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Monday Mouse Watch: Will Dick Cook’s exit trip up “Pirates 4” as well as the Muppets’ big-screen return?

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Monday Mouse Watch: Will Dick Cook’s exit trip up “Pirates 4” as well as the Muppets’ big-screen return?

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As I sat in the Arena at the Anaheim Convention Center earlier this month, watching the Walt Disney Studios presentation at the D23 EXPO, I remember thinking that no one but Dick Cook could pull off a show like this.

Dick Cook
Kelly Preston, Ella Bleu Travolta, John Travolta and Disney's Dick Cook
at Walt Disney Pictures Presentation at Disney's D23 Expo on September
11, 2009 at the Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California.
(Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Le Studio/Wireimage)
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

I mean, who else but the Chairman of Walt Disney Studios – renown for being one of the best-connected, well-liked people in the business – could persuade John Travolta & Kelly Preston to come make their first public appearance since the death of their son, Jett? Or – for that matter – get Johnny Depp all dolled up in his Capt. Jack gear to come promote Disney’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequel , “On Stranger Tides.”

But that said, as the crowd gave Dick & Johnny a standing ovation as they exited the Arena arm-in-arm (allegedly in search of rum) … I couldn’t help but think about something else that I’d recently heard about Cook. That there were those at the Studios who were openly gunning for the Chairman.

Mind you, this was back in June, while I was attending the Licensing International Expo in Las Vegas. And from what I was told then, it appeared that Dick’s job was safe. For a while, anyway. You see, as a Disney insider explained it to me then:

Dick Cook
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved

“Management knows that there’s no way that Depp will ever agree to do another ‘Pirates’ picture unless Cook is still in power. Johnny has no loyalty to the Walt Disney Company. It’s his personal relationship with Dick that will get that picture made.”

So one has to wonder about the timing of all this: A week after Depp stands on stage at the D23 EXPO and basically tells the world that he’ll soon be starring in “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides,” Cook suddenly walks the plank. Doesn’t that seem a trifle co-incidental to you?

Well, if Mouse House officials thought that – after his appearance in the Arena at the Anaheim Convention Center -- they had Johnny all sewn up to reprise his role as Sparrow, they were in for a rude awakening.

Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow at Disney's D23 Expo
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved

In a phone interview that Depp did with the Los Angeles Times last Friday, this Academy Award-nominee flat-out admitted that his zeal for appearing in “On Stranger Tides” had now waned. That – on the heels of Dick’s resignation -- "… there's a fissure, a crack in my enthusiasm at the moment" in regards to appearing in a fourth “Pirates” picture.

And then when you factor in that Johnny allegedly hasn’t yet officially signed a contract to appear in “On Stranger Tides,” that he and Dick reportedly had a handshake deal that would hinge on how well the screenplay for this proposed “Pirates” sequel turned out … Well, one wonders if we’re actually going to see a fourth “POTC” picture now. That Depp – in an effort to get back at those who had helped speed along Cook’s exit – might now opt out of the project. Leaving the Studio without a tentpole for the Summer of 2011.

To be fair, there are those at the Mouse House who insist that – in spite of the fact that Cook was one of the best-liked execs in the business – it was still time for Dick to go. That -- given how poorly the Studios’ non-Pixar product had been performing at the box office lately -- it was clear that Cook’s taste in projects was out of sync with what the public wanted to see at the multiplexes these days.

And given that under-performing pictures like “Confessions of a Shopaholic” were having a disastrous effect on the Company’s earnings as they moved through their pay TV & DVD sales phases … It was felt that it was in the shareholders’ best interest if a change was made at the top at the Studios.

Muppets at Disney's D23
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved

Of course, now the question is what becomes of all those projects that Cook had personally been shepherding through the development process. In particular that much anticipated production that’s supposed to be the Muppets’ return to the big screen, “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” Which will reportedly be shot early next year and then be released theatrically sometime in the Fall of 2010.

Mind you, Dick’s exit should have no impact on this production. With the accent in that last sentence being placed on the word “should.” But let’s remember what happened when Michael Eisner announced in March of 2005 that he was stepping down as the head of The Walt Disney Company in September of the following year. Chris Curtin –the then-Vice President and General Manager of the Muppet Holding Company (who, prior to his new gig, had long been Michael’s assistant) – lost a lot of his political capital on the heels of Eisner’s announcement. It soon became impossible for Curtin to get various divisions at Disney to get behind Miss Piggy and pals because … Well, mostly because the Muppets’ biggest patron (i.e. Eisner) would soon be out of power. And just in case the new head of the Mouse House wasn’t a Kermit the Frog fan, many execs now opted to take a wait-and-see approach in regards to the Muppets.

