Walt Disney Pictures Chairman Dick Cook
Reflecting the American sense of informality widely associated with the movie studio’s namesake and founder, people know the chairman of the Walt Disney Studios as Dick, not Richard, Cook. The former Disneyland cast member, who was asked during an event at the Anaheim theme park to be interviewed at his Burbank office, is in charge of development, production, distribution and marketing for live-action and animated motion pictures released by Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures, Hollywood Pictures and Miramax Films. Mr. Cook is also responsible for Disney’s home entertainment operations, as well as music, theatrical, television and new technology.
Dick Cook—generally regarded as an affable fellow—makes running a movie studio look easy and his congenial manner is perfectly matched to his dynamic approach to making money. Under his leadership, Disney has achieved outstanding box office success, the highest grossing movie in the company’s history (Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest) and the launch of the Disney DVD brand. He has worked for the Burbank-based business since he operated the Disneyland Railroad and Monorail in 1970. The graduate of the University of Southern California (USC) (he earned a degree in political science)—who, perhaps more than any other prominent Disney executive, conveys the studio’s sense of childlike wonder—became chairman of the Walt Disney Studios in 2002.
Which would you rather have, ten Eight Below's or one Pirates?
[Laughs] That’s a tough one because Eight Below was a special movie and it came onto the marketplace without a lot of fanfare and performed great. It opened at number one—a terrific movie and a great experience for everyone. Pirates is something else entirely. When you do a Disney movie—especially Pirates, which is such a part of the Disney culture because it is a theme park attraction—and you’re able to do it right, you lift the entire company to a different place. It created a reason to go back to Disneyland (or to Walt Disney World or Tokyo Disneyland) to visit the attraction again. The movie reinvigorates a whole new genre of films and it does that for consumer products—so it’s a movie that sort of lifts the whole enterprise up. What I’d really like to have is about ten Eight Below's and one Pirates every year. We’d have a very successful slate.
But if you couldn’t have both—if you had to pick one—
I’d have to pick Pirates because it’s such a phenomenon around the world. There’s not a country in the world where it has not performed extraordinarily well. Pirates 2 and 3 [At World's End] are going to end being in the top five of all time. It’s hard not to have that as the first choice.
How do you quantify movie profits from merchandising and theme parks?
You really can’t—and I’m often asked that question—because [profits] are based on the residual benefits for years to come. You can put new elements from the movie into the attraction and you have a brand new attraction. It’s sort of ongoing and it lasts for a long time. I think the number one costume for the last three Halloweens has been Captain Jack Sparrow. I don’t think it’s going away.
Is it true that you learned the value of putting out fires while working on Disneyland’s Monorail?
The Monorail did catch fire back in 1970 and I happened to be driving. I had been assigned the task of driving the Monorail the day new engines has been installed. A Swedish company called Alweg—it was the Disneyland Alweg Monorail—had just installed four new turbine engines and the engineers and mechanics had been working on the Monorail, riding on it, making adjustments to the drivetrain and making sure it was OK. I was driving it [without passengers] around all day. Finally, at the end of the day, they said it checked out and was certified and ready to go. It was a very busy day at Disneyland, and we could take some loads of people. We were in the Tomorrowland station, they loaded 124 people—I know that because it happened to be the capacity for that train—and it was full. I was in the cockpit—the front section—by myself because until then they had different engineers riding with me. I went over to the rectifier, where the power comes in, and I had to shift it into neutral. When I shifted out, all these red lights lit up on the panel and I could smell smoke. The Monorail was on fire. What had happened, which I didn’t know at the time, was that one of the turbines had been miswired and there was an electrical fire and it took all day for the wires to get hot enough to catch fire. I managed to stop the Monorail over the parking lot and they had to call out a hook and ladder and they brought everyone down individually—I was the last one unloaded. I was one happy guy to get off that train. At that particular moment, I kept thinking my whole career went up in flames. Fortunately, nobody was hurt and the fire was put out very easily. I did have control over the microphone and we were up there for so long. I had the guests sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat," and I had them roll down the windows so I could hear them singing, trying to entertain them as the smoke was coming up. We did ruin those four brand-new turbine engines but that was a small price to pay.
