Hollywood wonders who will take the reins

Disney has hammered home one message lately: It wants to return to the family fare its brand is built upon.

But Dick Cook’s sudden departure Friday as the studio’s chairman suggests the Mouse has one very dysfunctional family of its own, and underscores that it’ll have some big shoes to fill if it’s to keep the studio’s ambitious pipeline — including the fourth installment in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series — on track.

Cook has spent the past 38 years at the company, starting off as a ride operator on Disneyland’s steam train in 1971 and moving up the distribution and production ranks over the years before becoming chairman in 2002.

He had shown little interest in wanting to leave his post anytime soon — he was front and center touting the studio’s projects at the recent D23 fan convention — and the circumstances of his ankling were strange: an immediate departure, announced through a press release Friday afternoon, which surprised the town as people headed into the weekend.

Officially, Cook and Disney sold the move as the end of a long run.

“To wrap up my Disney experience in a neatly bundled statement is close to impossible,” Cook said. “Our talent roster is simply the best in the business. I believe our slate of upcoming motion pictures is the best in our history. But most of all, I love the people, my colleagues, my teammates, who are the most talented, dedicated and loyal folks in the world. I know that I leave the studio in their exceptional hands.”

Behind the scenes, however, Cook told colleagues a different story. During a meeting with staffers, Cook declared that change is coming at the studio and that he isn’t part of that future. He called himself a “square peg in a round hole.”

Disney topper Bob Iger has been keen on overhauling the types of films the studio makes, wanting to focus on tentpoles that can drive the rest of the company’s divisions — theme parks, TV, videogames, websites, consumer products. The $4 billion takeover of Marvel Entertainment will provide such tentpoles.

At minimum Iger wants the films to be more profitable, after the studio endured a string of pics that disappointed at the box office last year and early this year, including “Race to Witch Mountain,” “Bedtime Stories,” “Confessions of a Shopaholic” and “G-Force,” a run that prompted him to tell Wall Street analysts the problem wasn’t “the marketplace. It’s our slate.” Cook may have been butting heads with Iger over the new direction of the studio, but he wasn’t entirely opposed to it. He was instrumental in getting Johnny Depp to star in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise and encouraged Steve Jobs to sell Pixar to Disney and made John Lasseter the head of Disney’s toon studio. More recently, he helped bring Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks onto the lot.

He also recently launched the labels Disneynature (to produce nature docs) and Disney’s Double Dare You (for scarier toons) with Guillermo del Toro, and only Jeffrey Katzenberg back in his day outdid Cook as a 3D cheerleader. In 2005, Disney was the first studio to embrace digital 3D with the release of “Chicken Little,” and it has since produced more 3D pics than any other studio.

During Cook’s tenure, the studio passed the billion-dollar mark at the domestic box office 12 times in 15 years and reached the that milestone for 15 consecutive years at the international B.O.

One of Cook’s key strengths was his close relationships with filmmakers and his ability to talk to talent. And for executives on the lot, Cook was almost a father figure who kept things stable.

Now that he’s gone, there’s a heightened sense of uncertainty over what else may soon happen at the studio under current production prexy Oren Aviv.

Depp has been vocal in the wake of Cook’s departure on whether he’ll proceed with another “Pirates,” saying, “There’s a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment.” And while he’d declared himself onboard for the prospect of a fourth film, his deal is not yet done. It remains to be seen whether Cook’s exit creates any rifts that Iger and Aviv cannot resolve.

Iger’s tapping of a new chairman will surely lead to more layoffs, as regime changes often do.

Marvel’s Kevin Feige, DreamWorks’ Stacey Snider and the Disney Channel’s Rich Ross have been mentioned by some around town as possible candidates to replace Cook, based on their experience in shepherding franchise films. But many put Lasseter higher on the prospect list, given his success at re-energizing Disney’s animation slate, his consistent talent for picking hits and his ability to interact effectively with filmmakers.

“It’s all about whether (Lasseter) wants it,” one Disney exec said.

But another said, “He already has enough to do.”

Whomever Iger chooses, they’ll have to possess all of those traits, and more.

Disney wanted more talent on the lot to produce its moneymaking tentpoles. Now it needs someone who can deal with the egos that go with them.

Cook leaves the studio on a high note, with Disney’s upcoming slate the strongest it’s been in years. Upcoming pics include Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” Robert Zemeckis’ “A Christmas Carol,” “Tron Legacy,” Jerry Bruckheimer’s “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” a planned fourth “Pirates,” “The Lone Ranger,” McG’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” new installments of “Toy Story” and “Cars,” as well as the introduction of a new princess in “The Princess and the Frog.”

Yet all those films come with a high pricetag, and Iger’s been looking more closely at big budgets given that, during its recent quarter, the studio lost money for the first time since 2005.

Iger simply thanked Cook for his “tremendous passion for Disney.”

“On behalf of everyone at Disney, we wish him the best with all the future has to offer,” he said.

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