Disney looking to acquire animator

With talks between the Mouse and Pixar at a very sensitive stage, insiders say the Walt Disney Co. is looking to acquire the animator, as opposed to merely reaching a new distribution agreement.

Disney CEO Robert Iger declined to discuss the negotiations at a Variety and PricewaterhouseCoopers event on Wednesday night. It’s still unclear exactly how close the two parties are to an agreement and when a deal may be done.

In an onstage conversation with Daily Variety editor-in-chief Peter Bart, Iger did elaborate on his suggestion last year that, in the face of consumer demand, the day will come when the window between a film’s theatrical and DVD release would be eliminated, so that a video would be sold on the same day that a movie debuts.

Although the idea sends many exhibitors into a dither, Iger predicted that major studios will experiment with releasing movies and selling the DVD at the same time. Later this month, Steven Soderbergh will release his film “Bubble” at the same time that it is released on Mark Cuban’s video-on-demand site HDNet. “I actually believe in the inevitability of short windows,” Iger said.

With just over 100 days at the helm of Disney, Iger was the featured guest at the forum of traditional and new-media execs called “Parting the Digital Fog,” held at the Beverly Hills Hotel.

It was Iger who, just weeks after assuming his post, struck a deal with Apple to offer ABC’s “Lost” and “Desperate Housewives” for download on Apple’s iTunes site.

Deal forced CBS and NBC, as well as several cable nets, to scramble to reach their own deals with new-media companies.

ABC’s deal, like those at other networks, has had affiliates and retailers worried that consumers will simply turn to the Internet for content. Affils initially reacted with “trepidation,” Iger said, and mass retailers “had concerns. Some threats were made there, too.”

But, Iger said, “Everyone sort of calmed down and took a wait-and-see approach. It might not make sense to be overreacting to any one new initiative because there are going to be so many of them.”

Since taking his post, Iger has surprised the industry not only with his dealmaking and comments on the future but by fence-mending measures with the likes of former adversaries Roy Disney and Stanley Gold. Iger said his goal was to make the company “a great place for people to work for and work with.”

Nevertheless, even as he reaches for the new-media sector, Wall Street investors have yet to respond to Disney and other media stocks, in part because of the perception that traditional media has little growth left in it.

“The so-called traditional media companies have to figure out a way to articulate how they can grow their businesses when they are largely mature,” Iger said. “And not only articulate it but prove that they can do so.”

Iger predicted the major studios will scale back the number of films they make.

Iger even signaled that Disney’s Touchstone label would cut its output, as the company concentrates on so-called Disney-branded films that play better across multiple distribution outlets.

“I see a day when you will see far fewer Touchstone films than ever before,” he said.

Like all the studios, Disney is trying to reduce the risk on its feature production. It signed a $370 million deal last fall to co-finance a slate of films through an investment vehicle called Kingdom Films, in which private equity investors put up a share of money. Iger said that they saw the need for the deal because “when we looked at our returns in the movie business, we were not overly impressed.”

“In our case the answer is really to reduce our investment capital in the business,” he said. “I think you are seeing a trend … already, with Time Warner and NBC Universal (moving) in that direction across the board, which should result in fewer movies being made. And I think that is probably a wise correction.”

Admitting he sounded like an advertisement for Disney, Iger said the Mouse House will be looking for branded content and to remain consumer-friendly. “If we are overly reverential to the old ways, defined by the old business model and traditions, then the business is going to pass us by,” he said.

“Consumers really don’t give a damn about those rules.”

The hosts of the event at the Beverly Hills Hotel were Charlie Koones, Variety Group’s president and publisher, and Deborah Bothun, U.S. advisory leader of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ entertainment and media practice. Event also featured a panel that included Terry Denson, vice president of programming and marketing for Verizon FIOS TV; Tim Hanlon, senior VP and director at Publicis Groupe Media Ventures; and Fox Interactive Media prexy Ross Levinsohn. Tom Wolzien of Wolzien LLC moderated.

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