Muppets at Disney's D23 Expo
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises. All Rights Reserved

Which bring us now to Lylle Breier, a longtime loyal lieutenant of Dick Cook who’s now the senior vice president & general manager of Special Events & the Muppets. In theory, Cook’s exit from the Company shouldn’t have any impact on “The Cheapest Muppet Movie Ever Made.” But given that Lylle has been able to accomplish so much with these characters over the past year because people at the Studios knew that Dick was in her corner … One has to wonder what’s going to happen now. Especially on the heels of last week’s story in Variety that said that development was actually slowing down at Walt Disney Studios.

Will the new head of Walt Disney Studios keep all of the productions that Cook already had in the works perking along? Given all of the cutbacks & downsizing that's been going on in the entertainment industry over the past year, that hardly seems likely. For that matter, who might Bob Iger pick to be Dick’s successor? Back in June, I remember hearing that Oren Aviv, the president of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Production, was a possible candidate to replace Cook. But that was three months ago. Who knows who Iger might be considering now?

Oren Aviv
Disney's Oren Aviv and Director Robert Zemeckis at Walt Disney Pictures
Presentationat Disney's D23 Expo on September 11, 2009 at the Anaheim
Convention Center in Anaheim, California. (Photo by Eric Charbonneau
/Le Studio/Wireimage) Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

In closing, I’d just like to say that – for years now – all I’ve ever heard about Dick Cook is what a nice guy he is. But given that – in show business – nice guys finish last, I guess it’s a tribute to Cook’s survival skills that he lasted as long as he did as Chairman of Walt Disney Studios.

Wherever this well-liked executive lands, I’m sure that many of Hollywood’s top talents will soon be seeking him out. As Johnny Depp said in last Friday’s interview with the LA Times:

"(Dick)'s instantly trustworthy. And you generally don't meet people at the studios you trust. He will be somewhere and I will always look forward to working with him.”

Dick Cook
Disney's Dick Cook at Walt Disney Pictures Presentation
at Disney's D23 Expo on September 11, 2009 at the
Anaheim Convention Center in Anaheim, California.
(Photo by Eric Charbonneau/Le Studio/Wireimage)
Copyright 2009 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Which is a pretty strong incentive, all by itself, for some other studio to quickly come along and scoop Mr. Cook up, don’t you think?

Your thoughts?

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  • A totally bone-headed move on the Mouse's part.  Any idiot knows these things are cyclical and that one minute you're down, the next you're up.  Plus there was a writer's strike!  That Dick Cook doesn't have a job and Tom Rothman at Fox does makes this one of the most despicable moments in movie history.  Bob Iger is going to long regret this move and pay a heavy price in the future over it.  Johnny Depp is just as likely to walk away now as he is the film Pirates 4.  And nobody would blame him either!

    And what's this junk about people at the studios gunning for Cook?  I thought this kind of crap was supposed to be over under Iger's watch!  Get your house in order Bob or you'll wind up following Cook out the door!

  • One of the reports concerning Cook's departure is that the Studio told him it had decided to "go in another direction."  One assumes that phrase applies to Disney's movie slate, and that says to me that at least some of the projects Cook fostered are now on shaky ground.  While I'm sorry about Cook's departure, frankly, some of the projects he greenlit - like that stupid guinea pig film and the chihuahua flick - really call into question his taste and judgment. While I realize that the dog movie made some money (the guinea pig flick reportedly hasn't, thanks in part to a bloated budget), those projects did nothing to raise Disney's profile; they were the sort of things that made me cringe when I saw their trailers on TV. Ditto the announcement about that stupid Muppet movie. I know that the captive audience at the little-attended D23 loved it, but the general public is another matter altogether.  Disney shouldn't be investing its capital into such stuff, not when Dreamworks and 20th Century Fox and now Sony are breathing down its neck. Would Dreamworks buy Kukla Fran and Ollie and make a movie about them? The Muppet buy was the dumbest of Eisner's dumb moves. Disney needs to stop throwing good money after bad.

    Having said all that, I do hope Pirates goes ahead. I think an audience for that is still there...but the scripting better be good.

  • No Dreamworks would try to remake Harvey the Rabbit.  Because THAT'S what the public has been crying out for!  And I'd love to know how Dreamworks is "breathing down Disney's neck" when DISNEY is distributing their movies?

