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Originally published Saturday, March 13, 2010 at 10:00 PM

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Brain-eating zombies invade Disney in Iger plan to win boy fans

Hammered by the global recession, Disney CEO Robert Iger is pouring billions into attracting a new generation of kids — boys especially — raised on violent video games and reality shows.

Bloomberg News

When Walt Disney Co. asked publisher Dan Vado to make a series of comic books based on its Haunted Mansion theme-park ride, he worried that the empire built on the likes of Snow White and Tinker Bell would reject his brand of creepy humor.

Vado gave Disney skeletons dangling from nooses, scattered corpses and a ghostly poodle that says "crap." To his surprise, Disney signed off on his vision.

"Everything we did was really strange," says Vado, founder of San Jose, Calif.-based SLG Publishing, as in Slave Labor Graphics. "The interesting thing about Disney is, for a company perceived as being stodgy, they do a good job of reinventing themselves."

Disney Chief Executive Robert Iger, 59, is on a spending spree at the world's biggest media company to transform his film studio, amusement parks and stores. In fiscal 2009, net profit fell 25 percent to $3.3 billion — the worst annual performance in Iger's five-year reign — and was almost flat in the first quarter of 2010 compared with a year earlier.

The global recession has hammered the company's 11 theme parks, which are offering promotions and discounts.

The Burbank, Calif.-based company's studio is also struggling: In 2009, it churned out box-office flops such as "G-Force," which featured wisecracking guinea pigs.

Iger is pouring billions into attracting a new generation of kids — boys especially — raised on violent video games and reality shows.

$4.3 billion for Marvel

In December, Disney completed its $4.3 billion purchase of Marvel Entertainment, home of Iron Man, Spider-Man and the X-Men, paying a 40 percent premium over the stock price.

The company is now building two additional cruise ships, one of which includes an AquaDuck water coaster that plunges four decks.

Amusement-park guests will see more-complex, life-size electronic robots made to look like U.S. presidents and Disney characters.

And with input from Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Disney's largest shareholder, Iger is giving his 350 retail stores a high-tech makeover and opening a new one in New York's Times Square in the fall.

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The total price tag for all of the upgrades through 2014: more than $12.3 billion, according to a Soleil Securities analyst Alan Gould, a 59 percent increase over the prior five years.

After Iger took over in October 2005, the stock rose 53 percent to a seven-year peak of $36.30 in May 2007 before crashing in 2009 during the credit crisis to a low of $15.59.

During the last 52 weeks, its shares have jumped 96.7 percent to $33.69, beating the Standard & Poor's 500 index gain of 52 percent but lagging behind rival News Corp.'s 155 percent rise.

"Disney is going to be basically doubling what they are spending," says James Tarkenton, a managing director at Lateef Investment Management. Greenbrae, Calif.-based Lateef has sold all of the 149,984 Disney shares it held in April 2009.

Iger declined to be interviewed for this story.

Serial acquirer

Iger, who came to Disney in 1996 as part of the company's $19 billion purchase of Capital Cities/ABC, has proved to be a serial acquirer. Three months after taking the helm as CEO, he agreed to pay $7.4 billion for Pixar, which was co-founded by Jobs, to improve Disney's flagging animation pipeline.

In all, the CEO has snapped up 28 companies in whole or part, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

When announcing the deal for Marvel and its cast of superheroes in August, Iger said they would add to Disney's stable of characters and attract more boys to its cable cartoon offerings.

While some Disney entertainment such as Pixar's "Cars" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" action films may be popular with boys, most of its movies, cable shows and characters appeal to young children and adolescent girls, says UBS analyst Michael Morris in New York.

Hit with girls

The Disney Channel is the leading cable network in reaching girls ages 6 to 14 with hits such as "Hannah Montana," about a teenage pop singer, Disney has said.

"Content and products for boys have been less consistent for Disney than those for girls," Morris says. "When Disney looks for growth opportunities, it sees big potential with boys."

Last year, Disney also bought Wideload Games, maker of the violent video game "Stubbs the Zombie in Rebel Without a Pulse," featuring brain-eating zombies. And the company re-branded its Toon Disney cable cartoon channel into Disney XD.

The channel's new programming features shows such as "Kick Buttowski" aimed at boys ages 6 to 14, the company said.

When Disney creates a franchise — such as "High School Musical," which features teen heartthrob Zac Efron — Iger tries to exploit it across the company's empire. The Disney Channel movie also found life in theaters, a stage musical, CDs, DVDs, video games, an ice-skating show and at parks.

"When they get a hit, they can really leverage that for big profits," says Michael Cuggino, an investment fund president. "But when they miss, they miss on many levels. That makes for a rough and volatile business."

While Pixar's "Toy Story" and "Finding Nemo" films have produced some synergy, the Academy Award-nominated "Up" has not.

The lead character, a grumpy old man, would be unappealing in other venues, analysts say. Iger said in July that while he was satisfied with the movie's box-office sales, he didn't consider it a franchise.

"Disney needs to figure out how to develop those properties," says Janna Sampson, co-chief investment officer of Lisle, Ill.-based OakBrook Investments, which has 300,000 Disney shares. "That's why I thought they paid all that money for Pixar."

Leadership change

Iger took over from Michael Eisner, who in 2004 was stripped of his chairmanship by Disney's board while embroiled in feuds, including one with Jobs over a Pixar distribution deal.

Eisner, 67, retired the next year, after Walt Disney's nephew, Roy Disney, led a shareholder revolt, claiming Eisner was a micromanager who had caused a creative brain drain.

Eisner's strategic-planning division applied so much scrutiny to business proposals that managers were reluctant to pitch ideas, Iger said in a 2005 analyst meeting after disbanding the group.

