meeting today in Hartford, Conn., Walt Disney Co. CEO Michael Eisner quietly promoted the low-key, 31-year Disney exec Richard Cook to chairman of the Walt Disney Studios.

Cook’s appointment, announced Friday, ends eight months of uncertainty over who would take the slot left vacant when former Disney chairman Peter Schneider abruptly ankled last June.

Eisner’s move appears intended to prove to all who care to listen that the Mouse House is indeed stable. But it’s unclear what changes Cook’s promotion will augur as Disney’s travails persist: Ratings at the company’s ABC Television Network have plummeted; theme-park profits have slipped; and Disney’s stock price continues to underperform.

Handing the studio chairman reins to Cook comes after Eisner had openly approached several high-profile talent-friendly producers, including Brian Grazer and Armyan Bernstein. The forceful, often feared, studio topper was clearly gunning for a high-profile, creative outsider to run the studio.

But Eisner did not get his man.

Instead, he has played it safe in selecting Cook, the consummate Mouse House insider known for his soft-spoken, noncombative and jovial nature but relatively unknown to Hollywood’s creative community.

Started at Disneyland

Cook, who began his career in 1970 as a ride operator at Disneyland, has steadily risen through Disney’s ranks as a key marketing and distribution exec. He is known as an orchestrator of grand movie premieres, including last year’s gala “Pearl Harbor” launch, staged on the John C. Stennis aircraft carrier in Honolulu and the 1996 “101 Dalmatians” preem, held in Gotham’s Radio City Music Hall.

But unlike former chairman Joe Roth, some insiders say, Cook lacks the well-oiled relationships with actors, directors, filmmakers and top tier agents. Nor does he have the track record of Schneider, whose animation acumen brought him a solid reputation within the creative community, though not always on the film side.

Still, Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson contends Cook has the goods to run the studio creatively. “Dick has everything it takes to succeed in the job,” Jacobson said. “He has a lot of great relationships with producers, directors and actors.”

Cook has been the de facto day-to-day head of operations at the studio over the past eight months and is credited with bringing back to the Disney fold former Fox chairman Bill Mechanic. Cook’s former colleague and friend Mechanic recently struck a wide-ranging five-year production deal with the Mouse House. Cook, working closely with Jacobson, also was responsible for hooking in prolific producer Robert Simonds, who most recently delivered “Corky Romano” to the studio.

Free rein?

But it’s questionable whether Eisner will grant Cook the creative freedom to make crucial decisions and what, if any, impact his appointment will have on Wall Street, given the studio’s ailing stock price and broader travails.

Cook will also be expected to stabilize the studio’s senior creative ranks, which have been rocked by high-level defections such as Roth and recently have been beset by rumors of further turmoil.

He will also have to reverse the 2001 trend, which saw Disney rank fourth in overall market share for the first time in seven years, in spite of increased profitability.

Cook said Friday he will not make any substantial changes to the kinds of movies Disney is committed to make, adhering to the plan of packaging approximately 18-20 pics a year. The Mouse House pics will be, he said, a combination of family-oriented, animated fare and action titles traditionally delivered by Disney’s two most prolific production outfits — Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Spyglass Entertainment.

“We will continue to seek out and find the best stories to tell and make them the best way to tell them,” Cook said. “It has always been our mandate to make the Disney live-action movies a priority and find as many great stories to tell as we can, and continue on the path started by my predecessors, which has produced such pics as ‘The Princess Diaries,’ ‘The Rookie’ and ‘Remember the Titans.’ “

Cook rebuffed criticism that he lacks a profile in the creative community, pointing out that in his various exec posts at the studio, he has built relationships with key filmmakers.

“It is true I grew up in the distribution and marketing arena,” he said, “but I have had fabulous opportunities over the last many years to work with the best filmmakers in the world, and while most of it was not directly on the production side, I do not think there’s a single preview of any movie I have not attended. I have gotten to know all the filmmakers quite well over this time. I really don’t think it will be any major adjustment.”

Cook, who for the past six years has held the title chairman of the Buena Vista Motion Picture Group, will now head production for the Walt Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures banners. In addition, he will be responsible for worldwide distribution and marketing for live-action and feature animated films, worldwide home entertainment operations and the studio’s legal and business affairs. He reports both to Eisner and Robert Iger, president and chief operating officer.

The accolades

“I can think of no executive more capable of continuing the studios’ legacy of creative excellence and box- office success than Dick,” Eisner said in a statement. “And thanks to Dick and his team, audiences will have much to look forward to with an upcoming slate that includes such outstanding family films as ‘Lilo & Stitch,’ ‘The Rookie’ and ‘Country Bears,’ as well as thrillers such as ‘Signs’ and the much-anticipated action-film ‘Bad Company.’ ”

Iger added: “Dick is renowned for his skill and experience in theatrical marketing and distribution, as well as his breadth of knowledge regarding all aspects of the film industry, from creative storytelling to exhibition. Equally important, he is rightly respected as a great team-builder, forging strong relationships with industry partners and also building what can only be described as a world-class executive team at the Walt Disney Studios.”

Continuing to report to Cook will be Jacobson, president of the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group; Bruce Hendricks, president of motion picture production; Robert Chapek, president of Buena Vista Home Entertainment; Mark Zoradi, president of Buena Vista Intl. and Home Entertainment Intl.; Charles Viane, president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution; and Oren Aviv, president of Buena Vista Pictures Marketing.

In 1971 Cook became a Disneyland sales rep and was promoted to manager of sales for the theme park. Cook moved to the Walt Disney Studios in 1977, serving as manager of pay television and nontheatrical releases. In addition, he was responsible for the early planning stages of Disney Channel. In 1980, he was named assistant domestic sales manager for Buena Vista and subsequently became vice president and general sales manager, and then senior VP of Buena Vista Pictures.

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