Pumped up by Pixar

Lasseter thrills Disney shareholders

In a welcome change for the Walt Disney Co., this year’s annual meeting fell like the happiest place on Earth.

And it wasn’t just because nobody onstage mentioned the most controversial two words of recent Mouse House shareholder confabs: Michael Eisner.

Disney’s board was overwhelmingly re-elected Friday at Anaheim’s Arrowhead Pond while several thousand shareholders in attendance cheered wildly when surprise guest and soon-to-be Walt Disney Feature Animation chief creative officer John Lasseter showed up. (Exclusive footage from upcoming Pixar pics “Cars” and “Ratatouille” helped his cause.)

In contrast to 2004, when a shareholder revolt led by Roy Disney nearly toppled then-CEO Eisner, and last year, when many questioned who would replace Eisner, this year’s meeting was virtually free of acrimony. The only memory of such battles came when the audience applauded loudly for Walt Disney’s nephew, who is now playing nice with the company as director emeritus.

Nobody asked whether chairman George Mitchell, who has reached company’s mandatory retirement age, will step down soon, or who might replace him.

Pixar/Apple CEO and soon-to-be Disney board member Steve Jobs was not in attendance.

Among the niceties, several bits of news came out. Chief financial officer Thomas Staggs said the Pixar acquisition should close in late April or early May – earlier than expected.

Lasseter also revealed that “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird has taken over helming duties on “Ratatouille,” set for release in June 2007. Jan Pinkava, who helmed Oscar-winning short “Geri’s cqGame,” was believed to be director, but Lasseter said he is heading up story on the toon.CEO Bob Iger talked at length about the importance of technology to the company’s future and revealed more details about upcoming digital distribution efforts. Exec said MyABC, a Web venture that will put ABC shows on the net’s site, will offer episodes online as soon as the day after they air. Users can watch them for free with commercials inserted exclusively for the net or pay to watch them commercial-free, as they already can via iTunes.

Iger didn’t reveal which shows will be part of the service, expected to launch later this year, though they presumably will be the same ones on iTunes due to complications from affiliates and non-Disney studio suppliers. Exec had revealed plans for the service at an analyst conference in January.

CEO also dropped a hint that Disney may end up playing both sides in the high-definition DVD format war. In response to a shareholder question, Iger said company continues to back Sony’s Blu-Ray format, but added, “We probably will publish in both formats.” That’s sure to please Toshiba, the backer of the competing HD DVD format, which has gained momentum recently after seeming nearly dead.

All of Disney’s board members were re-elected with votes of at least 94%, based on a preliminary count of proxies. Shareholder resolutions to further limit “greenmail” – premium payments to large shareholders to prevent a takeover attempt – and better policing of labor standards for Disney suppliers in China were easily defeated, in line with board recommendations.