Mouse House sticks by Miramax

Eisner: 'Max will still wear Mouse ears

MINNEAPOLIS — Mouse House chief exec Michael Eisner didn’t mention his looming exit once when addressing shareholders here, but he did vow that Disney would keep Miramax in operation whether the Weinstein brothers stay or go.

“The Walt Disney Co. will continue to own Miramax. The Walt Disney Co. will continue to make movies that are characterized as independentlike films that are lower budget … we have it completely under control, and we are talking to Harvey and Bob (Weinstein) about what their relationship will be with Miramax going forward,” Eisner said.

Friday’s demure shareholder gathering inside the Minneapolis Convention Center was in stark contrast with the 2004 annual meeting in Philadelphia, where Roy Disney and Stanley Gold organized a shareholder revolt against Eisner that resulted in him being stripped of the chairman’s title.

Uprising ultimately led to the announcement that Eisner would step down when his contract is up in 2006, as well as to a number of board reforms. There have been rumors flying in recent days that Eisner would like to keep on at Disney in some capacity, possibly in the new role of “chief creative officer,” but most see that as unlikely.

Back on board

Mollified shareholders easily re-elected all of Disney’s board to another one-year term — including Eisner. Still, in a sign of his diminished power, Eisner was never onstage alone but flanked by Disney board chair George Mitchell and Eisner’s likely successor, Disney prexy-chief operating officer Bob Iger. About 2,000 shareholders attended the sesh.

Generally even-toned, Mitchell grew emphatic when telling shareholders that the board is on track to name a new Disney chief exec by June but that it won’t make public the various candidates.

“There has been no prior determination. There have been no preconditions,” Mitchell said.

The Weinstein question

Eisner’s comments regarding Miramax bolstered reports that talks between Disney and the Weinsteins have taken a more conciliatory tone in recent days. Eisner wouldn’t say when negotiations may conclude, but insiders say it could be by the end of the month. The Weinsteins’ contract is up in September.

“They will either continue to run Miramax after Oct. 1 or they will not,” Eisner said. “If they don’t, (Disney studio chair) Dick Cook will hire somebody else.”

Eisner also revealed that “we would love” to keep Disney’s partnership with Pixar but that it would ultimately come down to economics. He also said he had “tremendous respect” for Pixar topper Steve Jobs — one week after saying that Disney-Pixar CGI pics are “pretty pathetic” artistically when compared to Disney CGI.

Jobs indicated on Feb. 10 that Pixar isn’t likely to renew its partnership with Disney after the summer 2006 release of “Cars.”

Neither Eisner nor Mitchell made themselves available to the press after the meeting. There also wasn’t any mention of James B. Stewart’s unflattering new book, “DisneyWar.”

Gold and Disney — nephew of Walt Disney — attended the shareholder meeting but remained strangely mum, surprising many by not taking to the microphone during the question period. Disney, accompanied by two bodyguards, was nevertheless besieged with autograph requests.

Low profile

Insiders close to Disney and Gold said the pair want to keep a low profile until Eisner’s replacement is named. Along these lines, they didn’t urge fellow shareholders to follow their lead in withholding their vote for Eisner and other board directors.

In a statement issued earlier last week, Gold and Disney said they were concerned that the board wasn’t conducting a thorough and open search for Eisner’s replacement.

For his part, Mitchell reminded shareholders that he will step down as board chair next year. It’s unclear whether Eisner’s replacement would be given the full title of chair-CEO, or whether Disney will keep the two jobs separate. Board recently amended its bylaws to say that it’s preferable to have the two roles split.

Eisner won re-election to the board with 92.2% of shareholder ballots counted (a final tally will come later). He still appeared to be the least liked among all the directors, considering that 7.8% withheld their votes, traditionally seen as a sign of protest.

Mitchell seemed to be the second least popular, with 6.9% withholding their votes for him. Iger won re-election with 94.6% of the vote.

Wall Street — which is sweet on Iger — has been giving Disney high marks for its improved performance, including the turnaround at ABC and the resurgent theme park business.

But Fulcrum Global Media analyst Richard Greenfield warned early Friday that Disney investors aren’t “properly discounting the (increasingly likely) impact of Disney losing Pixar” — not to mention Miramax as well as rising concerns over ESPN and NFL costs.Disney shares were down 1¢ to close at $29.34 in trading Friday.

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