Tell me about how you brought the best ice cream in Bakersfield to Disney and when is it coming to Disneyland?
I’m not sure it’s going to make it to Disneyland but it has made it to Hollywood. Dewar’s ice cream is a family-owned ice cream manufacturer and ice cream shop in Bakersfield [ California]—they also make candies and taffy—and I’d gone there since I was a kid. It used to be a real treat to go to Dewar’s. When we were renovating the El Capitan, C.C. Brown’s [ice cream shop] was on Hollywood Boulevard and I went there on the last day it was open. It was kind of an institution there in Hollywood. I always thought it would be fun to combine the theater experience with a Disney soda fountain and a little store and we had the opportunity. Dewar’s is fresh and made with real ingredients and, when the time came, I had them down to look at what we were planning on doing and they wanted to do it. They make ice cream deliveries two or three times a week. They only have a couple of ice cream makers—they make it by hand—so they are limited in the quantity they can make and this is really going to test the amount of ice cream they can make. They do it the old-fashioned way, the way their great-great grandfather used to do it. We even had them bring some of their famous soda jerks to show our cast members how to make sundaes and milk shakes with the extra bit in the proper way. I think it’s added a lot to the El Capitan.
Are cast members trained in how to make the ice cream?
They are. We take a long time in doing that—it’s not a short-term thing. Making a good, hot fudge sundae is an art and we want every one to be great. We take great pride in it.
Is Disney’s Soda Fountain and Studio Store making money?
It is—it did from the very moment it started.
That’s great. Any plans for other unique, exclusive Disney stores?
We don’t have any real plans for taking it on the road. It’s such a unique thing. At some point, we’d love to have an El Capitan type experience in New York that will hopefully include a soda fountain. Maybe even in Chicago. We don’t have anything actively in development right now, but I think it would be fun. The El Capitan continues to be the highest-grossing single [movie] theater in the world and has been for many years. Having that Disney flagship is important. It doesn’t take away from any of the other theatrical runs. It’s kind of a thing unto itself. It makes for a special event.
What’s the top-grossing movie at El Cap?
It’s a tie between Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and [The Chronicles of] Narnia. The biggest animated picture [to play at El Capitan] is Finding Nemo.
What’s the highest grossing classic animated picture at El Cap?
The Little Mermaid—we packed them in for that engagement.
What is the theme of The Jungle Cruise movie?
There will be a family involved. The skipper will play a very important role. He’ll be more of an Indiana Jones kind of guy, with a little Jack Sparrow in him, who’s going to be able to take this family on an adventure that they never dreamed they were going to be on when they first got on board. In true Disney fashion, it will definitely have the adventure and the intensity—but also the heart and the fun. We hope we have a good outline of where we want to go and what we want to do with it in the next year.
Do you have a script?
Not yet. It’s being worked on. David Hoberman, whom we have asked to produce it, has been hard at work. He knows that it’s a top priority for us—one that we’re very, very excited about. It’s a real tentpole [picture]. He’ll deliver it and when he does, it will be something special.
We know that the Jungle Cruise skipper will not be smoking cigarettes, but will he fire a gun?
Yes, he’ll be able to have a gun but I can promise you he won’t be smoking a cigarette.
How does banning smoking from its movies profit Walt Disney Pictures?
It doesn’t profit us. Hopefully, it’s another signal to families that—if there’s any linkage at all, even the slightest, between seeing someone portrayed smoking and having a young person begin to smoke, we don’t want to be a part of that. It’s showing our social responsibility to families and individuals that [smoking is] a real scourge that kills people. If we can even do a small, tiny part of prohibiting that from starting, we’ve done a good thing.
Will you omit Pinocchio smoking in future releases?
No. We’re not taking away from anything that’s already been done. We’re not taking smoking away from Cruella in 101 Dalmatians—that’s just a part of it and that’s history. We’re not going to have smoking in a Disney movie going forward.
Did any government official approach Disney or initiate any communications on the issue of movie content, such as cigarette smoking?
Not in particular. We’ve had a number of people over the years—both politicians and advocates—that have definitely hoped we would take this kind of stand and that we would do it. We felt like, since we weren’t including smoking anyway, and we had internally talked about it, making the commitment wasn’t a giant leap for us.
