One-Two punch

Though riding high, studio chiefs Dick Cook and Nina Jacobson are not resting on their laurels

With “Pirates of the Caribbean” and “Finding Nemo” both making a splash at the box office this summer, Walt Disney Studios is looking at one of its most profitable years in history.

Better still, the last major studio to never win a picture Oscar has attracted the kinds of filmmakers and projects that the Academy can get behind: M. Night Shyamalan (“The Woods”), Joel and Ethan Coen (“The Ladykillers”) and Wes Anderson (“The Life Aquatic”) among them.

In addition, Disney has high hopes for this year’s top prize with John Lee Hancock’s “The Alamo,” as well as such titles as “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Veronica Guerin,” “Nemo” and “Pirates” vying for acting and craft kudos.

The flip side of this sunny forecast are two major challenges directly ahead : Senior management execs are in the process of hammering out a new deal with “Nemo” supplier Pixar. And they are trying to soothe tensions between Disney chairman-CEO Michael Eisner and Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein as the latter’s business becomes more a direct competitor.

Despite the boardroom intrigue, Disney’s success this year is in part due to an unusual period of management stability that has buoyed the motion picture ranks under Walt Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook and Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson.

Cook is a Disney veteran of 31 years, a key marketing and distribution exec who was formally Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group chairman and was elevated to studio chair in February 2002, taking the reins after a number of high-level defections. Jacobson has been in her post for seven years.

Though the two may seem unusual corporate allies — Cook is a well-known corporate survivor, Jacobson an outspoken and passionate advocate of unorthodox filmmakers — they have worked hard to reinvent the Walt Disney Pictures banner.

“In a town that still remembers how tough the original moguls were and how yelling and screaming were elevated to a style of getting things done, Dick comes from a different place,” says Armyan Bernstein, whose Beacon shingle is housed at Disney and was instrumental in bringing Kevin Costner to Disney to make “Open Range” for the studio.

“Nina is the perfect partner for Dick. They are very different in style and temperament and taste but together they keep each other honest and both challenge each other. The mood at Disney is like the mood on a team that’s winning.”

“I think we are trying to continue to strengthen our development to the point we only make movies we genuinely feed good about,” says Jacobson. “We don’t have to slam a slate together anymore. We can shape the slate with great intention, ambition and hope and these ambitions and hope are geared largely towards trying to generate material good enough to attract great filmmakers.”

On the Disney label front, the duo also has focused on reinventing, sexing up and expanding the brand. “I think it’s been a concerted effort on all our parts to continue to develop the Disney part of what we do in a major way,” says Cook. “Its about choosing the kinds of movies that are going to appeal to an entire family and will enhance the Disney label in every way.”

Releases that date back to 1999’s “The Insider” and continue with Shyamalan’s “Signs” (2002) and the Coen’s remake of the Alexander Mackendrick 1955 classic “The Ladykillers,” among others, don’t seem typical Disney fare.

That’s just the point, says Jacobson. “I think the traditional Disney movie is definitely a moving target these days.”

Like Paramount, Disney is often accused of being more penny-pinching than artistically daring. But Cook and Jacobson seemed to have found the right balance, which has been reflected in the bottom line.

“This probably sounds simplistic but we’ve been profitable by making the right picture at the right price,” says Cook. “Certain movies are going to cost more and we are in the big movie business while others are less expensive. You need a balance of the two.”

Part of this fiscal responsibility has been to bring new suppliers to the Disney lot to help split production costs.

Though Spyglass exited the studio to join DreamWorks and then Sony, Cook inked financing deals with Bernstein’s Beacon and Bill Mechanic’s Pandemonium shingles to bolster the studio’s output.

“These deals are important to us not only because they take away some of the risk but also they help us diversify our creative lineup,” says Cook. “Bill brings a real sensitivity and smart look at the marketplace, and brings us things we wouldn’t otherwise think about. And it’s the same with Beacon. They have a certain way of looking at the business and for us it’s a way to get a lot more bang for our buck in the production arena.”

Then there’s the Bruckheimer factor. The studio has housed the powerhouse producer for more than a decade, dating back to when Jerry Bruckheimer signed a pact with the studio in 1991 with then-partner Don Simpson. Disney and Bruckheimer re-upped by inking a new five-year deal.

Upcoming Bruckheimer projects include Antoine Fuqua’s “King Arthur,” starring Clive Owen and “Pirates'” breakout star Keira Knightley, and Jon Turteltaub’s Nicolas Cage starrer “National Treasure” — two Disney juggernauts for next year.

“Jerry is the big fish here and I hope he will be as long as we’re here,” says Jacobson. “He’s an amazing producer and we’re lucky to have him. He’s one in a million.”

Bruckheimer in turn praises Cook, Jacobson and Disney’s marketing and distribution team. “They are great people to work with. They are smart and have really good taste. It’s another reason I’m still here.”

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