The Mouse stands tall

Disney regroups with cautious slate mandate

Pixar’s gone, at least for the time being. Miramax toppers Harvey and Bob Weinstein are finalizing their exit visas. Thus Disney is waving goodbye to entities that supplied more than 41% of its film grosses and virtually all of its Oscar noms.

Talk to Mouse House toppers, however, and their attitude is: What, me worry? They’re not fretting about lost product; they’re delighted to have more resources at their disposal.

The approach followed by studio chairman Dick Cook and production prexy Nina Jacobson is already so careful that it would be hard for the studio to become much more cautious.

Head-Mousketeer-in-waiting Bob Iger spelled out the philosophy succinctly in a recent meeting with analysts.

“I will be managing for the bottom line — not the headline,” Iger said — which pretty much validates what Cook and Jacobson are doing already.

The statement was striking, coming as it did at a time when his competitor, Viacom, is throwing out the rule book, hiring a TV exec, Gail Berman, to shake up Paramount Pictures.

“They don’t really work outside the box,” says one producer who has made movies with Disney.

Other producers note that Disney takes fewer risks on material or casting than any other studio.

There are also complaints that business affairs and legal have too much say over what gets made, and that the studio has trouble putting together big movies as a result.

Their bottom line-oriented management style doesn’t mean they end up working with big-name talent, however.

For example, M. Night Shyamalan, who’s made four hit films for them, is making his next movie for Warner Bros.

“We look forward to working with him in the future,” said a Disney spokesperson. But for now, this leaves the Disney slate decidedly low on high-profile creative talent.

As far as bottom-line performance, Disney has it. Mouse House usually wins the annual domestic box office race, thanks to a consistent mix (though also thanks usually to monster hits from Pixar and two or three Jerry Bruckheimer pics).

Disney’s slate features few $100 million pics or tentpoles. The big exceptions are the two “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, being made back-to-back.

The studio’s execs also have a fondness for pics that come in under the radar, which helps keep marketing costs down.

In fact, there’s considerable pride at Disney in the way “Pirates of the Caribbean” — an expensive and unconventional project at the time — seemed to come out of nowhere to become a hit.

“We’d rather have a sleeper than an overhyped movie that arrives with a lot of expectations on it,” says Cook.

The studio’s slate for next year is fairly typical of the Cook/Jacobson regime. The mix includes a remake of a familiar Disney title (“The Shaggy Dog”); a teen-girl movie (“Stick It”); several big-ticket, action-tinged movies from Bruckheimer; a Pixar pic; and a Disney toon.

Riskier projects, when they show up, tend to be developed outside the studio’s direct control, be it at Bruckheimer or at an outside producer like Spyglass, which developed April release “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” — a pic that Disney now hopes will be another sleeper hit.

For every chance taken on an indie director like Mark Waters, whose “Freaky Friday” paid off handsomely, there’s a misstep like last year’s “The Life Aquatic,” a financial and artistic disappointment.

The slate has few, if any, of the type of dramas that typically snag Oscar noms. (Of the 2004 Oscar contenders, Miramax got 20, Pixar got four, and Buena Vista itself got two, for music score and animated short.)

Also scarce are the “event” pics that become must-see movies and generate eye-popping grosses.

The virtues of the Mouse House strategy are corporate virtues: The Disney brand is protected; costs are contained; return on investment is made more predictable.

Think safety.

This is not the studio to look to for the sexy sizzle of showmanship. P.T. Barnum would die of boredom at Disney.

On the surface, the team behind this strategy is one of the true odd couples in the film biz.

The moon-faced Cook is reserved, someone you’d expect to find sipping a Diet Coke in the clubhouse of a Pasadena country club.

Jacobson is as lean as a marathoner, energetic, verbal and intense, all sharp angles and elbows.

Cook and Jacobson share some key attitudes, though. Neither is likely to ever try to become the public face of the company. Nor are they trying to impress the town or film critics.

Talk to them about the studio’s plans and you’re not likely to hear about the latest star they’ve signed to a housekeeping deal, or how much award buzz they’re getting, or even their market share.

They’re far more likely to talk about resource allocation and return on investment.

In a nutshell, they can sound more like bankers than showmen. Bottom line first, headlines, well, whenever.

That has earned them, though, a level of trust that Michael Eisner didn’t always give their predecessors.

Power is also more decentralized than under such previous studio chiefs as Joe Roth or Jeffrey Katzenberg. No single person has the authority they had to push a big movie through the pipeline.

All of that may leave Cook and Jacobson well insulated from the boardroom battles, but the Pixar and Miramax questions are closer to home. Disney insiders bristle, though, when the Miramax and Pixar situations are lumped together.

From the Disney corporate point of view, Miramax was about headlines, not the bottom line.

In their eyes, it had become too expensive, it wasn’t profitable enough, and the good will that it earned with its award buzz and artist relationships didn’t make up the difference.

Some at Disney are only too happy to show the Weinsteins the door, find a new Miramax topper who’ll give the company cred in the indie community and let the company return to distributing six to 10 indie-type pics a year — on considerably reduced budgets.

At Pixar, by contrast, Steven Jobs’ animation house churns out monster hits that it can market under the Disney label, feeds the theme parks a steady diet of characters and merchandising opportunities, and doesn’t cost Disney a dime in overhead.

It’s no coincidence that when Iger got the nod to succeed Eisner, one of his first moves was to try for a rapprochement with Pixar.

But Iger has also said that the studio will pursue five sequels to the pics it’s distributed for Pixar, and Jobs has long been on record saying he feels “sick” at the idea. It’s hard to see how Iger’s sequels pronouncement will do anything but exacerbate tensions between the companies.

Disney would have more leverage with Pixar if its own toon division were to have a hit. This summer’s contender is CGI kidpic “Chicken Little,” opening in July.

Animation topper David Stainton made his corporate bones running the direct-to-video side of the animation department. That business has been enormously profitable, but most of those pics are sequels, like “Lion King 1½” and “Pocahontas 2,” and don’t create fodder for the theme parks the way the successful Disney toons of the past — or the recent Pixar hits — did.

Without Pixar or a strong toon division, Disney would not only lose a big part of its financial safety net, but a platform for marketing its other pics.

Iger’s “bottom line” statement seems to validate Cook and Jacobson’s strategy. Plus the company appears poised for a big 2006, with “Pirates” and “Santa Clause” sequels joining Pixar’s “Cars” on the slate.

If Disney’s toon department delivers, or if Pixar reups, the profits will continue to pile up and there’ll be little incentive for the studio to change.

The problem is that six months from now the company will need an image makeover — or an image, period. Eisner and Harvey Weinstein, the men who’ve personified Disney to the movie industry, will be gone.

That makeover’s already under way, with Eisner saying that he will be Iger’s “junior partner” from now on — though some who’ve dealt with the studio find the idea laughable.

Iger’s already staking out the role of conciliator, separating himself from the more confrontational Eisner.

He may not have come up in the movie world, but Cook and Jacobson are comfortable with him in the CEO role because he comes from a content-creating background, not finance.

Says Cook, “Most importantly he understands the people who are involved in the process.”

But sooner or later, the studio’s management will have to make headlines to boost the bottom line. What will they do then?

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