Will the Treasures DVD series continue?
Has the Tru-Life Adventures DVD series sold well?
They’re doing fine. I think that they will end up doing well over time as an evergreen. We’re really excited about doing more things in the nature area. We have so much of a heritage in that area.
There will be another release of the Tru-Life DVD series?
How involved are you in the development of Platinum edition DVDs?
I probably don’t look at every single piece of DVD content. I look at a lot.
What’s the criteria in what you personally examine before release—how do you discriminate?
If I’m interested in it and it’s something I know something about that might be helpful. I’m more concerned with the actual movie and the restoration. We always celebrate that process with a screening. We invite as many people as we can who had something to do with the making of the movie—that’s always a fun evening because they can see it. It’s so much fun to sit with those that actually had something to do with the original creation and for them to be able to see the colors they haven’t seen in years or hear a musical note. Sometimes, there are such subtleties that are restored and it’s done with such loving care. We usually do one or two a year. I really look forward to that. So often, with movies that become classics, the artists weren’t out to make a classic; they were out to make a good movie. They wanted to make something that they thought was entertaining and fun—and the choices that were made were sometimes made out of economics, or out of time [constraints] and this was a solution that came to them. They thought in very practical terms. Later on, it becomes a classic.
Isn’t that why it becomes a classic, because they were focused on the quality of the art?
I believe that. Today, one of the most overused words is franchise. I can assure you, when we did the first Pirates, we had no intention of making a second or third Pirates. It wasn’t even contemplated. We were making it because it was that particular movie—it is what it is—we were concentrating on that movie. The only exception where we thought about it more would be the Chronicles of Narnia, because it has seven books—but we had to do the first one right before we could do the rest of them. I think you’re right, though—I was listening to some great old tapes that Walt Disney made just prior to his passing. He was talking about going back and looking at Snow White and Pinocchio and Cinderella and he makes the comment that he wasn’t thinking about making classics—that Disney was trying to make the best movie we could… pioneering new ground, doing something no one had done before. When we do that, and see movies that stand the test of time and are still so entertaining, we know we’ve done it correctly.
When is Song of the South coming out on DVD?
I don’t know. We’ve definitely given it a lot of thought. When we do Song of the South, we have to do it in such a sensitive, smart way and be very respectful.
Disney released Lady and the Tramp with the Italian, the Russian and the Siamese cats, Peter Pan with the Indians—with not a whiff of controversy. Why should Song of the South be treated any differently—why not ask Leonard Maltin to introduce its context on DVD and be done with it?
It’s finding that way of introducing it that would be the most effective. It’s a great movie, a great piece of art. It’s a part of our history and our heritage. I’m sure at some point in time it will find its way—we’re just trying to think of the right and proper way of getting it out there. We’ll find the right balance of being respectful and honoring the work that has been done.
What was your first Disney movie—that you saw in theaters as a child?
I remember seeing Cinderella and, because we had one theater in Bakersfield—the Fox theater—movies would come and play for a week. If it was really big, it would play for two weeks. I remember Swiss Family Robinson. I know it left a huge impression on me because I saw it twice in one day—twice on Saturday—and I distinctly remember going to a pay phone and calling my mom and telling her that I wanted to stay and watch it again. It was so popular that I came back and saw it the second weekend. I saw it three times. I thought it was the greatest movie ever made. I just loved it—like it was the greatest movie ever—ever! But the first was probably an animated movie and for some reason, Cinderella comes to mind.
Your parents typically took you to see Disney’s animated pictures in a first run theater?
They would go with me when I was very young and when I was six, seven or eight years old, I would go by myself. They used to have a fabulous matinee program at the Fox theater and they would have a guy who would intro the movie and give away prizes and we would play games. It was always fun.
What did you like about Swiss Family Robinson?
It was this giant adventure—this notion of being shipwrecked on an island having to fend for yourself and it had all these great animals and they were building this fantastic house in a tree—it just got me all excited.
Is a remake in progress?
