Nice Guys Finish First

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

Known for engendering goodwill throughout the industry, former Disney Studios chair Dick Cook is honored with the Pioneer of the Year Award.

In a nondescript building several miles from the Disney lot, Dick Cook is quietly working on his next venture. His offices on Forest Lawn Drive in Burbank are modest but warm. On this day, he has given one of his assistants bunches of white tulips for her birthday.

Cook, who stepped down as chairman of Walt Disney Studios nearly 18 months ago, isn’t ready to say what that next venture is, but one thing is clear: He continues to enjoy support from all corners of the film business, a rarity.

In a telling sign of that support, Cook will be in Las Vegas on March 30 to receive the Pioneer of the Year Award from the Will Rogers Motion Picture Pioneers Foundation, the joint charity of distributors and exhibitors. The gala dinner is being held in conjunction with CinemaCon (formerly ShoWest), the annual convention of theater owners.

Exhibitors and distributors are fiercely loyal to Cook, one of only three studio heads who have risen up through the distribution side (the other two were Terry Semel and Frank Mancuso).

It’s the first time anyone can remember the storied honor going to someone who isn’t currently an executive at a studio or theater chain (the first Pioneer award went to Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor in 1947).

Many in the film industry are still smarting over Cook’s ouster from Disney, where he spent nearly four decades, beginning as a monorail and steam locomotive operator at Disneyland in 1970.

Transferring to the Disney lot in Burbank, he worked in television sales before joining the theatrical distribution department, where he spent 20 years.

“One of the first assignments was going to Minneapolis,” he recalls. “They wanted to show me what distribution was really like. I had a rental car and drove through small towns in Minnesota and South Dakota. I called on independent theater owners in those places who had either not played Disney movies for a period of time or who owed us money.

“I had to sell and collect. In some of these towns, the guy that was the grain operator was also the owner of the theater, which was only open on weekends,” he adds. “I did that for a month. It was a great experience.”

Tom Sherak, chair of the Pioneer dinner, says the event is sold out and that Disney has been a supporter of the evening.

“When you look at all the moguls in distribution or exhibition who have gotten this award after that, it’s an amazing thing,” Sherak says. “Dick is the perfect candidate to follow in that tradition. He would be embarrassed to say it, but he’s a mogul.”

Bets are on Cook launching a film production company once he raises the requisite money, but it’s unclear whether he will distribute his own films. Producers and talent — Johnny Depp tops the list — are eager for Cook to get back in the game. Cook’s close relationship with Depp has been the stuff of Hollywood lore since the idea for the Pirates franchise first came together during a one-on-one meeting between the two.

“All we had was this tiny little two-page treatment, based on the attraction at Disneyland,” Cook recalls. “Before the end of the conversation, Johnny said, ‘I’ll do it.’ I believe at that particular moment, he knew exactly what he wanted to do with the character. He was in.”

When filming started on the first Pirates of the Caribbean, many within Disney were taken aback by Depp’s now-iconic portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow. Some production executives believed his performance was too fey, and too over the top — but not Cook, who let Depp run with it.

Michael Eisner named Cook chairman of the studio in 2002 and during his tenure, the studio turned out Pirates and the National Treasure franchise as well as a string of Pixar hits and Disney toons, among other successful titles.

Because Cook believes in letting filmmakers carry out their vision, he is credited for attracting a diverse roster of producers and directors, including Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy, Scott Rudin, Jerry Bruckheimer, Robert Zemeckis, Tony Scott, Lasse Hallstrom, Wes Anderson, Gore Verbinski and Tim Burton.

“Tim Burton is one of the most creative people in this business and maybe of all time,” Cook says. “You’d be crazy to try to rein him in. He’s such a visual person, and he sees things that would be so difficult to convey on a piece of paper.”

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, made under Cook’s tutelage but released after he left, turned into a box-office behemoth, grossing $1 billion worldwide.

Zemeckis’ Mars Needs Moms also was begun during Cook’s tenure but was marketed by new Disney chair Rich Ross’ team. When Mars bombed at the box office, some pinned the blame on Cook, but his supporters countered that when Alice worked, no one credited him.

Cook insists that he doesn’t like to be in the limelight. Asked about his life post-Disney, he says change is always positive and always good. But he won’t go so far as to say he’s happy to be away from the studio system.

“If you liked it, if you enjoyed that energy, I think you always enjoy it,” Cook says. “You miss it when you’re not doing it. It’s like an athlete, if you enjoy playing the game. You like that action. At the same time, the future is fraught with opportunity.”

INSIDE THE MAGIC KINGDOM: Key moments in Cook’s tenure at Disney

1970 Hired as a monorail and steam locomotive operator at Disneyland in Anaheim.

1977 Transfers to the Disney lot in Burbank as manager of pay television and nontheatrical releases, helping to lead the company’s first foray into cable television, which would become Disney Channel.

1980 Joins Disney’s theatrical distribution division as sales manager, moving up the ranks to senior vp domestic distribution.

1988 Named president of distribution, overseeing titles including Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Three Men and a Baby (the first Disney title to break $100 million), Pretty Woman and Father of the Bride. He also helps with the renaissance of Disney animation, distributing The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin and The Lion King.

1994 Named president of marketing — in addition to running distribution; oversees marketing and distribution strategies for such movies as Toy Story, The Santa Clause, Crimson Tide, The Rock and The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

1996 Named chairman of Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group.

2002 Named chairman of Walt Disney Studios — responsible for Walt Disney Pictures, Touchstone Pictures and Hollywood Pictures — as well as the Disney Music Group, home entertainment and legal and business affairs

2009 Leaves Disney in September.