Dissidents dig in at Mouse House

Gold, Disney won't back board

NEW YORK — Walt Disney shareholder gadflies Roy Disney and Stanley Gold said Tuesday they plan to withhold support from all Disney board members at Friday’s annual meeting, citing concerns over the search for CEO Michael Eisner’s replacement — yet they didn’t urge other stockholders to follow their lead.

“At this point in time, the board’s credibility is in question due to reports that they have yet to interview a single outside candidate. Potential candidates, meanwhile, are indicating a lack of interest in the position because of delays in the search process and the uncertainty regarding whether Mr. Eisner will leave the company,” said Disney and Gold.

The pair also invited shareholders to a free screening of a live-action/animated documentary about 200 Disney animators who were let go in 2002 as the conglom revamped its feature animation division.

“Dream on Silly Dreamer: Not All Fairy Tales Have a Happy Ending” — written, directed and produced by former Disney animators Dan Lund and Tony West — will play Thursday afternoon and evening at a theater a few blocks from the annual meeting site at the Minneapolis Convention Center.

Roy Disney and Gold led a shareholder revolt at last year’s annual meeting in Philadelphia, with critical backing from many large institutional investors.

This year their move will be largely symbolic, as they acknowledged that they haven’t conducted a campaign to ask other shareholders to withhold support. They also declined to field an alternate board slate as they had previously threatened.

Philly was mobbed last March by hundreds of Disney small shareholders, many with families in tow. There, tepid support for Eisner forced him to relinquish the chairman title.

But frigid Minneapolis won’t entice as much traffic. More importantly, most Wall Street heavyweights are now much happier with Disney’s financial performance and stock price.

‘War’ book speeded up

Meanwhile, Simon & Schuster again accelerated the publication date of James B. Stewart’s “Disney War,” which will hit bookstores in Los Angeles and New York by the end of the week and nationwide next week.

Book, which paints an unflattering portrait of Eisner’s two-decade rule at Disney, was originally skedded for release March 7, then Feb. 22.

It comes at a sensitive time for Disney prexy Bob Iger, considered the leading contender to succeed Eisner.

Iger, a popular presence on Wall Street with this season’s resurgence of ABC, is expected to play a headlining role at Disney’s annual meeting.

Disney chair George Mitchell said last week the board is committed to naming a successor in June and that there has been no “predetermination.”

News Corp. chief operating officer Peter Chernin seemed to take himself out of contention last week, insisting publicly that he’s happy in his current post and has no intention of leaving.

Speculation has also focused on Viacom co-president/co-chief operating officer Leslie Moonves.

Directors will likely discuss succession and other issues, including how to unravel ties with Miramax founders Harvey and Bob Weinstein, at a board meeting on Thursday.

Eisner plans to step down when his contract expires in September 2006. Mitchell indicated last week that when Eisner actually leaves may depend on who is named to succeed him.

Eisner has also said he doesn’t plan to seek the chairman role — a possibility some investors are still fretting he might do. Mitchell has said he takes the Mouse CEO at his word.

Conflict of interest?

Separately, Mitchell is being pounded by groups in Gotham after he was floated as a possible mediator in contentious talks over a new stadium on the city’s West Side to house the New York Jets.

The Jets and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which owns the land where the stadium would go, are miles apart on price and have tentatively asked the former Maine senator and Northern Ireland peace negotiator to help craft a deal. But advocacy groups are claiming conflict of interest since Disney’s ABC and ESPN have contracts with the NFL.

Gotham Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Gov. George Pataki strongly support Mitchell’s involvement.

Cablevision, which opposes the stadium, recently muddied the water with its own higher offer.

Disney shares were down 4¢ to close at $29.84 in trading Tuesday.

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