We have thought about it. We’ve had different takes on it and we wanted to give a little rest to that same sort of genre from Pirates. But I think at some point in time Swiss Family Robinson is too rich a material not to go back to it.
Maybe then we’ll get the Swiss Family Treehouse back to Disneyland. Turning to the Narnia pictures, what do you see as the fundamental theme of the series?
I hope for the most part that [the audience] feel[s] like they’ve been thoroughly entertained by a great story well told. If there are parts of the audience that take more allegory from the movie, that’s great, too, just as in the books. But I think in their essence these are great adventure stories transporting you to a place you’ve never been before. You can take that and, if that’s enough of a story for you, that’s great. If you also see other parts that symbolize things that are religious for you, that is great, too. We’re not making any giant statement there but it’s certainly there if you want it.
What is the fundamental theme of the National Treasure movies—which are not religious?
No. Those are fabulous, high adventure fun at its best. There again, we never had an idea we would continue a series. The first one was such a beloved film. It’s always interesting to take a notion based on history and based on fact and apply what it would mean. We’ve all looked at a dollar bill and wondered: what does this or that mean—to create a story around what some of the symbols mean or might have meant. In [National Treasure:] Book of Secrets, when John Wilkes Booth, who assassinated President Lincoln, is finally captured and meets his demise, there are 13 missing pages from his diary—[the title and plot address] what were in those 13 pages.
Has a Booth diary been found?
I think so—I think it’s based on fact. What might have been in those 13 pages? Are the names of other conspirators there?
Were there other conspirators?
Well, there might have been. It becomes a great adventure. You can take different themes from the movies. There is a reverence for history there and there’s reverence for exploring one’s history—and finding out where things are. They may not always be what they appear to be. There’s always something much deeper underneath the surface.
Jon Turteltaub has had great success with Disney—with National Treasure, Cool Runnings and Phenomenon. Will he be doing more Disney pictures?
He’s one of my favorite directors. I hope Jon does anything and everything he wants to do with us. He’s really a part of our family. I picked up Jon’s first movie years ago—3 Ninjas, which Dino di Laurentiis had produced—and it was the first time I met him—in Scottsdale, Arizona. Cool Runnings, Phenomenon, While You Were Sleeping, Disney’s The Kid—Jon did several hit movies for us and we love him.
What do you regard as his artistic philosophy?
Jon is first and foremost an excellent filmmaker—and a great storyteller. He’s very funny. He is a very, very funny guy in person and I think it shows up in his work. He’s also very thoughtful. He’s very smart and I think that comes through loud and clear in his movies—but he never talks down to an audience. He’s always going up. And there’s a heart to his movies that comes through. His movies are a reflection of him.
His approach is classic Disney moviemaking—markedly different from the modern, frantic style of other Disney pictures.
That’s true. Jon is very much of that ilk.
Businessmen and top studio executives typically don’t get the credit they deserve for making great movies. As Chairman, how do you assure that an artist like Jon Turteltaub has the creative autonomy—smoking ban aside—to create what he wants to create?
We approach it differently with every project and every filmmaker. Because of our long history with Jon Turteltaub, there is a giant amount of trust that has been developed. We trust Jon implicitly. In the case of National Treasure, when you combine Jon and [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer, you’ve got the best of all worlds. You have to judge the person as the person and Jon is a really responsible filmmaker. He cares deeply about what he’s doing. He doesn’t do a lot of movies. He’s very choosy. He picks what he wants to do and, when he does, he’s completely committed to it. He is very respectful of money and he’s also one of the best collaborators. Jon will take a great line or a great idea from anybody—the best idea always wins.
I was thinking more of you—do you have a personal code for when you go to bat for an artist to create the movie according to his vision?
It happens differently with different movies.
Studio businessmen are often regarded as people who say no to the detriment of the movie. Can you give an example where saying no—or yes—but in either case an instance of exercising your judgment that led to a creatively enhanced scene?
Sure. The most recent example would be on the movie Enchanted. It became very clear that we could make the movie better if we added a couple of scenes that would solidify a major relationship in the movie—I don’t want to spoil the movie—and when [director] Kevin Lima called, and he did an unbelievable job, and articulately stated exactly what he wanted, he was absolutely dead right. There was a sense that we’re going to do it though we hadn’t budgeted for it.
