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Interview: Walt Disney Pictures Chairman Dick Cook
by Scott Holleran
Walt Disney Pictures Chairman Dick Cook in his office at the Burbank movie studio.
Photo Credit: Scott Holleran
November 15, 2007

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.

Box Office Mojo: Which would you rather have, ten Eight Below's or one Pirates?

Dick Cook: [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.

Box Office Mojo: But if you couldn't have both—if you had to pick one—

Dick Cook: 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.

Dick Cook at the Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End premiere in Disneyland, May 2007
Photo Credit: Brandon Gray
Box Office Mojo: How do you quantify movie profits from merchandising and theme parks?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: Is it true that you learned the value of putting out fires while working on Disneyland's Monorail?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: Tell me about how you brought the best ice cream in Bakersfield to Disney and when is it coming to Disneyland?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: Are cast members trained in how to make the ice cream?

Dick Cook: 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.

Disney's Soda Fountain & Studio Store in Hollywood
Photo Credit: Sean Saulsbury
Box Office Mojo: Is Disney's Soda Fountain and Studio Store making money?

Dick Cook: It is—it did from the very moment it started.

Box Office Mojo: That's great. Any plans for other unique, exclusive Disney stores?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: What's the top-grossing movie at El Cap?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: What's the highest grossing classic animated picture at El Cap?

Dick Cook: The Little Mermaid—we packed them in for that engagement.

Box Office Mojo: What is the theme of The Jungle Cruise movie?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: Do you have a script?

Dick Cook: 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.

Box Office Mojo: We know that the Jungle Cruise skipper will not be smoking cigarettes, but will he fire a gun?

Dick Cook: Yes, he'll be able to have a gun but I can promise you he won't be smoking a cigarette.

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