Mouse to Mouse resuscitation

Surprise film hits reanimate Disney

Dick Cook is a happy camper. The chairman of Walt Disney Studios has two of the summer’s biggest hits. With $912 million in grosses, the Mouse House currently ranks No. 1 in domestic market share, while its summer numbers are up 16% from last year.

But Cook’s been around a long time and he’s smart enough not to gloat.

After all, two giant problems are looming:

Michael Eisner, an irascible dealmaker, is making noises that he may not renew the company’s deal with Pixar, the golden child of the animation business.

Further, Eisner’s relations with Miramax have reached such acrimony that the relationship with that key Disney supplier may be modified.

Cook, well-known as a corporate survivor, is aware of the big picture: Though things are going extremely well at his studio, he knows many other sectors of the Disney empire are wobbly. So, rather than celebrating, he exudes soulful stoicism.

“The moons have to be aligned right in order to have this kind of year,” says Cook. “We know how fortunate we are to have a group of films work commercially, economically and creatively and we don’t take it for granted.”

That attitude is shared by Nina Jacobson, the Buena Vista Motion Pictures Group prexy who at first may appear an unusual teammate for Cook.

He is a soft-spoken, bottomline-oriented Disney marketing and distribution vet with a keen commercial eye; Jacobson is an outspoken, passionate exec known for her artistic and offbeat taste. He is the quintessential team player; she is more of a maverick.

But the pairing works.

Cook, who is two years into his current job, and Jacobson, who has been at the studio for 5½ years, are enjoying a rare period of stability after years of exec turmoil.

Their summer smashes — Pixar’s “Finding Nemo” and the Jerry Bruckheimer-produced “Pirates of the Caribbean” — will wind up as two of the year’s top-grossing pics.

Just as crucially, nearly every release this year has been a profit-maker, including such Disney pics as “The Lizzie McGuire Movie,” “Holes” the animated “Jungle Book 2” and “Piglet’s Big Movie,” and the bigscreen-formatted “Ghosts of the Abyss.”

On the Touchstone side, the company is bullish on upcoming films like “Open Range,” “Veronica Guerin,” “Under the Tuscan Sun,” “Calendar Girls” and “The Alamo.” The studio also thinks these pics have Oscar potential — a tantalizing thought for the only major studio that’s never won a best-film Academy Award.

In terms of the Disney label, Cook and Jacobson have successfully taken up the challenge laid down by predecessor Peter Schneider and managed to broaden and refocus the brand.

As for Touchstone, Jacobson has been focusing on building relationships in Hollywood and making off-center matches between filmmakers and material to give the slate a more eclectic and provocative feel.

The studio is also in the process of reupping key supplier Bruckheimer under a multiyear deal and has added a number of key suppliers to the Disney fold — including old pals Bill Mechanic, Armyan Bernstein and NRG founders Joe Farrell and Catherine Paura to bolster the studio’s motion picture slate and offer a wider array of co-financing opportunities.

But it’s the longstanding relationships with Pixar and Miramax that are worrying.

After all five of its pics were wildly successful, Pixar wants to knock the Mouse’s role down to a distrib-for-hire, while Disney continues to insist on a broader relationship.They need each other.

But with “Finding Nemo” threatening to overthrow “The Lion King” as the studio’s biggest-grossing film ever, Pixar is in a strong bargaining position.

Disney could continue to make its own films and, thanks to terms of the original deal, it could develop inhouse sequels to Pixar hits like “Nemo” and “Monsters Inc.”

But the loss of Pixar could mean a financial headache and would certainly be a PR black-eye.

“This relationship over the past 10 years has probably been the most successful partnership in Hollywood history,” says Cook. “It’s certainly our hope and desire to continue that, and we are both trying to work to see that happen, but there are no guarantees.”

Pixar’s last two pix under the current agreement are “The Incredibles” and “Cars,” to be released by Disney in November 2004 and an unslated date in 2005.

Disney is also experiencing mounting tension with Miramax.

The Mouse House gives the company autonomy for lower-budgeted fare but must approve bigger-budget pics. Miramax is seeking more freedom by partnering with various equity partners who would fund projects as part of a portfolio or on a pic-by-pic basis.

Cook and Jacobson have been working hard to dispel the argument that the studio’s corporate mindset has blurred Disney’s gameplan for its movie division. In the past, filmmakers and their reps seemed confused about what the studio was seeking.

But Jacobson maintains there is no confusion over the mandate and that the character of both the Walt Disney Pictures and the Touchstone labels is clear.

“Both Dick and I, and Peter (Schneider) beforehand, all felt the Disney brand is capable of encompassing so many things that we’ve tried to focus on themes as the defining characteristic of the label rather than the audience,” explains Jacobson.

A case in point, she says, is the studio’s Aug. 1 launch, “Freaky Friday,” a Disney oldie that has been retooled, modernized and sexed up for a new audience and could prove to be a sleeper hit this summer.

“We’d never wanted to take on the nature of adolescence and parental conflict in a Disney movie in the past,” says Jacobson. “We’d never have a daughter saying to her mother ‘you’ve ruined my life.’ I think it forges new territory for the brand.”

“Pirates” is a similar ground-breaker. It is one of the Mouse House’s riskiest and most expensive movies ever — costing $145 million and sporting Walt Disney Pictures’ first PG-13 rating.

” ‘Pirates’ is important for us for a lot of reasons and clearly it’s a bit of a departure for us,” says Cook. “The action and intensity is stronger than we’ve had in prior movies.”

The pic has not only surpassed industry B.O. expectations but has also provided Disney with a homegrown live-action franchise: Plans already are afoot for a “Pirates 2.”

The Mouse House also has hopes for a franchise based on another theme-park attraction with its upcoming Eddie Murphy starrer “Haunted Mansion.”

With Touchstone, Jacobson says the modus operandi has been to focus on “repeat business with great filmmakers,” with new pix from producer Bruckheimer (“King Arthur” directed by Antoine Fuqua, “National Treasure” directed by Jon Turteltaub), M. Night Shyamalan (“The Woods”), Wes Anderson (“Life Aquatic”), the Coen brothers (a remake of “The Ladykillers”).

Also upcoming in 2004 are “Mr. 3000,” directed by Charles Stone, “Princess Diaries 2,” and director Adam Shankman’s “Enchanted.”

“That’s the ultimate report card for us,” says Jacobson. “We’ve not been known for filmmaker friendliness in the past and so to be the first choice for great filmmakers or an acceptable choice, to be taken seriously by filmmakers is enormously important to me and Dick.”

The studio is still very much committed to releasing a number of tentpoles per year on key release dates while remaining fiscally responsible.

“We’ll always be about tentpoles but it’s also about finding a balance,” says Cook. “A ‘Freaky Friday,’ ‘Bringing Down the House’ or ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ are no less important to us than a ‘Pirates’ or a ‘Haunted Mansion.’ It’s about putting together a balanced slate.”

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