How much more did that cost?
Probably another million and a half or two million dollars.
You just said, yes, you get to do it. What was the criteria by which you decided the issue?
He was right and I could see that. He was dead right in what the movie needed. We knew this movie was going to be something special—this was going to make it a little better. Yes, it was more expensive, but it would make that movie more special. That’s what you do in each case of a movie that’s brought to you, [you ask] is it something that’s frivolous or is it something about character? I’m much more willing [to extend time or budget], if it’s going to enhance the movie—the story—and if it’s important to have that scene in the movie. Obviously, it has to pay off.
What’s the biggest enemy during a production: frivolity or obsessive behavior?
Both. What’s frivolous to one is absolutely needed to somebody else. It’s a matter of whose ox is being gored and whose feelings you’re talking about. Many filmmakers are so close to the material and you want them to be. But sometimes, they can’t see the forest from the trees. I never blame them for that. I want someone who’s that crazed and maniacal about wanting to make that movie the best it can be because that’s what I want at the end of the day. I never object to that kind of maniacal thinking, though sometimes I want to bring them to see [reality] and say, you’re not seeing the point here, but I guess I don’t have a particular philosophy. I sort of handle them as they come. I’m sure we’re wrong a lot of times—and I’m sure we’re right a lot of times. Hopefully, the batting average is better than not.
When were you wrong? Apocalypto?
We had an opportunity there. Mel [Gibson] is one of the great filmmakers around. He’s a phenomenal storyteller. From time to time, you’re going to have those movies that some are going to like and others are not going to like. It was unfortunate that his own personal [arrest for drunk driving and subsequent anti-Jewish and chauvinistic comments] took place—it couldn’t have happened at a worse time for the movie—but we’re going to take those creative risks. We want to be able to keep pushing the envelope of creativity. Sometimes we’ll succeed and other times we won’t and maybe time will tell.
The Rock did well in The Game Plan—
He may be one of the most cooperative, energetic actors in the business—there’s nothing he won’t do. The man is on fire. It’s a very good movie. Kyra Sedgwick is always great and she’s also a bit of a good luck charm because it seems like every movie she’s in with us turns out to be a big hit so I’d just as soon she played in all of our movies.
Are the high expectations for Enchanted realistic?
I’m not good at predicting box office success and I always think it’s a little bit of bad luck. If you were to ask anyone [here] to define a Disney movie today, they would probably say it’s Enchanted. It embodies everything that’s good and that people know and love and revere about Disney movies. It’s a great story, a classic, with fantastic characters—the music by Alan Menken and Stephen Schwartz is absolutely sensational. There are a few songs in it that I think are as good as anything that has been written. You not only walk out humming the songs, you want to see it again and again. I must say it’s something the entire studio is so proud of—it’s hard to know what audiences are going to like or embrace but I know that we really like it a lot. We want the movie to be discovered. We’re very excited about it.
What happens in The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian?
1,300 years have gone by and Narnia is in dire need of help once again, so our four kids return. There is a very great prince that helps them bring Narnia back to what it was—it’s kind of lost its way—and our good prince, played by a young man [Ben Barnes] who’s a real find—I think he’s going to be a bonafide star and he needs to be because he has to carry not only this movie but the next movie as well [Voyage of the Dawn Treader]. It’s important for the movie and the franchise that we continue to introduce new characters.
Why did Underdog bomb?
You try to tell the best stories you can. Underdog is a great character but sometimes different elements don’t come together and audiences don’t respond to it and it ends up being OK, far from being great, far from what we had hoped it was going to be.
Is there anything for Underdog you would do differently?
Probably try to make it a little more sophisticated and age it up. It was so very, very young. But those are things I see in hindsight. It’s part of the movie business. We move on.
Will High School Musical 2’s cast return for a feature movie?
That’s certainly our intent, to have all the main characters back for the third movie which will be theatrical and hopefully add some characters to the cast as well. We’re looking for release a year from now.
Why did Disney terminate its development deal with Walden Media?
