Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Disney's latest release - not Up but Out!

Disney has been making lots of news lately but at least one announcement didn't come with the fanfare and hoopla that was present at their first ever "D23" fan convention in Anaheim ten days ago. Rather, just a couple of days after the close of the convention, Disney Chairman Robert Iger summoned Disney Studio chief Dick Cook, a 38 year Disney employee (he started as Monorail operator at Disneyland) into his office and dropped the biggest news of all - you're out!

Showbiz Data reports that the meeting lasted only ten minutes and that Iger held true to corporate traditions, cowering behind empty rhetoric and after-the-fact complaints. (If you've been in Mr. Cook's position the technique is all too familiar - "after lots of consideration"...blah, blah... "decided to go in a different direction..." blah, blah, blah... "oh yeah, and there were complaints..." blah, blah, blah. Complaints, of course, that don't get discussed until they can be sprung as justification for an agenda, but we could easily digress into a rant on the pitiful lack of integrity in corporate America.

More to the point, aside from what sounds like Dick Cook getting royally screwed in the Happiest Place on Earth, here's why these things matter to movie lovers and Disney shareholders alike. All of those very same announcements Disney was showcasing just a few days earlier to the pixie-dusted faithful may now be in jeopardy.

All the oohing and ah-ing at the duck & mouse show of costumed celebrities, elaborate props and high profile name dropping, may just have done a Cinderella's coach and poof-ed back into a pumpkin. While Disney was using their new fan convention to showcase their two strongest skills - marketing and trading on their fabled history, back at the castle the King of the Kingdom seems to have been plotting something nefarious in his chambers. Now, since many of the D23 announcements are built on creative commitments that themselves are built on loyalty and the genuine affection felt for Dick Cook, it's anybody's guess what the King has wrought.

Take a look at the top three news headlines that came out of D23.

1. Johnny Depp, already attached to Disney's big screen debut of The Lone Ranger as "faithful Indian sidekick" Tonto, came out in full Jack Sparrow regalia to let Disney fans know that there would indeed be Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, the fourth adventure of the series. A day after Dick Cook's ouster, Depp said he was shocked and saddened by Cook's departure. The Los Angeles Times reported Depp as saying "there's a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment", "He's instantly trustworthy. And you don't generally meet people at the studios you trust."

2. Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy & Hellboy II: The Golden Army), had agreed to collaborate with Disney on introducing a brand new film production label called Disney Double Dare You. The idea is to create animated films with lots of fun scares and thrills set for a younger (think Harry Potter-ish) audience. That announcement came from Dick Cook himself at the convention. Working from a concept conceived by the director, the idea seems to perfectly team studio, marketing and creative. You have to believe that this is another project that now goes into the "will it happen" category.

3. Also at D23, Dick Cook seemed to take great pride in announcing a new partnership between Disney, Robert Zemeckis and the Beatles' Apple Corps, to create a motion capture remake of the Beatles only animated feature film, Yellow Submarine. Not only is this a high profile and prestigious project for Disney but it is the second outing for Disney with Zemeckis' ImageMovers Digital, a pioneering and evolving creative animation company that, much like Pixar, could be a pathway to a library of future properties. Robert Zemeckis is another film producer heaping praise on Cook's working style and ethics. Zemeckis is currently at work putting final touches on his 3D animated A Christmas Carol, starring a motion-capture Jim Carey as Scrooge, to be released by Disney this November, a project conceived and completed under Dick Cook's leadership.

Then there's Steven Spielberg... Disney's commitment this past Spring to distribute Spielberg's DreamWorks output in the coming years was, according to Spielberg himself, an agreement largely entered into on the goodwill and friendship shared between he and Cook. Yet another valuable relationship that, at least for the moment, seems up for grabs.

In the last years one would be hard pressed to look past Pixar and see any genius coming from Disney's film studios. The blockbuster hit realized from Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl was quickly scuttled with over saturation in Disney's theme parks and dismally declining quality in scripts on the following two installments. Though Depp re-inhabiting the persona of Jack Sparrow is welcome, it realistically can't be considered an instant hit. High School Musical 3, Hannah Montana and the Jonas Brothers should be credited over to Disney Channel programming. After that, there are a string of mediocre to bad family films (and even worse Disney classic remakes) that have driven talents like John Travolta and Tim Allen to "family forgettable" status. The studio has been garnering as much attention for its hits as its flops, while limited in-house production has become Robert Iger's M.O. It would seem that the Disney Studios is soon to be merely a clearing house for outside creative talent and production companies.

There is a last thought we find ourselves considering. John Lasseter, the wunderkind of Pixar and the man now entrusted with guiding the creative in everything Disney, may be the man the mantle falls to when the dust clears. But when that dust clears, the view looking up will be the looming shadow of Robert Iger running a gigantic corporate behemoth more and more reliant on the ideas and talents of people that only work for (and tolerate) the company on contract, a situation hard to influence, a business model hard to bend and a profit structure that's hard to live up to. If there's anything ever designed to inhibit and eventually crush the life out of creativity, Robert Iger may be creating it.

What will happen if John Lasseter won't have it? What will Disney look like to fans and movie lovers at next year's D23?

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