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, N.Y., Iger was voted the "most enthusiastic" member of the Oceanside High School class of 1969.

At ABC, he ascended in rank as the entertainment industry consolidated. In 1987, the one-time studio supervisor became vice president of programming at ABC Sports. After the Disney deal, he rose to chairman of ABC Group, president of Walt Disney International and president of Disney in 2000.

"Iger manages people extraordinarily well," says Laura Martin, an analyst at Needham & Co. in Pasadena, Calif.

As CEO, Iger named Pixar creative director John Lasseter the chief creative officer of both Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.

Lasseter also offers advice to executives involved with theme parks, video games and merchandising.

And he appears in corporate videos expounding on changes he has made, such as creating realistic Pixar toys by using digital data from movies to craft the face of Woody from the "Toy Story" films, for example.

After years of executive turnover under Eisner, Iger's top lieutenants have mostly stayed put — until recently.

During a conference call in May, Iger criticized his studio, led by 40-year Disney veteran Dick Cook, which had produced clunkers such as "Bedtime Stories" about a hotel handyman.

"It's about choice of films and the execution of the films that have been chosen for production, and we've had a rough year in terms of the performance," Iger said.

Four months later, Cook resigned, replaced by Rich Ross, then president of Disney Channels Worldwide.

In 2009, Disney finished No. 5 in box-office sales among the six major studios, according to Box Office Mojo. The studio's operating income dropped 84 percent in fiscal 2009, its worst showing in a decade, before rebounding in its latest quarter, which ended on Jan. 2.

To fill theaters, Ross, 48, can't yet rely on several of Marvel's most popular comic-book characters. They're tied up in licensing deals.

News Corp. has the rights to the X-Men, Sony controls Spider-Man, and Universal Studios claims several Marvel characters for exclusive use in its Orlando theme parks.

Ross has to mine the likes of Captain America, Thor and lesser-known figures like Ant-Man until the bigger superhero licenses expire beginning in 2013.

The licensing deals soured some analysts on the Marvel purchase.

"Over the long run, we suspect this will be viewed as Mr. Iger's first major mistake as CEO," Citigroup analyst Jason Bazinet wrote in September.

Beyond the movies

Iger's best-performing business is the one that bears no resemblance to Disney's iconic brands: ESPN.

Disney picked up ESPN, the No. 1 U.S. sports network by ratings, in the Capital Cities/ABC deal. ESPN has become the workhorse in the company's media division, its largest, composed of broadcast and cable networks.

Buoyed by growing subscriber fees, cable generated 29 percent of Disney's revenues in 2009, up from 23 percent three years earlier, and produced 64 percent of the company's total operating profit in fiscal 2009.

"Disney should be called ESPN Co.," says Gould, the Soleil Securities analyst.

ABC, the third-ranked broadcast network, according to Nielsen, is dwarfed by cable. Gould estimates that ABC, including its local stations and production operations, is worth about $5.3 billion, or about 14 percent of ESPN's value.

Iger may consider selling ABC, says analyst Michael Nathanson of New York-based Sanford C. Bernstein & Co.

"ABC is a good question," Nathanson says. "I would ask the company if ABC fits in."

As ABC's advertising revenue falls, Iger is demanding an increased share of the fees paid by cable and satellite companies to the broadcaster's independent affiliate stations that carry its programming. "We should get paid for the value we deliver," Iger said in December.

Nexstar Broadcasting Group, an Austin, Texas-based affiliate of ABC and other networks, plans to resist Iger's demand for a bigger slice of fees. CEO Perry Sook says he needs the fees — $22.5 million in the first nine months of 2009 — to make up for declining ad sales at the 63 local stations Nexstar owns and works with.

Iger's biggest financial bet is on his theme-park, resort and cruise-ship business, which in fiscal 2009 posted its steepest decline in operating income since the Sept. 11 attacks. Disney has used discounts, including as much as 45 percent off hotel rates at Walt Disney World in Florida, to lure visitors.

In keeping with the CEO's edict to apply technology wherever possible, new rides at Epcot in Florida include a motion simulator called the "Sum of All Thrills." Using a touch-screen monitor, kids customize their ride by programming simulated corkscrews, inversions and hills.

At Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World, the "Star Tours" rides, using scenes based on the original "Star Wars" movies, will be updated next year with 3-D versions of the more-recent trilogy of movies.

Tough competition

Walt Disney World will have to work harder for visitors after the nearby Universal Studios Florida park opens a new "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" area in the spring. It will feature a replica of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry.

"Look out, Cinderella Castle, here comes Hogwarts castle," says Dennis Speigel, president of Cincinnati-based consulting firm International Theme Park Services.

Even in Asia, Disney is finding it hard to make a buck.

Five years ago, the company and the local government in Hong Kong formed a joint venture to open a Disneyland in the region, where Ocean Park, a sea-themed venue, has proved tough competition. Disney's venture is still losing money.

"They missed the mark in Hong Kong in underestimating the competition," Speigel says.

Disney is now moving into Shanghai, where the Chinese government in November gave its approval to build an amusement park.

In leaving his mark on the Magic Kingdom, Iger is also shuffling his top managers. In November, he switched Chief Financial Officer Thomas Staggs, 49, with James Rasulo, 54, head of the theme parks.

Heir apparent?

Iger said he was handing them new challenges, not preparing for succession. But Gould says Staggs, a former Morgan Stanley investment banker, is likely being given operational experience to groom him for the top job.

Cuggino, the investor, praises Iger's moves. "I like companies that invest in their business when economic times are tough," he says. "That means they'll be stronger when the economy improves."

If Iger gets a fairy-tale ending to his tenure as CEO, it will at least partly come from muscle-bound superheroes and bloodthirsty zombies — a far cry from the characters Walt Disney made famous at Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth.

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