Can Dick Cook Keep Disney Afloat?
By Betsy Streisand

(Business 2.0) – When Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton took the podium to accept the Oscar for best animated film, he was both blessedly brief (43 seconds) and carefully diplomatic. He thanked both of the feuding corporations that produced the film--Pixar Animation Studios, which created it, and the Walt Disney Co., without whose imprimatur and distribution muscle Nemo might have been just another clownfish story. But while he credited his boss, Pixar CEO Steve Jobs, by name, Stanton conspicuously did not mention Jobs's controversial counterpart at Disney, Michael Eisner. Instead, the only Mouse House executive he mentioned was the mild-mannered lifer who runs the studio division, 53-year-old Dick Cook.

While the name meant nothing to most of the millions watching, the nod to Cook was noticed in Hollywood--and Disney shareholders should have been clapping loudest. For while the world has been absorbed with Disney's boardroom melodrama and the Comcast takeover bid, Cook in early March confirmed the largest worldwide corporate box-office gross in history--a cool $3 billion last year. Throw in DVD and home video sales, and Cook's unit contributed 36 percent of Disney's $1.3 billion operating profit in the most recent quarter--and nearly 80 percent of the growth. "Dick Cook has done a very good job," says independent analyst and former UBS media research chief Christopher Dixon, in a most un-Hollywood understatement. "The question is, where do they go from here?"

That's exactly what Disney shareholders want to know. Whether Eisner stays or goes, and whether the company changes its name to Disney-Comcast, the media giant needs results; the company has promised Wall Street double-digit earnings growth through 2007. Judging by the problems at Disney's other divisions, the bulk of that growth will have to come from Cook. ABC remains the sick man of the airwaves, and cable operators are resisting fee hikes proposed by ESPN, Disney's hot cable property. Margins continue to shrink in the theme parks, and Disney retail stores may go on the block. All that puts extra pressure on Cook and his production chief, Nina Jacobson.

Cook, for his part, is trying to manage expectations. After starting with the company in 1970 as a monorail driver, he went on to make his mark as a marketing and distribution expert. (He's known for transforming Disney's historic back catalog into a home video treasure trove and staging splashy premieres like the Pearl Harbor debut on a U.S. Navy carrier.) With his easygoing manner, he plays much better with Hollywood's insecure egos than does the overbearing Eisner. But Cook is also a realist. His 2003 lineup included two genuine blockbusters (Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean), a number of sleeper hits (Bringing Down the House and Freaky Friday), and relatively few bombs (Haunted Mansion). He has warned that it will be virtually impossible to match that success this year.

Especially the way 2004 is shaping up. Hidalgo, a $78 million tale of a horse race across the Arabian desert, was pulled from the lineup last year as "not yet ready for audiences." It finally hit theaters in March, where it garnered a $19.6 million opening weekend. The Alamo, a $95 million epic about the siege of the famous Texas stronghold, appears to be under siege itself. The film, originally slated for release last Christmas, has been delayed for "fine-tuning"--seldom an encouraging sign. The all-important summer slate, which includes $100 million-plus action pictures like Jerry Bruckheimer's King Arthur, seems in better shape. But there will be stiff competition from the likes of Shrek 2, Spider-Man 2, and the next Harry Potter film.

Meanwhile, to fill the future pipeline, Cook and Jacobson have some ego massaging to do. Big talents like Bruckheimer and M. Night Shyamalan, who have production deals with Disney, must be assured that the Magic Kingdom remains a safe place for their projects. And though Pixar is under contract for two more Disney films--including The Incredibles, slated for release in November--Cook must find a way to replace Pixar's all-but-guaranteed box-office pop. That may be his toughest job.

If it really comes to that. Jobs recently told investors that he'd truly miss Cook. "Pixar doesn't really want to leave Disney," says a producer familiar with both companies. "They just want to leave Eisner." -- BETSY STREISAND