For Disney’s Iger, a key decision looms

Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger must act quickly to replace studio head Dick Cook to avoid further destabilizing the Burbank-based movie operation.

Cook’s abrupt departure Friday is upsetting employees, many of whom are finding it difficult to focus on work because they are anxious about their future. In addition, stars and filmmakers do not like to face uncertainty and want assurances that their projects will remain on track.

Iger is not tipping his hand about whom he will name to fill the job. One executive that’s a subject of speculation is Disney Channel President Rich Ross.

Disney’s new studio chief will face formidable challenges, including integrating the company’s pending $4-billion acquisition of Marvel Entertainment Inc. and attending to its recently struck distribution deal with Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks SKG.

Although the studio has its movie releases set for the remainder of this year and 2010, there are several big-budget projects waiting to move forward, including a fourth installment of “Pirates of the Caribbean,” expected to hit theaters in 2011, and “The Lone Ranger,” both starring Johnny Depp. On Friday, just hours before Cook announced his departure, the studio gave the green light for a remake of Jules Verne’s classic tale “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” to be directed by McG.


Michael Nathanson, a media analyst with Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., said there were no near-term financial consequences of having the studio chief’s job vacant since “so much of the products and the plans in the near term are set.”

But there are broader forces roiling Hollywood with which a new Disney studio head will have to grapple.

“From a 10,000-foot view, the entire industry is in need of a rethink,” Nathanson said. “The rental business is eating into the profits of [DVDs], and pay-TV [networks] are moving more toward television-based originals,” eliminating the need for movies.

Ever since Iger succeeded Michael Eisner as chief executive in 2005, he’s emphasized Disney-branded movies and television shows that could be exploited across all of the company’s operations, from theme parks to merchandising.

Disney Studios is now composed mainly of “brands,” among them Pixar Animation Studios, DreamWorks and soon the addition of Marvel, with its vast library of 5,000 characters. In picking a replacement for Cook, Iger might look to someone like Ross as the perfect a “brand manager” to oversee those assets.

Ross’ star has been on the rise since his successful rehab of Disney Channel, once an also-ran pay-cable network that has generated such billion-dollar creative franchises as “High School Musical” and “Hannah Montana.”

Although Ross has virtually no experience on the feature film side, he has helped Disney Channel forge relationships with the company’s other divisions. Such cross-divisional collaboration is a priority for Iger, who often extols the work of Disney Channel on calls with Wall Street analysts.

Another touted prospect for the top studio job is John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, who directed “Toy Story,” “Toy Story 2" and “Cars.” Lasseter is also principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, the group that develops attractions for the theme parks.

Iger could divide the studio chief’s job among two or more executives and include a role for Marvel production chief Kevin Feige, who is relatively inexperienced but has strong filmmaker relationships.