Mouse maven remains cool, collected

Iger has weathered many storms as Disney topper

“Bob Iger projects calm,” an agent told me the other day. “I never associated ‘calm’ with Disney before Iger came along.”

It’s been 10 years since Iger became president of the sprawling Disney empire and four years since he succeeded Michael Eisner as corporate CEO, and his reign has been far from tranquil. The company’s revenues have been dented by the recession, its film slate has been spotty and some of its theme parks, like California Adventure, have been desperately in need of resuscitation.

And last Friday, Dick Cook, the long-standing studio chairman, was removed with sudden, surgical efficiency — a development that shocked the company but satisfied Iger’s appetite for change and creative energy.

But here’s what has not happened: There have been no operatic and prolonged crises of the sort that traumatized the Mouse House in the Eisner era — the bizarre Michael Ovitz experiment, the $280 million settlement with Jeffrey Katzenberg, the absurdly overpriced Family Channel purchase, the incessant intrigues involving Steve Jobs, Roy Disney, Joe Roth and Iger himself.

Amazingly, Iger managed to weather these dramas and defy skeptics who suggested that he lacked the leadership dynamic. Indeed, his recent succession of megadeals — involving Pixar, DreamWorks and lately Marvel Entertainment — are being widely hailed among Iger’s financial constituencies.

The deals have received so much attention as to overshadow other Iger initiatives — the billions of dollars being allocated for two new cruise ships, creation of an immense new Disney resort in Oahu, and the reconstruction and reimagining of theme parks in Orlando, Anaheim and Hong Kong.

Ask Iger whether investments of this magnitude make sense in the middle of a recession, and his response is, typically, one of calm. “A stronger economy awaits us in 2010 and 2011 and we have to be prepared to prosper from it,” he says.

Iger is clearly a man who understands that, on many levels, he has the best job in town, and he projects the resulting equanimity. He has trimmed down by some 20 pounds and looks considerably younger than his 58 years. He has carefully cultivated strong relationships with a range of complex individuals, such as Steve Jobs, John Lasseter, Steven Spielberg and Marvel’s quixotic Ike Perlmutter — a cast of characters who might have bridled under Michael Eisner’s impulsive style.

With all his brilliant innovations, Eisner seemed to have a gift for crisis creation. The departure of Katzenberg could not have been handled more abrasively or expensively. Ovitz was perhaps the only corporate president in Hollywood history who self-destructed even before he took office (he made a big movie deal with Brad Grey and tried to hire Jamie Tarses to run TV without consulting the existing Disney power structure).

And Eisner’s panic in learning of the Time-Warner/AOL deal fueled a threatened pullout of the Disney channels from TW cable and triggered a wave of corporate intrigues.

Ultimately, of course, Eisner’s enemies list took on alarming proportions as even Roy Disney mobilized forces against him.

Through all this there were periodic rumors that Iger was quitting, that Eisner didn’t believe in his talents, that he was trying to recruit Peter Chernin, among others, to be his successor.

Yet Iger showed firm resolve, often against the advice of allies, and ultimately was rewarded with the big job, and the Magic Kingdom seems to have picked up a new vigor and self-confidence along the way.

Major problems still loom. The theme park business is ferociously competitive, and Disney must respond with both imagination and big bucks. The plummeting DVD business puts new stress on the film slate, and studio management, having settled on a brand-conscious but very expensive cluster of films (ranging from a new “Alice in Wonderland” to the inevitable “Pirates” sequel) must demonstrate that it has the creative chops to bring it off. Iger now has to pick a successor to Dick Cook to oversee this new slate and mollify filmmakers and talent who feel loyalty to Cook’s gentlemanly ways.

But Iger is a man who genuinely likes the task of managing talent, wielding both encouragement and financial rewards as weapons. Some of his executives know he can be a pain in the ass — he has publicly criticized the film slate and has been known to ask “What the hell is that about?” at the end of a screening of a first cut.

But if Iger can cause anxiety, what he infuses most of all is calm. At the 10-year mark, he knows what he wants and seems to be getting there.

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