Disney executive speaks tonight

by Ben Mandelker | 11/18/98 6:00am

As part of the Conference on Moral Education, the Hopkins Center will be showing a special sneak-preview screening tonight of Disney's highly anticipated Holiday release, "A Bug's Life." Following the film, Richard Cook, the chairman of The Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, will be answering questions from the audience.

Cook, who presides over the Walt Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures studios, has overseen several hits including "Mulan," "Armageddon" and most recently the box office smash, "The Waterboy." He is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and sits on the board of directors of The Will Rogers Foundation and the Foundation of Motion Picture Pioneers.

While Cook certainly ranks highly on the Disney totem pole now, he started off with the corporation at a much different, much lower position: a monorail conductor in Disneyland.

A student at the University of Southern California, Cook spent the summer of 1970 in school after a baseball injury had temporarily derailed his academic career. "My roommate lived in Orange county, and I lived with him over the summer, and his sister had a job at Disneyland. She encouraged us to apply, and we needed the money," Cook said in an interview with The Dartmouth.

A political science major, Cook had not planned to follow a career with Disney. After he graduated he said, "I planned to go to law school, but I was out of money. I thought I would defer law school."

In 1971, a position as a junior sales executive opened at Disney. "I got the job. I loved it. I was having so much fun just learning about all sorts of aspects of business, marketing, sales," Cook said. He also noted that the timing was especially exciting. "It came at a time when Disneyland was growing and Disney World was just opening up."

Soon, Cook was promoted to manager of sales for Disneyland in 1974 and then later moved into the studio division. Eventually, after a series of promotions throughout the remainder of the 1970s and 1980s, Cook became the president of Buena Vista Pictures Distribution and Marketing in 1994 before moving up again to head the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group.

Cook modestly credits good luck as the main factor in his success. "I think what I hope that I have been able to do is to periodically have a good idea or two and be able to communicate that idea and see it through completion. I think it's a lot of perseverance and being incredibly lucky, fortunate of opportunities that sort of came my way, and I was able to sort of hopefully do a good job with everything."

Some of the major accomplishments Cook has been able to pull off have been the massive and often extravagant film premieres for "Pocahantas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," "Hercules" and "Mulan." The events "were developed in order to bring international recognition to the release of each of these movies. Probably the premiere in Central Park [for Pocahantas] was the highlight as it was performed in front of 100,000 people," Cook said.

However, despite these large publicity events, Cook acknowledges that it is the quality of the film that will truly draw in an audience, not the hype. "If a film isn't very good, and it has all this advanced build up, it's called hype. When the film is good, it's called good marketing ... Cream will always rise to the top. Quality will prevail."

Similarly, Cook believes filmgoers will go to "A Bug's Life," despite the fact that DreamWorks' "Antz" was released over a month ago. "I don't think it is going to have any effect. It is a different kind of movie. Again, I believe audiences are going to be able to discern the difference, and hopefully it'll turn out to be a big hit."

Tonight's special showing of "A Bug's Life" will be is part of the Conference on Moral Education which will raise issues about the entertainment media and its relation with the moral agenda for the country.

Cook admitted that he isn't totally sure of the relation between Hollywood and morality. "I don't know if movies or entertainment set the agenda or reflects the agenda or a little bit of both. I tend to believe it is a little bit of all of it. I don't think there is one thing that totally affects the moral ethics or fiber of society, but certainly the media plays an important part because it reaches many people."

Cook noted, however, that Disney's main goal is to present quality entertainment that hopefully will carry strong moral messages. "We're an entertainment company first and foremost, and we try to bring as many good stories and ideas as we can to the public. There is no one that sits down and says, 'Oh, we need to tell a story that tells a moral' ... Hopefully, within each of the stories, there are elements that anyone can take from and learn something from."

Nevertheless, Cook understands that only rarely can a product be made that is well received across the board. "Very few times can you ever make something or do something that everyone 100 percent can like, but when you do, it is the home run."