    G-Force was part of the deal with Bruckheimer.  The mouse is so in love with him that he could try to adapt a video game popular in the early nineties (oh hi Prince of Persia!) and they would fall over backwards for him.  And yes the "chihuahua flick" made a LOT of money.  Just because YOU don't like something doesn't mean there isn't an audience for it.

    Cook greenlit Pirates when Eisner thought it was the dumbest idea ever.  He supported Enchanted and Remember the Titans.  He made deals with Spielberg and Zemeckis.  We actually have a shot at a Roger Rabbit sequel because of him!

    And hell yes the Muppets buy was a good idea!  They're one of the ten biggest brands in the world!

  • Hollywood is all about relationships!  If Mr. Cook helped arrange all these great deals & is such an outstanding person, he shouldn't have any problem lining-up something new for himself -- if he even wishes to continue working.  If Zemeckis & Spielberg don't like the way they are treated then they'll leave when their contracts are up.  Bobby Iger has a pretty good record at un-ruffling feathers though.  Now lets hypothesize on who his possible replacements could be.  So many choices.  Who's to say that the next PoC movie has to have Johnny/Jack in it, couldn't just as easily introduce some new characters ... hhhmmm.

  • **And hell yes the Muppets buy was a good idea!  They're one of the ten biggest brands in the world!**

    Disney fully expected them to generate a ton of merchandising, and they've fallen miserably short. Quote from New York Times: **Disney estimated three years ago that the Muppets would be generating about $300 million a year in merchandising sales by now, retail analysts say the total for 2008 will be closer to $50 million.**How does that say "biggest brand in the world"? One of the keys of REAL "big brands" is audience recognition and timelessness.  Disney's going to have to invest a lot of cash into reminding adults about them and try to get the kids interested. Again, cash that would be more wisely invested elsewhere.

    Ooh, Mickey loves Bruckheimer? And that makes up for the flop that was G-Force HOW? Irrelevant. Yeah, the chihuahua flick made money. So did the direct-to-DVD cheapquels. Your point?

    Bottom line is: Iger had conceived some reason to get rid of Cook. And not because Iger is a big old meanie. And he was hardly threatened by Cook's status. So why did he let Cook go? I've already put forth some ideas as to why. You in the meantime can rant and rave about what a wicked evil rotten guy Iger is. Myself, I think he might have made a very hard but practical decision. We'll see...

  • Anybody else think that if anyone should have been fired, it's Jay Rasulo?

  • One more thought, to follow 'Nice Guys Finish Last', from that bottomless source of Industry Wisdom, William Goldman:

    When the Green-Light Guy goes out the door, all his projects go with him... because no one who follows wants to be associated with something their predecessor initiated, in case it turns out to have been a good idea after all.

    Let's hope Disney doesn't (once again) throw the baby out with the bath water.

  • I don't doubt that Dick Cook is a nice guy, and it stinks that somebody who has such a long history with the Company got shoved out the door, but let me play devil's advocate here.

    I saw Dick's presentation at D23, and honestly, except for Pirates 4 and the new Muppet movie, I didn't see a whole lot on the live-action side that grabbed my attention - and I've felt that way about Disney's live action releases for a while. Even the projects Dick approved that I thought were pretty good - like "Enchanted" -didn't do as well as the Company hoped.  Eventually, if you're in charge of an important division of a multi-billion dollar company and your division's underperforming, it's gonna come back to bite you - and it sounds like that's what happened to Dick.

    All I can say is that I hope Bob has someone with some experience and moxie waiting in the wings. Orem's a marketing guy, and the Studios' marketing department hasn't exactly been firing on all cylinders, either. Orem as the new head of the Studios doesn't seem to make a whole lot of sense to me, and I can't see where having him in charge is going to do much to improve the Studios' live action numbers.

  • Oh, and as far as Rasulo, I agree, but for the most part, WDP&R's numbers have been pretty good. A CEO who sacks that head of a well-performing division isn't gonna look too good to the shareholders, no matter what issues you have with him.

    Yes, I realize Rasulo's made some boneheaded moves, but we're not talking about making the fans hapy - we're talking about keeping the shareholders happy, and most of the big investors only care about the balance sheet, not about the product.  

  • Who would go see a Depp-less Pirates?  He's what made that movie, not the stunningly fantastic scripts.  The third movie was so poorly written that there are college kids that could have done a better job (they weren't even FINISHED with it when they start shooting it).  Depp IS Pirates of the Caribbean and w/o him the franchise is lost.  

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