- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2004

BURBANK, Calif. - Has the Walt Disney Co. lost its creative spark? That is the complaint from former board members, one former partner and a company that wants to buy it, especially when it comes to the animated films that are Disney’s heritage.

The charge is quickly rejected by Dick Cook, chairman of Walt Disney Studios since 2002.

“I think creativity at our studio has never been more on the upswing,” Mr. Cook said. “I think we have more great projects, both in live action and animation, than we have had in years.”

As head of the studio division, Mr. Cook is perhaps the most critical player in Disney’s defensive strategy. Time will tell whether he is right.

Disney is facing the end of its lucrative partnership with Pixar Animation Studios in two years. Pixar chief Steve Jobs has ended 10 months of negotiations for a new deal, singling out Disney’s animated films for harsh criticism. Over the past five years, Pixar has contributed more than half of Disney’s studio profits, financial analysts say.

On Feb. 11, cable TV giant Comcast Corp. made an unsolicited bid for Disney, saying one of its main goals would be to reinvigorate the company’s flagging in-house animation efforts. Disney’s board rejected the bid, saying it would consider other bids while expressing strong support for current management.

The struggling animation unit also is cited by disgruntled former board members Stanley Gold and Roy E. Disney, son of company co-founder Roy O. Disney, in their efforts to oust chief executive Michael Eisner.

Mr. Cook, however, has escaped the critics’ wrath.

“I think he is a first-rate executive, and it would be my hope that in future years he would have a greater role in the company,” Mr. Gold said. “He has a mature judgment.”

That kind of praise has been fed by the successes of Mr. Cook’s division in 2003, when it took in $3 billion at box offices worldwide, the first time any studio reached that level. Part of that success was a result of the Pixar film “Finding Nemo,” which sold $340 million worth of tickets in 2003.

But Disney also had the hit “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl,” which sold $304 million in tickets. Huge profits also came from inexpensive films, such as “Freaky Friday” and “Holes” that were box office surprises.

Now it is up to the mild-mannered Mr. Cook — so mild-mannered he frequently uses the word “gosh” — to continue the company’s success with live-action films and direct-to-video sequels while revamping the company’s stumbling animation department.

He said he isn’t being distracted by recent events.

“Michael [Eisner] has been very clear with all of us and certainly with me that the best thing we can do at this time is perform at the highest levels,” Mr. Cook said. “For us, it’s trying to keep the momentum going and just keep working.

“These jobs are like being a baseball manager,” he said. “Everyone wants to be one. Everyone has an opinion.”

Mr. Cook, 53, has been immersed in Disney his entire adult life, having begun his career in 1970 as a steam train operator at Disneyland.

“Every time you put the name on a film, it means something. The bar is awfully high. You want to be able to go over that bar,” he said.

Mr. Cook’s most immediate and daunting task is to find a way to replace the revenue generated by Pixar.

Pixar has two films left to deliver on its contract: “The Incredibles” this year and “Cars” in 2005. It will become a competitor when it finds a new studio to join.

Meanwhile, Disney has cut its own animation staff from a high of 2,200 in 1999 to about 600 and closed satellite animation studios in Paris, Tokyo and Orlando, Fla. It also cut the cost of making an animated film in half since 1998 and, for the first time, has no traditional hand-drawn animated films in production.

Yet Mr. Cook said Disney is not surrendering in the animation business.

“We have been and always will be committed to creating the finest animation in the world,” he said during a recent gathering of financial analysts in Orlando.

Disney ruled animation through much of the 1990s with hits such as “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast.” The division also produced expensive flops such as “Atlantis” and “Treasure Planet,” along with modest successes such as “Lilo & Stitch” and “Brother Bear.”

Mr. Cook said he is confident Disney still knows how to make animated hits and that it will succeed in making sequels to the Pixar films it continues to own, such as “Toy Story.”

“We’re certainly not interested in destroying value or destroying these franchises,” Mr. Cook said in Orlando. “We think they’ve got a long, long life for years and years to come and some of the greatest characters that have been developed in the last decade.”

Mr. Cook joined the motion picture group in 1980 as an assistant domestic sales manager, and in 1988 became head of distribution.

In 1994, he assumed control of film marketing and became known for his large-scale movie premieres. In 1995, he shut down the Great Lawn in New York’s Central Park for the premiere of “Pocahontas.”

As studio chief, he has nurtured relationships with filmmakers such as Jerry Bruckheimer and M. Night Shyamalan. He also has attracted new directors and actors to Disney, including Wes Anderson, director of 2001’s “The Royal Tenenbaums,” and this year’s “Life Aquatic,” starring Bill Murray.

Mr. Cook’s success comes from producing a mix of big-budget, high profile films with smaller, less costly movies. Last year, his gambles paid off handsomely.

A second strategy Disney pioneered is making direct-to-video sequels, especially of animated films. The sequels are produced at costs of $20 million to $30 million by DisneyToon Studios, using less expensive labor in places such as Australia. A theatrical animated feature, such as last year’s hand-drawn “Brother Bear,” costs about $80 million or more to produce.

Mr. Cook understands that Disney, as a company, ultimately will be judged based on the films it produces.

“And we’re going to be successful or we’re going to fail based on the product,” he said.

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