Film arm hopes to bypass corporate crisis

While Disney’s corporate chieftains are locked in a struggle for survival, news from the studio front seems downright benign: Having experienced its best year ever at the box office, the movie division is purring along. Decisions are being made, projects are moving forward and interference from above is at a minimum.

However, the turmoil at the top has put the studio under scrutiny at a moment when its spring release slate is jammed with expensive features whose prospects are dicey.

Next up is “Hidalgo,” a period adventure starring Viggo Mortensen budgeted at more than $100 million.

On April 9, after a four-month delay, the studio will release “The Alamo,” which is also budgeted at better than $100 million. Critics have speculated the delay was due to an extensive retooling of the pic.

On the animation front, the end of the Pixar deal puts new pressure on the studio to deliver homegrown product.

On April 2, it will release its next inhouse animated pic, “Home on the Range.” This traditional 2-D animated production comes at a time when some toon mavens are saying 2-D animation is a dead art and the pic reportedly has a high pricetag.

The studio won’t have an original summer animation release in 2004 for the first time since 1993.

Every studio has its B.O. hits and misses, but the timing of these high-risk releases couldn’t be worse.

Disney isn’t the first studio to suffer fallout from turmoil at its parent company.

Universal’s film unit found its slate under heightened scrutiny at a time of financial and managerial upheaval at Vivendi.

And after Sony’s record-breaking “Spider-Man,” nobody expected managerial change. But when film profits dipped at that conglom this year, Sony appointed a new corporate watchdog, Michael Lynton.

If Disney chairman-CEO Michael Eisner could be stripped of one of his titles (the chairmanship, which went to board prexy George Mitchell), a couple of B.O. misses this spring could leave the senior management ranks of Disney’s movie division — headed by chairman Dick Cook and Motion Pictures Group prexy Nina Jacobson — also susceptible to change.

Regardless of the daily rehashing of Disney’s corporate woes in the media, Cook and Jacobson claim the pressure on them is the same no matter what is happening at the top.

That means, they say, continuing to deliver a commercial, well-balanced slate of expensive and less-expensive pics, and to attract and retain high-profile filmmakers.

“I think we feel the pressure to focus on the movies and not get distracted by the noise,” says Jacobson. “It’s an act of discipline to put the blinders on and only focus on the movies, because that’s the only thing we have control over.”

Producers claim the movie studio has shown neither paralysis nor delay in putting movies together and making deals.

“I certainly haven’t sensed there is any kind of trouble. Nina is keeping her head down and getting on with it, and Dick seems removed from the turmoil and able to continue making deals as usual and acting as a buffer between Eisner and the film division,” says one on-the-lot producer.

But Eisner’s beleaguered tenure could affect the studio in ways that are tough to predict.

Meanwhile, as shareholders traveled to Philadelphia last week for the company’s annual confab, the studio took double-truck ads in Variety, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers touting a deal to develop “The Chronicles of Narnia” with Walden Media. Rarely do development deals for even the most high-profile material get that sort of publicity.

Cook is well-regarded in the film community for having wooed a number of new suppliers to the lot — among them, Bill Mechanic and Armyan Bernstein — to bolster Disney’s slate, and for renewing the deal with the studio’s uber-producer, Jerry Bruckheimer.

He has also brought managerial confidence and stability to the studio.

Jacobson, in turn, has proven herself to be a decisive, straightforward exec who is passionate, makes decisions quickly and has worked hard to broaden Disney’s mandate for both the Touchstone and Disney labels. She kept high-profile filmmakers at the studio — including M. Night Shyamalan — and brought, among others, Walter Salles and Adam Shankman to the Mouse House.

Later this year, the studio is betting on such fare as Bruckheimer’s summer actioner “King Arthur,” starring Clive Owen, and the Nicolas Cage starrer “National Treasure.”

Also on the slate in the next few months are the Coen Brothers’ “The Ladykillers”; Shyamalan’s thriller “The Village”; the sequel to “The Princess Diaries”; Walden’s “Around the World in Eighty Days”; the Bernie Mac comedy “Mr. 3000″; Salles’ first pic for Disney, “Dark Water,” starring Jennifer Connelly; and at Christmas, Wes Anderson’s comedy “The Life Aquatic” and Pixar’s “The Incredibles.”

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