Monday, March 13, 2006

Sombrero Grande goes to the Disney 2006 Annual Meeting of Shareholders
Trip report by Sombrero Grande

Strange but true, there are times when Sombrero Grande actually takes off his big, orange, foam cowboy hat. One such time is when I’m sitting in a movie theater as a courtesy to those seated behind me. Today was another time, when I replaced my namesake for a pair of golden Mickey ears as I headed up to Anaheim for the 2006 Disney stockholders’ meeting.

I can’t tell you how much stock I actually own in the Walt Disney Company (more than you’d expect but less than Michael Eisner), but the revelation of that fact should clue you in to why I usually pay more attention to Disney’s movie releases than most.

After many years of avoiding Anaheim (thanks to Eisner’s fear of having to face many of his harshest critics), the company’s 2006 Annual Meeting of Shareholders was held on March 10 at the Arrowhead Pond. I couldn’t miss this rare opportunity, so I took a day off of work (that’s right, Sombrero Grande still labors away at a day job because YOU PEOPLE AREN’T BUYING ENOUGH MERCHANDISE FROM THE MASKED MOVIE SNOBS’ STORE!) and drove to Anaheim early in the morning to ensure a good seat alongside the likes of Roy Disney, Tony Baxter and John Lasseter.

All in all, the meeting went pretty well. New Disney C.E.O. Bob Iger was confident in his presentation, but a bit dry. I can only hear the word “content” so many times before I begin to gloss over. However, I can’t blame him; he’s a “business” kind of guy. Eisner might have been a little more “showman” in his presentations to shareholders, but that “creativity” came at a heavy cost to the rest of the company as he often felt his own creative ideas were better than anyone else’s. Iger at least knows to step back and let the true Disney wizards work their magic...which brings me to the most exciting part of the meeting, when Iger brought John Lasseter onstage. Now, previous to Lasseter’s arrival, much of the discussion of the creative “content” Disney is prepping for this year was quite brief and a bit disappointing. The trailer for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest was shown, but merely the one that’s been already been out for a while with no other discussion of it. During a short video presentation, seeking to catch us all up on the latest developments at all the Disney theme parks around the world, new attractions were only mentioned in passing. No details; no previews; nothing that I hadn’t already heard from other sources or could glean from a quick stroll around Disneyland.

But then Lasseter took the stage. For those of you who don’t know who he is, John Lasseter is the guy who directed Toy Story and is the big creative cheese under Steve Jobs at Pixar. More importantly, he’s a huge Disney geek and someone who, when it comes to entertainment and what Disney “content” should be, GETS IT. Lasseter spoke impassionedly about Disney, about what the company used to be and how it could be that again. He had the crowd cheering (including yours truly) as he spoke, and ended up “pitching” to us the story of his next film, Cars, talking about how a family trip along Route 66 caused him to reassess certain things in his life and how that inspired him to make this movie. I have to admit it was the first time I really started to get excited about Cars. He then not only unveiled the latest trailer for the film but upped the ante and premiered a full scene from the film “never before seen outside the halls of Pixar.” Here we got a chance to see for the first time real interaction between the characters and catch a drift of how the story will unfold. Lightning McQueen is a race car (an “athlete” in a humanless world populated only by automobiles) who takes a detour on the way to a race and ends up stuck in a Podunk little town in the middle of the desert called Radiator Springs. The scene we saw had the town’s tow truck introducing Lighting to his favorite activity: tractor tipping. The way Pixar was able to make said tractors very bovine in their design was a lot of fun, and the scene played out with all the humor, cleverness and excitement we all expect from a Pixar movie. High on that, Lasseter then hit it out of the park by introducing another “never before seen outside of Pixar” clip: the first trailer for Pixar’s next (and, up until now, HIGHLY secretive) film: Ratatouille. It opened with a waiter at a fancy Parisian restaurant showing off a tray of extravagant cheeses, only to find a rat nibbling away on one piece. The little rodent is then pursued, racing though the kitchen amid flying cookware, with his purloined gourmet snack firmly in hand. Cut away to a very funny scene of Ratatouille (said rat) addressing the audience directly, complaining about how his sewer rat family doesn’t understand him because he doesn’t want to eat garbage but dine on the finer foods in life. For goodness sake, they live in Paris, he exclaims! I’m not sure exactly what the story will be for this one, but it looks good so far, and I know it’s in good hands coming from Pixar. Lasseter said Brad Bird (of The Incredibles) is helming this one. Can’t wait.

I think the reason why the Pixar part of the presentation went so much further in depth than the rest was that Iger really needed to let the stockholders know why so much of Disney’s cash was spent on acquiring Pixar and, specifically, Pixar’s talent. Disney’s stock price and dividends are going to be lower for a few years due to the hefty payment spent to bring Pixar under Disney’s wing, so who better to show why it was a worthwhile purchase than “Mr. Pixar” Lasseter himself? I got the feeling from the camaraderie of Lasseter and Iger that an old, winning dynamic may be returning to the Disney company, with Lasseter being the new “Walt” (the one with all the ideas and incredible knack for developing the talents of the creative people at the company) and Iger being like Walt’s brother Roy, the “numbers guy” who figures out how to make it work from a business point of view. Will that hold true for the years ahead? I certainly hope so. It’s an exciting time for the Disney company and Disney geeks like me and Lasseter. While most of the meeting this year came across as a little dry and vague, it nevertheless left me with a feeling that the company is posed on the verge of greatness. But I suppose that’s what a stockholders’ meeting presentation is supposed to do, right?


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