09.20.09

Revolt at Disney?

From Johnny Depp to Scott Rudin, Hollywood is in an uproar after Disney CEO Bob Iger summarily fired his film studio head. Kim Masters on a turning point in the movie business.

When Dick Cook moved into his new office as chairman of the Walt Disney’s movie division, he brought in a feng shui master to have the place aired out. Cook, who looks every inch like an affable country-club golfer, would hardly seem the type to go for that sort of thing. But the office’s previous occupant had been Michael Ovitz and as people in Hollywood and beyond know, his tenure as the No. 2 man at Disney was nasty, brutish, and short. It didn’t pay to take any chances.

After several years in the job, perhaps the feng shui warranty has already run out. Last Tuesday evening, Cook was called into CEO Bob Iger’s office and within about 10 minutes, his career at Disney—which he’d begun 38 years earlier as a ride operator on Disney’s steam train and monorail—was over.

“Dick Cook does things the old way,” says a veteran Hollywood observer. “He’s one of those people who keep their word.”

Apparently the 59-year-old Cook did not see it coming. He let a few days pass, deciding that word would go out late on Friday afternoon—the eve of Rosh Hashanah, one of the few times when much of Hollywood is seriously off the clock and busy either praying or dipping apples in honey to celebrate the Jewish New Year.

But Hollywood reacted. That was surprising enough, given the timing, but even more so because the reactions were on the record. Cook is an exceptionally popular man. Producer Scott Rudin told the New York Times that he was shocked, adding that Cook “single-handedly made possible some of the very best things that have happened to me in my career.” In a phone interview from London, Johnny Depp told the Los Angeles Times that he, too, was shocked, calling Cook "the sweetest man on the planet and such a gent.”

Cook may be an unlikely representative for the Day the Music Died in Hollywood but when the history is written, his ouster may be perceived as having represented the end of something. “Dick Cook does things the old way,” says a veteran Hollywood observer. “He’s a gentleman and most everybody else is an asshole ... He’s one of those people who keep their word.” And these days, that seems to be one of many luxuries that are no longer affordable.

At this point it doesn’t appear that one single clash caused the final rift. But there have been reports that Cook was perceived as secretive and insufficiently cooperative with other divisions at the company. A very recent episode illustrates the tension perfectly. A couple of weeks ago, Disney held the D23 Expo, an event in Anaheim to celebrate and promote Disney products. Among the highlights were surprise appearances by John Travola, star of the upcoming film Old Dogs, and Johnny Depp in full Jack Sparrow regalia.

Surprising as it seems, those appearances apparently came as a surprise to other divisions in Disney, which seethed at the missed opportunity to promote them. Cook is said to have felt that these stars easily could have wriggled out of the event and that it would be taking undue advantage to exploit their appearances to whip up ticket sales and draw frenzied media coverage. This would have been a concern particularly in the case of Travolta, who was making his first public appearance since the death of his son in January. That refusal to share information cannot be described as the cause of the rupture but clearly, management found it provoking.

Even though Cook’s dismissal stunned many, some say they saw the handwriting on the wall since last February, when Iger complained during a conference call with Wall Street analysts that the studio, not the marketplace, was to blame for the movie division’s weak performance. Indeed, weeks ago a producer with ties to Disney told me of rumors that Cook was in trouble. I discounted that at the time, assuming—as perhaps Cook did—that his relationships were too broad and deep to allow for unceremonious termination.

But Cook’s dismissal had to have been about more than a bad year at the box office. In fact, Cook was a living link to Disney’s storied past and it appears, finally, that his belief in his own insight into the essence of Disney was not sitting well with Iger as he’s moved to rebrand the company with moves like the acquisition of Marvel.

A source sympathetic to Cook says the real issue is that Iger is all about managing brands rather than preserving the Disney magic. “Maybe Michael Eisner left that Kool-Aid for them to drink,” he says.

Or maybe Iger is doing what’s necessary to move the company forward in treacherous times. And maybe there isn’t enough of the old Disney culture left to worry about.

But progress is a tricky business at Disney as at no other company. Those fans—the very ones who turned out for the D23 Expo--are dedicated to the point where they will actually show up at a shareholder meeting and revolt if you make them mad enough. Michael Eisner learned that the hard way.

Kim Masters covers the entertainment business for The Daily Beast. She is also the host of The Business, public radio's weekly program about the business of show business. She is also the author of The Keys to the Kingdom: The Rise of Michael Eisner and the Fall of Everybody Else.