Even rival studios are now predicting that Disney may soon be able to boast this summer’s No. 1 and No. 2 movies. That Disney’s record-breaker Pirates of the Caribbean 2 will be on top is obvious. But it also looks like Disney / Pixar’s Cars, after a non-record-breaking start, sped past $200 mil this weekend. It’s got enough momentum to overtake X-Men 3‘s $235 mil. Though Disney has a notorious history of being cheap when it comes to paying their working stiffs (as opposed to Michael Eisner and Michael Ovitz and Bob Iger), studio chief Dick Cook should receive a fat bonus. Unlike so many other suits, he deserves it. Which just goes to show where great studio execs come from: not law firms, not production companies, not rival executive suites. Instead, Cook began his career at the Magic Kingdom in 1970 operating the steam train and monorail rides at Disneyland.
Some history is in order: When named chairman of Walt Disney Studios back in February 2002, Cook took over a deeply downsized movie operation at a time when the flailing company was desperate to avoid exposure to the financial risks of filmmaking. The choice of ultimate corporate insider Cook merely served to make official the job he had been doing ever since the departure of short-tenured Peter Schneider.
But Hollywood raised eyebrows that a “bureaucrat” from the marketing and distribution side was now in charge. Previous occupants had been well-known and well-connected creative executives Jeff Katzenberg and Joe Roth. Other candidates to replace Schneider had included Imagine’s Brian Grazer. But Cook’s selection underscored the new reality at Walt Disney Studios: at that time, parent company chairman and CEO Michael Eisner had spent the past two years slashing overhead by $600 million. Cook was about to preside over the shadow of a once mighty moviemaking institution running scared from the soaring production costs on tentpole pictures like Armageddon and Pearl Harbor while jumping headfirst into low-budget family fare with lower risk like The Princess Diaries and Snow Dogs. Disney insiders told me at the time that the downsized studio didn’t need to be topped by a mogul with big plans and an even bigger ego when the job was just to function as the facilitator, marketer and distributor of movie product from Disney’s main suppliers. “Dick has what it takes to make this new arrangement work,” one Disney insider predicted to me back then: “Very few people know what they’re doing in the marketing and distribution side like Dick. It’s still an art.”