Iger expects Disney to ride out downturn

CEO touts creative success at shareholder meeting

By Georg Szalai
The Hollywood Reporter
March 10, 2009, 01:31 PM ET
Updated: March 10, 2009, 02:44 PM ET


Robert Iger (Getty Images photo)

NEW YORK -- Walt Disney is confident it will keep its creative successes going despite the economic downturn, CEO Robert Iger said Tuesday, speaking of the need to balance economic realism and operating optimism.

Speaking at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland at the company's annual shareholder meeting, he cited the current recession, saying it is likely "the most difficult economic (period) in our life time."

Iger went on to say: "I'm confident though that our brands, our products and our people can overcome (these challenges)."

The annual outing, meanwhile, voted against three shareholder proposals, including two high-profile proposals on executive pay.

In a shareholder Q&A Tuesday, one investor wished Disney board member Steve Jobs and his family good health and asked for contingency plans in case he has to leave the post for health reasons and in case Jobs' shares end up on the open market in the case of an untimely death.

Jobs recently said he would stay away from his day-to-day operational role as CEO of Apple until the summer while he addresses a health issue.

"We have not thought at all" about the issue, beyond thinking about his best health, chairman John Pepper said. "It's not something we worry about."

Executives added that Jobs, who holds about 7.4% of the company's stock, and his family make all the decisions about the Disney stake.

The shareholder still suggested Disney start looking at possible contingency plans, citing the challenges after the death in 1994 of Disney executive Frank Wells in a helicopter skiing accident, which led to the famous showdown between former chairman Michael Eisner and his former studio boss Jeff Katzenberg.

Pepper had opened the meeting with a similar nod to the "unique" economic challenges, but also said Disney is "confident" about its position given its strong brands and ability to create popular content.

Fun-filled vacations, world-class sports and movies "will always be treasured" by consumers, Pepper argued.

Pepper lauded Iger and his success, saying Disney under his leadership "has taken advantage more than ever of the exciting characters and properties this company has."

He also said that Disney's acquisition of Pixar is "already starting to pay off," pointing to Toy Story and other rides that have been added to Disney's theme parks as an example.

Meanwhile, Iger cited the recent best animated feature Oscar win for "WALL-E" as a great example for Disney's creative strength, which earned him strong applause from shareholders.

Providing entertainment, Iger unveiled a new trailer for upcoming animated feature "Up" and an unfinished scene from 2-D-animated "The Princess and the Frog." Both got a strong audience reaction, particularly the "Princess" clip.

Iger also talked up the upcoming "Hannah Montana" feature and said work on "Toy Story 3" is well under way.

He also announced the names of two new Disney cruise ships: The Disney Dream will set sail in 2011, while the Disney Fantasy will start 2012.

Iger on Tuesday also formally unveiled D23, a membership club for Disney fans. At the annual meeting, shareholders re-elected all board members as suggested by management with more than 90% of the vote. The directors include Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who has been Disney's largest individual shareholder since the Pixar deal and who is taking a break from Apple's day-to-day operations because of health issues.
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Iger expects Disney to ride out downturn