Tough picks by embattled boards

As recently as a couple of weeks ago, Robert Iger was asking friends, “Well, do you think I have the job?” There was a mixture of irony and anguish in the question, for Iger found himself in a bizarre spot: He would shortly be CEO of a giant company or be-come an unemployed 54-year-old.

Now Iger’s landed the job, the decision of a board of directors that has conducted itself with the transparency of the Politburo. For five more months, he must continue to occupy the dicey role of CEO-in-waiting while Michael Eisner serves out his imperial reign — certainly an awkward corporate transition. And meanwhile, Disney critics, fueled by Roy Disney and Stanley Gold, will continue to ask whether he’s really the right man for the job.

The rap against Iger has been that he is the prototypical corporate suit, lacking the broad vision and missionary zeal to lead a trouble-prone conglomerate. Part of this criticism stems from Iger’s presentation: He looks too much like a central casting network executive, handsome and glib, exuding corporate cool.

Associates, however, point out that Iger has become vastly more thoughtful and open-minded over the last couple of years, hav-ing lived in the midst of an on-going corporate opera. Indeed, spending time with Iger of late, I’ve also become impressed with his keen understanding and empathy for the figures who’ve been embroiled in the Disney struggles.

And with good reason. No other newly appointed CEO has even been a key player in a lurid bestselling book “DisneyWar” by James B. Stewart. Iger claims he’s never read the book, but he clearly comprehends the issues it presents, and can discuss them with wit and clarity. He has lived in a corporate environment in which every tension seemed to be exacerbated rather than resolved. The career of Bob Iger as Disney president has surely been the ultimate trial by fire.

Perhaps Peter Chernin or Jeffrey Bewkes might have shown greater potential as corporate CEOs. We’ll never know; we won’t even know if they were interviewed by the search committee, thanks to the obfuscation of George Mitchell. The sheer oafishness of Mitchell’s tenure was reconfirmed Sunday when he declined even to clarify whether Michael Eisner might continue as a Disney director after 2006. Eisner indicated he would not “seek” to become chairman after Mitchell’s term mercifully ends in 2006. Meanwhile, Iger will seve as CEO for a full year with his former boss serving as a director.

It will not be an easy tenure, but Bob Iger deserves the shot.

Disney is not the only company undergoing a moment of dramatic transition.

Sir Howard Stringer’s coronation as the new Seer of Sony represents the triumph of the diplomat over the technocrat — at least according to the press. In these journalistic appraisals, Stringer has been characterized as a gifted bureaucrat and master of the corporate euphemism.

While there is some truth to all this, Stringer is also a fiercely confrontational corporate player whose management style can best be described as idiosyncratic. The Sony studio, for example, is unique in sustaining a cluster of competing labels that occasionally bid against each other for new projects. Stringer further intensified this competition by acquiring MGM and UA — entities that were initially promised a degree of autonomy only to be instantly reduced to corporate shells.

Only at Sony could a project like “Priest” last week bounce around between two sets of producers at two Sony labels (Screen Gems and Columbia), with top-level meetings finally arbitrating a solution (Sony ostensibly has three specialty labels at last count, but suddenly yet another, Triumph, has appeared in the spectrum).

It was a typical Stringer surprise to pick a newsman, Andrew R. Lack, to take over the ailing music company and a book publisher, Michael Lynton, to assume a key post overseeing the studio. It was not a surprise, however, when Lack initiated sweeping layoffs at Sony Music, mirroring the cutbacks under Stringer at CBS Television. It’s a testimony to his press savvy that Stringer the Cost- Cutter never gets the coverage of Stringer the Visionary.

While Sir Howard can be a skilled game player, he also can be refreshingly candid. He’s never masked his indignation with Michael Ovitz, who lured him into his misguided Tele-TV caper. Similarly, when he suddenly pulled down the curtain on Sony’s TV production, he acknowledged his impatience with the feral dealmaking and random ineptitude. In expressing his strongly held views, Stringer relishes the felicitous epigram rather than the arch dealmaking slanguage of Hollywood. Indeed, StringerSpeak has always been worn as a badge of his well-educated Brit background.

The appointment of Sir Howard, of course, represents a cultural milestone as well as a business one. The abrupt dismissal of many of the Sony directors (which got scant mention in the Western press) underscored the cosmic nature of this change. It will be Stringer’s responsibility to bridge the cultural gaps as well as to reinvigorate the slumberous product line.

The magic formula that re-energized the Sony studio is no secret: It’s spelled “Spider-Man.” Is there a technological equivalent somewhere out there?

If there is, Stringer will grasp it — and also enshrine it in a superbly epigrammatical bit of StringerSpeak .

Serious filmmakers have come to regard the so-called “specialty divisions” as safe havens within the turbulent studio system. At least, that was the case last year.

A quick glance around today’s specialty landscape reveals a mood of Sturm und Drang. Both Paramount and Warner Bros. seem bent on radical change in the specialty sector, both in management and philosophy. United Artists has vaporized as a result of the Sony acquisition, and Miramax is clearly at a moment of cosmic change. Fine Line’s role also has become fuzzy.

Nor did specialty units have a particularly good run at the Oscars, winning only five awards (excluding “The Aviator,” which was a big-budget project co-financed by Miramax and Warner Bros.). Films like “Sideways,” “Eternal Sunshine,” “Hotel Rwanda,” “Vera Drake” and “Maria Full of Grace” did not bag the kudos many had predicted.

Even Fox Searchlight, an island of stability within the specialty community, has had a bouncier ride than expected. Several of the high-profile releases on its 2004 schedule (which embraced 10 films) performed disappointingly — “Kinsey” and “I Heart Huckabees” among them. The extraordinary success of “Sideways” and “Napoleon Dynamite,” of course, still added great luster to the company’s numbers, but the release schedule, nonetheless, will be cut in half this year.

But here’s the key question: Has the success of these two films, and a few others like them (Focus Features’ “Lost in Translation,” for example), overhyped corporate expectations for their specialty units? Talk to a Tom Freston or even a Rupert Murdoch and you discover a fixation on the sort of loftier, yet lower-cost, fare that the specialty units can theoretically produce.

Some would argue these mounting expectations are unwarranted. The smart business model for these units, they’d suggest, would be more akin to that of Sony Classics — tighter budget constraints, more emphasis on pickups than productions, etc. Sony Classics released 22 films in 2004, many of them foreign-language art films (“Being Julia” and the “House of Flying Daggers” carried the highest profiles).

Clearly with so many studio franchise projects pushing the outward limits in terms of marketing and production costs, the lure of specialty projects is very real. This appetite could easily open the floodgates and trigger a Darwinian dogfight at the box office.

And veterans of the scene know that for every “Napoleon Dynamite,” there are 20 Napoleon Dumpsters.

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