We look at those deals on a case by case basis. They like to do the same kind of movies we’re doing and where it’s appropriate, we’ll do it. But it just didn’t make a lot of sense for us based where we are with our own development to want to have another permanent supplier. Their ambitions were to produce a lot more movies than we could actually take in—there are only so many major slots every year and we were filling those up [on our own]. There’s always room for that great movie but I think at the time their desire was to have four or five movies a year and that probably was more than our appetite could satisfy. We’re still going to continue with the Narnia series and whatever else may in fact come along.
You have worked with Michael Eisner and Robert Iger. What’s the most fundamental similarity in their management philosophy?
They’re both fantastic executives. They are both really good creative executives. Both are nurturers and they really understand the creative process and what it means. They both know that creative content drives this company, whether it be High School Musical or Pirates or Narnia—that’s what fuels this company. They are both huge champions of that.
How are they different?
In personality, like anyone. Their goals in moving Disney forward are the same and frankly there are more similarities than there are differences. They may have different ways of approaching things but each one of us do, which is why there’s not one car for everybody—there are many different choices. They are both extremely gifted executives who can rally everyone around a real agenda to reach higher heights.
As a businessman, what’s the most common misconception among stock market analysts?
The power of the brand, the worldwide acceptance of the brand and what it means to families around the world. It is very difficult to calculate that. Also the evergreen creative content no matter what the format—Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Finding Nemo, Toy Story, these are evergreen titles that will continually be bringing in significant amounts of income for years and decades to come. We’re not like other entertainment companies—it is truly the only brand name around the world in our business—and it’s difficult to calculate the value of that.
What is the basic Disney studio philosophy and how is it unique among motion picture studios?
We have a purpose and a particular mission: to make the finest family entertainment in the world. That’s what we do. We do other things as well but, fundamentally, if you strip away everything [else], that would be enough.
When you say family entertainment, you’re talking about producing content that appeals across the generations—not just for kids?
Not just for kids at all. For moms, dads, grandma, grandpa—everybody. No one is excluded. That’s really what defines what we are, not unlike going to Disneyland. We have things there for everyone. You can walk down Main Street and go through [Sleeping Beauty’s] Castle into Fantasyland and the attractions there are for the most part for the little ones but if you make a right hand turn into Tomorrowland you have Space Mountain, which has a height requirement. They’re all Disney. It’s the reason our parks have never had a problem drawing teens or adults or tweens—it appeals to everyone. That’s the same thing we’re trying to do with out movies as well. Look at Enchanted. We’ve screened it for a few different audiences and it doesn’t matter if there’s a kid or an adult—it plays like a romantic comedy and it scores through the roof, and it is the same with kids. It plays across the board with parents and kids. That’s how I know we’ve done it right.
Disneyland recently introduced the first attraction to exclude adults from participation—the Jedi Knight Training Academy based on George Lucas’ Star Wars. How do you make sure that doesn’t happen with motion pictures?
We try to find and develop material that we think is going to have that kind of broad, all-encompassing feel to it and we execute it. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to find the right material and it’s really hard to execute it and have the parts come together. But that’s what we try to do. There’s no formula. I keep coming back to Enchanted, which was probably in development here for more than a decade. It took Kevin Lima, who directed it, and his sensibility to break the code because this is, in essence, a giant love letter to all the classics—and it took someone who has a deep love and appreciation for Disney and for the classics to be able to do that. It’s not a parody. It’s not making fun of the classics—it’s not any of that. It took someone to be able to see that and know that and feel that. So the tone of the movie is right from the first note to the last note and it never wavers. But it took us more than a decade.
What are Disney’s most underrated, evergreen movies that add up to a strong body of work?
Movies like Eight Below, Bridge to Terabithia, Holes, to name a few that were creatively and economically very successful. They didn’t break any world box office records. But their profit margins were huge and they were also really good movies we could stand behind and be proud of. At the end of the day, if we do it right, and we stick to making good, quality movies and deal with quality people and filmmakers, the box office results will come. [Director] Andy Davis did a terrific job with Holes and it’s the same thing with Frank Marshall on Eight Below—these were good, strong movies.
Will Frank Marshall be asked to direct another Disney movie?
