Iger bent on shifting distrib fix

Disney chief focuses on new platforms

NEW YORK — Disney chief Bob Iger, fresh off plans to stream hit ABC shows on the Web for free, has become the media industry’s chief therapist.

He’s doling out tough love to longtime friends: movie theaters, retailers, cable operators, affiliates.

“We have created a lot of value together. We have grown our businesses together, and we’re not looking to destroy that value. We’re not looking to abandon them, not looking to betray them, not looking to do anything that is designed to harm their business,” he said during a Q&A with investors Tuesday.

“At the same time, we can’t let a fear of that relationship being challenged, or creating tension with them, stop us from going other places,” he added. “You can’t make any move in one direction, without having an impact on the other direction.

“I don’t know what that effect is going to be. But we have the obligation … first and foremost to invest in creative content and then move it to customers as aggressively as possible.”

And get paid for it.

“I remain sobered by the music industry. The bottom line is that they were not in tune with what their customers wanted and it hurt them significantly,” he said.

Though ABC officially announced its watershed Web plans on Monday, Iger has been publicly touting them for over a month (Daily Variety, Feb. 28).

Disney topper was also the first to make his company’s TV shows available on iTunes at $1.99 a pop. And he’s been the most outspoken of big media CEOs in publicly questioning the future of traditional film windows.

One investor noted that rivals like CBS, say, or News Corp.’s Fox, own many more of their own affiliates than ABC. Would Iger be as intrepid if Disney owned more stations?

“I don’t know. I would hope so,” Iger said.

Still, he sees order in the chaos.

“I’m trying to prove (to partners) that when you have a show as strong as ‘Grey’s Anatomy,’ ‘Desperate Housewives’ and ‘Lost,’ people want to watch it … right away.” Same with movies in theaters.

“I don’t see that changing. That’s what I mean by order,” he said.

And for now there are some sacred cows. ESPN won’t be streaming for free anytime soon, he said in response to a question. Subscription fees, locked in for years with cablers, “are almost an annuity for us. It’s an incredible source of revenue. …We’d be crazy to destroy that and put it at risk.”

Iger, who became CEO last September, said he thinks Disney ought to have a greater Internet presence as Web advertising remains hot — but didn’t discuss particulars.

He said the biggest change with the chief executive gig “is the amount of time I’m asked to spend outside the company,” something he’s fighting.

“It’s takes a lot of energy, and you have to say no an awful lot.”

Studio chief Dick Cook, who also took questions, lauded the promising (at least on paper) crop of Hollywood pics about to hit. He figured we’ll know in about four months if the box office dip last year and into this one was due purely to bad movies or to more worrisome shifts in consumer behavior.

“Our movies are made for theaters,” he said. “Every communication you send out (ads, trailers, etc.), you need to say specifically that this is something you need to see in theaters.”

So the pics really need to stand out, which has affected the greenlight process. “Are these movies special enough? Do they have an irresistibility that you have to go see them? And that (criteria) has become smaller and tighter. They don’t all have to be giant movies.”

Cook said theatrical perfs set the value of a film for the rest of the chain.

“If they don’t know about that movie, haven’t seen it or heard it’s good, they’re not going to shell out 20 bucks to buy it,” he said.

As the Mouse concentrates on Disney-branded pics, it’s got an edge since “those are the kinds of movies people want to have in their family, for their kids and grandkids.”

He sees the crush of CG pics shaking out over the next few years. “They won’t all be successful,” he predicted, “but it becomes more about the movie itself. The cream always rises to the top.”

Pixar’s “Cars” is out this summer. Cook reiterated plans to release one Pixar and one Disney animated pic a year as the Mouse goes “back to its roots.”

He showered Pixar with praise. “It’s a very, very special place. There’s no one reason why it is so great,” he said.

And as for the integration with Disney, it “is happening better than we ever dreamed it would.”