By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Does Sam make long-distance calls?
When all is said and done, Snakes, which was produced for a relative song (about $30 million) by summer-movie (or any other) standards, will still end up netting a tidy profit for its studio. But in Hollywood, where perception is everything, the movie is already considered a failure, and one more apocalyptic sign in a summer rife with massive layoffs, movie-star meltdowns and expensive “tentpole” movies (Mission: Impossible III, Poseidon, Superman Returns, Lady in the Water, Miami Vice) that failed to live up to box-office expectations. And even if those movies hadperformed better, would the studios that made them be any better off, with “gross” participants like Impossibleproducer-star Tom Cruise skimming so much off the top before even a dollar of profit has been earned? How much will Sony really see at the end of the day from the $750-million-and-counting worldwide take of The Da Vinci Code once Tom Hanks and Ron Howard have gobbled up their pieces of the pie? Such questions were unavoidably in the ether these past months, as concerns about ballooning budgets, skyrocketing star salaries and parasitic participation deals reached something of a crisis point, spurred on by the sense of a widening chasm between what audiences want to see and what Hollywood has been giving them.
Ironically, it was at Disney, the studio with this summer’s biggest success story — Pirates of the Caribbean II— that one man set about managing that crisis. His name is Dick Cook, and he is the very definition of a company man, even if those who’ve met the mild-mannered, unassuming father of two say that you’d sooner take him for an insurance salesman than the chairman of one of the most successful movie studios on the planet. A 36-year Disney vet, Cook actually began his tenure with the company as — believe it or not — a ride operator at the Disneyland park in Anaheim, before taking off on a meteoric career ascent that makes Cinderella’s trip to the ball seem like nothing to write home about. But Cook ruffled feathers, both within the Mouse House and beyond when, in late July, he announced a massive reorganization that brought about the dismissal of longtime Disney studios president Nina Jacobson and the elimination of some 650 jobs throughout Disney’s worldwide motion-picture operation. In addition, Cook decreed that Disney would cut back from the roughly 18 movies it currently releases in a given year to something closer to 10, nearly all of which will be branded with the Walt Disney Pictures imprimatur (as opposed to the company’s adult-centric Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures labels).
Doubtless, Cook will find his name deleted from many a Christmas-card list this year, but while pundits scrambled to accuse him of everything from brutal insensitivity (for picking an admittedly inopportune moment to break the news to Jacobson — while she was witnessing her partner give birth to their baby) to outright sexism (for selecting a man, Oren Aviv, as Jacobson’s replacement), something that got lost in the shuffle was the potentially revolutionary impact of Cook’s grand gesture. In other words, at a time when everyone is saying (and has been saying) that there are too many movies being made, fewer people going to see them and ever-more-ridiculous costs involved in producing them, Cook is the one guy who actually seems to be doingsomething about it. And his reasoning is sound: If you make only 10 pictures a year, and every one of them is either a Pirates- or Narnia-size behemoth, or a profitable sleeper like Eight Belowand the teen dance drama Step Up, who’s really going to miss all those Ice Princesses and Hidalgos and Stay Alives and Stick Its that you’re not making instead? Certainly not those moviegoers who wish that the ever-endangered “serious” pictures that the studios have all but relegated to their specialty divisions (including Disney-owned Miramax) had a better chance at having their voices heard above the clamor of so much high-concept dross.
Visionary men are not often fully appreciated in their own time. But mark my words: If snakes won’t save Hollywood from itself, Dick Cook just might. My guess is that in the relatively near future, other studio executives (at least those intent on keeping their jobs) will follow Cook’s lead where trimming excess is concerned. It could be argued that at least one, Viacom CEO Sumner Redstone, already has. For whether you believe that Redstone unceremoniously booted one-time golden boy Tom Cruise off the Paramount lot, or that Cruise voluntarily elected to end his lucrative studio production deal, this much is clear: Cruise’s religious beliefs were indeed to blame — the religion of greed, that is. No one, of course, is crying anything but crocodile tears over Cruise’s fortunes — he, like Paramount and Redstone, will live to fight another day. But the writing is now unmistakably on the wall: In Hollywood, belts are being tightened, and not just because everyone’s on the Atkins Diet.
Having extolled Cook’s business acumen, I’d be remiss if I didn’t say that I don’t always agree with his taste in cinema. Earlier this summer, I compared the experience of watching Pirates II to what it feels like to spend all day waiting in line for a theme-park ride, only to get to the front and be told, “Sorry, out of order.” Yet, as the film has edged ever closer to $1 billion in global ticket sales — it is, as of this writing, the fourth highest-grossing film of all time — I can barely leave my house without running into someone who tells me how much he or she agrees with me about this slothful, feature-length teaser for next year’s Pirates III. It hardly matters, because like it or not, Pirates was themovie of Summer 2006: the one that people young and old anticipated the most feverishly in advance; the one they queued up around the block to see, the way people used to back when movies were more of a pop religion; and the one that many of them returned to see for a second or even third time. Which is precisely why Dick Cook is running a studio and I’m writing movie reviews. But for how much longer?