I’d love to—anytime. We don’t have anything planned right now but we’d love to at the drop of a hat. He could do anything. Frank is one of the really great directors.
Andrew Davis also directed Disney’s The Guardian, which didn’t take off at the box office, though it was heavily marketed. You’re a marketing professional—please give an example where marketing hurt the movie’s performance?
It’s always hard to look back. We take the elements we think are going to appeal to everyone through focus groups or research—and they may think it’s great—and that’s put into a 30-second television spot. When we put it out into the real world, sometimes a lesser audience is interested. Time of year, competition, what’s happening on television—there are a million things competing with movies, so it’s never a clean slate. It’s difficult. It’s an art form. We saw that this summer with three big movies that did well in the beginning of summer but we all took a bite out of each other. Had we had the whole time to ourselves, we each could have done a lot more business than we did. It’s nobody’s fault—it just happens that way. But this was a really tough summer—a lot of things have done really, really well, so I’m not knocking it—and it’s very competitive. We don’t do a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking or post-mortems because, in this business, while there are lessons, everything’s always different next time—it’s always changing. When I first started in the movie business, one could make a mistake when a movie first opened and catch up to it in the second or third week [of release]. Not anymore. Those days are long gone. There’s something new the next week and there are no second chances. You have to get it right the first time.
Doesn’t the front-loaded approach become self-fulfilling?
It makes it very difficult, not impossible. That is why we spend a lot of time thinking about movies, where they’re positioned, how they’re supposed to go, how many runs, how many theaters do you take on the break and these are as much artistic decisions and as they are based on logic. We’re dealing with so many unknowns and we have to sort of feel it. Sometimes, we guess right, sometimes we guess wrong. Generally, great movies will find their audience. It used to be 100 percent that a good movie will find its audience. Now it is more difficult and people don’t get around to seeing some movies that are really good.
When you go to Disneyland, what’s the first thing you do?
If I’m just going for fun, for a good time, my first stop is the train station on Main Street. It’s where I started and it’s kind of nostalgic and it gets me in the mood for the whole day. It takes me around the park and sets the tone. I don’t think there’s ever been a time when I’ve been on the train when it doesn’t put me in a good mood.
Box Office Mojo joins the motion picture industry in celebrating the centenary of three great actors this year: John Wayne, Katharine Hepburn and Barbara Stanwyck. What’s your favorite John Wayne movie?
I love John Wayne movies—he’s one of the all-time greatest of the greats and it would have to be The Searchers. It’s one of the great Westerns. He’s an American icon.
What a fantastic actress. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? which she did with Spencer Tracy is one of many favorites and she’s great in it. She was fabulous.
My favorite is Double Indemnity. She was one of the first real, tough ladies that could take on the guys and win—she had that rare ability as an actress to play tough, soft, any which way. What’s always so impressive is that she always worked, her body of work is huge. She has such a wide, wide range and she’s the real definition of an actress.
What do you think of Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney?
Certain things are interesting. When he gets into speculation of Walt and his family and some personal [issues], I don’t know. I don’t think you can always tell in absolute terms what someone was thinking or doing—psychologically—and I’m not so sure that was all there. It certainly captured a moment in time in a person’s life. I think some of [Gabler’s conclusions about Walt Disney’s] motivations are different than reality, according to the people I’ve talked to who knew Walt well. I don’t think Walt Disney was all that calculating. He was a pioneer. He invented an art form, started a company, invested his entire life and fortune into this company, he invented the theme park, the consumer products, the recording business and he built something around ideals that were very, very strong and have stood the test of time. If you look at the body of Walt Disney’s work, that’s the substance—what an unbelievable pioneer. Who has that kind of guts today to do what he did? I don’t know of anybody able to do what he had the nerve to do. It’s great that all these years later, the company is named after him. To have that staying power. People just smile when they hear his name.
Does that reflect the idea that the company is good enough to put his name on it?
Absolutely—and that comes with responsibility. When we put the name Walt Disney on a movie, we’re putting the reputation there and it’s a real person, not some fictional thing, not some name that was made up, it’s a human and what that stands for is a huge responsibility. We don’t take it lightly.
Originally published November 15, 2007 by Box Office Mojo