Disney’s clash at the top


After 38 years, the end for Dick Cook came in less than 10 minutes.

The chairman of Walt Disney Studios, who began his career as a Monorail operator at Disneyland and went on to launch billion-dollar franchises like “Pirates of the Caribbean” and woo filmmaker Steven Spielberg to the studio, didn’t know what was in store when his boss casually mentioned Tuesday that he wanted to see him for a few minutes later in the day.

Cook had back-to-back meetings that afternoon but was finally free to see Bob Iger at 5:30. He left his office on the sixth floor of the Team Disney Building in Burbank and walked down the hall to the chief executive’s suite.


Iger got directly to the point. He told Cook that after a “lot of thought,” he wanted to “make a change” at the studio that would affect Cook’s job, according to accounts of the meeting. “We need to go in a different direction,” said Iger, offering little explanation other than to say that people were complaining that the studio was overly secretive, uncooperative and isolated from the other divisions. When Cook pressed for examples, Iger demurred. The two executives shook hands, and Cook left Iger’s office.

Cook, who has more than three years remaining on his contract, afterward told colleagues that he was stunned by the sudden turn of events.

He shouldn’t have been.

It had been clear for some time that Cook and Iger were traveling different paths. The 59-year-old Cook knew he didn’t fit Iger’s mold, and they differed in both style and substance. The movie chief had steadily climbed the Disney corporate ladder over a nearly four-decade career but is not the prototypical Hollywood executive. The Bakersfield native wasn’t embarrassed to wear Mickey Mouse ties and say “gosh,” and he could be equally comfortable among ego-driven movie stars and small-town theater operators. His folksy nature stood in contrast to Iger, who is controlled, contained and cerebral. Iger, a onetime TV weatherman, oversaw the ABC network and ultimately assumed the helm of Walt Disney Co.

Iger has limited his comments about Cook’s departure to the prepared statement he released last week, saying, “On behalf of everyone at Disney, we wish him the best.”

The most recent moment of tension between the two executives came just four days before their Tuesday meeting. The studio had deliberately withheld the names of the big stars and filmmakers whom Cook was going to present at the D23 Expo in Anaheim, the inaugural convention for Disney fans that the company hoped would attract tens of thousands of attendees, a perfect opportunity for the entertainment giant to promote its movies, TV shows and theme parks.

Although Cook allowed his corporate colleagues to publicize the appearance of Nicolas Cage, who stars in the studio’s big 2010 summer movie “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” he nonetheless intentionally didn’t disclose to them his biggest headliners: “Pirates of the Caribbean” star Johnny Depp, teenage pop sensation Miley Cyrus and directors Robert Zemeckis and Tim Burton. Cook, angling for a showstopper, wanted to wow the paying crowd at the Anaheim Convention Center with a surprise, and he didn’t want it spoiled by a leak. Attendance at the four-day event, initially below internal projections, finally sold out.

The move, rather than impressing Cook’s superiors, instead exacerbated relations. It was viewed as a classic example of Cook’s play-it-close-to-the-vest style, said people at the studio who declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak.

Once again, Cook had demonstrated a preference to go with his gut over the “Team Disney” style of management that is ingrained in the company’s ethos. Iger is known to value collaboration across Disney’s various operating divisions and grew increasingly irritated by the studio’s flying-solo approach.

“He felt the studio was an island,” said one person familiar with the situation. “And he couldn’t penetrate that island.”

Almost from the moment Iger was named to succeed Michael Eisner in 2005, there were signs that he and Cook had conflicting views about the future of the movie business.

In 2005 Iger publicly raised the notion of closing the gap between a movie’s release in theaters and its sale on DVD to give consumers the choice of seeing films whenever they want it, be it on the big screen, in their living rooms or on portable devices. He was the first Hollywood chief executive to suggest changing the age-old practice of showing movies in theaters months before they’re available in other media.

“I think that all the old rules should be called into question because the rules in terms of consumption have changed so dramatically,” Iger said at the time, conceding, “I’m sure we’ll get a fair amount of push-back there from the industry.”

Iger got push-back, all right.

And not only from angry theater owners, who argued that the simultaneous release of movies in other media would undercut their business, but from Cook, who agreed that moviegoing is not only vital to preserving the cinema industry but also has a societal role inasmuch as it provides an opportunity for strangers to sit in a darkened theater and collectively share an experience.

Clashes such as these, while seemingly small, apparently added up over time and set the stage for Cook’s ultimate undoing, according to a source familiar with the history who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Along with their differences in personal style, there were bottom-line issues. Iger has been vocal about his displeasure with the studio’s box-office performance over the last year, including such costly misfires as “G-Force” and “Bedtime Stories.” Another big-budget gamble, “Surrogates,” a sci-fi adventure starring Bruce Willis, opens Friday.

In May, Iger took the highly unusual step of publicly castigating the studio to Wall Street analysts. “It’s about choice of films and the execution of films that have been chosen for production,” Iger said in an earnings call with financial analysts. “We’ve had a rough year. . . . It’s not the marketplace. It’s our slate.” The studio, which in a good year accounts for as much as 15% of the company’s operating income, posted a loss in its most recent quarter -- its first since 2005.

At the time, Cook may have chalked up Iger’s blunt remarks to his boss’ desire to be candid with investors.

In hindsight, it was a clear indication of Iger’s discontent.

By Friday, his displeasure was known throughout the company.

Cook called all of his senior executives to a 3 p.m. meeting in the Frank G. Wells building and dropped the bombshell. He told the 86 attendees that he was going to go against the advice of a colleague never to begin a presentation with the finale.

“Today, I don’t know how to do it without the finale first,” said a teary-eyed Cook, according to people in the room. “After 38 years with the company that I’ve loved, today is my last day.”

The outgoing studio chief then read a prepared statement that he would later make public, asking the assembled staff for two favors: Don’t disclose the news before the official press release, and “give me two minutes to walk out the door alone.”

With that, Cook received a standing ovation as he left the room. He returned to his office and called some of the actors, filmmakers and executives with whom he had worked closely over the years, including Depp, “Pirates” producer Jerry Bruckheimer, and DreamWorks partners Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider, said people who were contacted.

Like everyone who heard the news, Bruckheimer was stunned. “I’m still in shock about it,” he said. “Dick has been a huge part of our success at Disney. I loved working together and hope we’ll work together in the future.”

At about 7:30 p.m., Cook prepared to head home.

But first he took a detour. Cook made one last stroll down the main pathway through the studio known as Mickey Avenue, around the perimeter of the studio lot, past the soundstages and the animation building and all the familiar landmarks of his nearly four-decade career. Then he drove home.