Brand wagon

Despite its diverse slate, Disney aims to focus on family fare and slender budgets

How’s this for mixed signals?

The Walt Disney Co. disgorged the Weinstein brothers, but then made a deal with Scott Rudin. Its CEO, Bob Iger, said he wanted to scale back budgets, but Disney is producing two of history’s more expensive sequels in “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

The studio is dusting off family-oriented projects like “Swiss Family Robinson” and “The Shaggy Dog,” but it has also committed a prime release date to Mel Gibson’s gory “Apocalypto,” in which characters speak only in Mayan.

So where is Disney headed? Ask CEO Bob Iger or studio chief Dick Cook and you get a resolute answer: Disney is absolutely determined to become more … Disney.

It’s the name on the door and the brand that top brass want stamped on the studio’s product.

In public speeches and investor conferences, Disney CEO Bob Iger has been vocal about the studio’s desire to reinforce the Disney brand and scale back budgets. Studio executives say they want to steer clear of racy content and excessive violence. Along with “Swiss Family Robinson,” the studio’s developing an adaptation of the fantasy “The Bridge to Terabithia” and another installment in the “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, produced in conjunction with Walden Media.

Long in the works is a feature film based on Disneyland’s “Jungle Cruise” attraction.  In the meantime, Iger has signaled that he would like to trim the number of projects produced through the Touchstone label, created in the early 1980s as a way to produce edgier pictures without the content restraints that come with the Walt Disney Pictures moniker.

It may be no surprise that Disney is once again focusing on family fare, given Disney’s $7.4 billion purchase of Pixar. With it, Iger is giving top priority to reviving its animation unit and its once-great track record in producing family hits.

Pixar’s Ed Catmull and John Lasseter already have put their stamp on animation. They are overhauling the long-in-the-works project “Meet the Robinsons” and they also scuttled a musical in development called “Gnomeo and Juliet,” reportedly over concerns it didn’t hold much appeal to kids. The latter project has been shunted off to the studio’s Miramax specialty arm, where it is expected to be made at a lower cost and will be targeted more to adults.

At a recent investor conference, Iger was contrite about his animation division’s track record. “We had 10 years of real failure, in many respects, in a business I believe is most vital to us,” he said.

On the live-action side overseen by studio head Dick Cook and Buena Vista Motion Picture Group prexy Nina Jacobson, there’s been little discontinuity under Iger.

Before Disney bought Pixar, Iger made no secret of his desire to limit the number of live action titles to those that are “Disney branded.” In an effort to minimize its losses, Disney brought in a private equity firm last summer to co-finance some of its slate.      

“We looked at the whole business, where we were, and felt that we were not taking full advantage of Disney,” says Cook, seated in his sunlit office with a backdrop of Burbank behind him. “There has been a refocus or rededication to Disney movies. We are looking to make movies that appeal to audiences.” Disney, Cook says, “is the brand name that travels around the world. So it’s very important that we reposition ourselves and move ourselves back in that business.”

It’s an understatement to say that more than any other studio, having the Disney name on a movie carries extra resonance in the marketplace, both in the expectations of audiences and the limitations on content.

The shift to a back-to-basics Disney, in fact, may be driven less by a desire to send a signal to the creative community than by the need to please Wall Street investors with a focused strategy. (For more on the conglom’s stock performance, see page )

“Audiences and families look to Disney for quality, for creating great characters and telling great stories,” Cook says. “We will continue that reputation and make it grow even more. It’s our bread and butter, it’s what we do and what we’ve always done. As the marketplace changes and evolves, it’s clearly the one place that remains stable and firm.”

When Iger’s predecessor Michael Eisner assumed his post at Disney in 1984, he and Jeffrey Katzenberg revived Disney’s live action slate by beefing up adult fare under the Touchstone banner and later the Hollywood Pictures label.

But in recent years, Touchstone’s fortunes have varied wildly, and it has suffered a series of stinging disappointments with costly pics like “The Alamo,” “Dark Water” and “Casanova.” On the flip side, movies stamped with the Disney label have made up a greater and greater share of its motion picture revenue. These have included “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “Princess Diaries” and “Remember the Titans.”

Sometimes, even when it has not been readily apparent why one movie gets the Disney label and the other doesn’t, Walt’s moniker has won out. In 2004, Walt Disney Pictures’ $100-million budget ed “National Treasure” was a hit, while the $90 million Touchstone release “King Arthur” proved a disappointment.

Among producers on the lot, however, the changes are subtle. “They are looking to expand the brand rather than cheapen it,” says one producer .

The studio’s biggest and most prolific supplier, Jerry Bruckheimer, who is producing “Pirates,” says that shift will be beneficial to him, even if he has in the past delivered more adult actioners like “Con Air.” “We have a bunch of Disney movies that we have been developing for a while, so this is a good thing for us,” he says. Among them are “National Treasure 2,” “Prince of Persia,” “G-Force,” and “Unnatural History.”

Bruckheimer says that Iger’s comments about moving to “Disney branded” live action features were the first inkling he had about a change in direction. Yet he says that the types of movies that they have in development won’t change drastically. He has been producing two or three Disney pictures a year and one Touchstone title. “We look for good material,” he says. “The kind of stuff I do is the kind of movies I want to go and see. So we will keep with our same process, and we will keep with the kind of mix we always have.”

Cook insists that it will be “hard to pigeonhole what we do.” Even he agrees that the differences between the past slate and the current slate aren’t immediately evident. He paints a picture of a release schedule with tentpoles like “Pirates” and smaller, yet solid pics like dog adventure “Eight Below.”

“Our model is very simple,” Cook says. “Make the right movie at the right price. Not just small movies. There will be movies at every price range and every price point.”

In fact, as much as Iger promotes the brand, Touchstone is not going away. Cook says that some projects may end up in turnaround, but the label has recently shown signs of life. A recent pitch called “Dad Knap” was set up at Touchstone through studio-based Mandeville Pictures. Plenty of movies in the pipeline have the Touchstone stamp, including Denzel Washington starrer “Deja vu,” “The Guardian” with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher; and the Ben Affleck-directed “Gone, Baby, Gone.” In 2006, the studio is on track to release eight pics from Touchstone and nine from Disney. In 2004, there were ten from Touchstone and nine from Disney.

“Over time, we will be making fewer Touchstone movies,” Cook says. “Not that we are getting out of that business. But you will see the predominance of where we spend our money is on Disney.

“We clearly have made a choice and that choice is Disney-branded projects,” Cook adds. “We want to appeal to every demographic and will continue to do that as long as we stay away from language and sexual content.”

Disney will still offer a select range of more risque fare. But most such material will be funneled to Miramax, headed by Daniel Battsek and overseen by Cook.

Cook expects Miramax to release six to eight movies per year. “They are not trying to fill a pipeline or looking to build a library or do anything but find and produce movies that we feel great about,” Cook says. The goal, he adds, is to release pics that don’t “just fit into a financial model, but enhance the whole company.”