The Mice That Roared

They weren't exactly Hollywood's idea of a power couple: Disney CEO Robert Iger, once derided as a "suit," and stu-dio chief Richard Cook, who got his start as a monorail operator at Disneyland. But last week Iger and Cook dropped a bomb bigger than any of the explosions you'll see in "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest." Just weeks after the record-smashing release of the sequel--soon to be the highest-grossing film in Disney history--Cook fired studio president Nina Jacobson and announced Disney was slashing 20 percent of its studio staff and cutting the number of films it makes each year by a third.

As usual, Hollywood thought it was all about them. "People are concerned that if Disney is cutting back on live-action movies, then what are other companies going to do," says Jim Wiatt, chief executive of the William Morris Agency. The unflappable Iger's response: "We're focused on our own issues and strategies. If it has an effect on the industry, so be it. But it really is about us."

Not bad for two guys who were considered perpetual bridesmaids. Iger and Cook both spent years toiling in the shadow of larger-than-life CEO Michael Eisner, who ran Disney like his personal kingdom. When Eisner's reign came to a Shakespearean end after a shareholder revolt led by Walt Disney's nephew, Iger found himself having to audition for his boss's job. Cook, who came up through the marketing ranks, had to endure similar Tinseltown tongue-clucking from those who assumed the affable bear of a guy didn't have teeth.

No one's saying Iger and Cook aren't "sexy" anymore. In short order, Iger made up with shareholders and Pixar honcho Steve Jobs, who'd had an epic battle with Eisner, even persuading Jobs to sell the animation company to Disney. Cook, meanwhile, had been turning theme-park rides into movies and getting Disney back to its family roots. "Dick and Bob go by their own beat," says Oren Aviv, who was promoted to president of production last week. "They're not interested in fanfare or press or what other people think." ( Mostly not interested: Iger did tell NEWSWEEK once, "I hate being called a suit.")

What people think now is that Disney is setting the pace for the industry. The film business has been on shaky ground: U.S. box office is flat, DVD sales have stalled and the cost of making movies is soaring. Family films seem like the only sure bets these days, and Disney is in a prime position to meet the demand. "Disney is the only real brand name in the movie business around the world," says Cook. In fact, Iger is taking the name "Disney World" quite literally. He spoke to NEWSWEEK Friday after flying home from a five-day trip to Asia, where he attended the stage premiere of "The Lion King" in Shanghai. His immediate goal is to build the Disney brand in China and India. Iger has also aggressively embraced technol-ogical advances, podcasting and Webcast-ing episodes of "Lost" and "Desperate Housewives," hits on Disney's ABC network. "I don't see technology as a threat," he says. "Technology allows us to be in step with the consumer."

All of which sounds pretty good to Wall Street. Last week's cuts will save the company between $90 million and $100 million a year, according to Cook, and while that wasn't enough to boost its stock price, it sure doesn't hurt investor relations. "Iger has stated his goals and stuck to [them]; investors like that predictability," says analyst Jason Helfstein of CIBC World Markets. "He's widely regarded in a positive light." Ironic, since he wasn't supposed to have the job in the first place.