Lovefestby Mark Goldhaber, staff writer
In 1997, the last time that the Walt Disney Company held a shareholder meeting in Anaheim, thousands of angry shareholders packed The Pond and waited through hours of presentations to heavily attack Michael Eisner during the question-and-answer period, causing the then-company Chairman and CEO to take the meeting on the road for the next eight years.
The meeting found its way to Kansas City, Seattle, Fort Worth, Chicago, Hartford, Denver, Philadelphia and Minneapolis in that time. But with the departure of Michael Eisner and installation of Robert Iger as the new CEO, Disney returned the shareholder meeting to Anaheim, and the meeting could not have been more different than the last one in 1997.
The few young shareholders in attendance were able to get many characters to themselves in the early hours before the start of the meeting. Once the doors opened, characters roamed the concourse of The Pond. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
Huge numbers of shareholders were expected due to the location, and estimates placed the size of the crowd at around 4,000. While that number dwarfs the estimated 1,000 that attended in Minneapolis last year (link) and also exceeds the 3,000 that made it to Philadelphia in 2004 (link), it left The Pond appearing largely vacant.
Those that showed up were treated to a warm performance by new CEO Iger, who has seemingly made reconciliation part of the central focus of his tenure to date. While still CEO-elect, Iger eased the exit of Harvey and Bob Weinstein from Miramax and negotiated a peaceful end to the Save Disney campaign. In recent days, he has engineered the return of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, Walt Disney's first star cartoon character, and the purchase of Pixar Animation Studios.
Iger seemed much more relaxed, and had a much warmer stage presence, than at any time during his tenure as Disney's President under Michael Eisner. It is quite possible that this was due to a desire not to upstage Michael Eisner, as that could have had a severely toxic effect on his career at the company. Regardless of the reason why, Iger finally showed the skills that allowed him to begin his career as a television on-air personality.
The size of the crowd was dwarfed by the capacity of the arena. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
"I'd like to start by mentioning a recent acquisition that received well a fair amount of attention," began Iger. "Now, I know what you're all thinking: When it comes to classic characters and great storytelling, nothing quite compares to Oswald the Lucky Rabbit." After the cheers and laughter died down, Iger did note that he would talk about Pixar later in the presentation.
With such crowd-pleasing sound bites as "creating high-quality entertainment is the number one priority for the company today" and "at Disney, it's not about meeting expectations; it's about exceeding them," Iger noted that Disney plans to deliver double-digit growth on average through at least through 2008.
Iger also introduced new technological innovations including improved personalization coming to the Disney and ESPN web sites and more ways to get ABC television shows online. At ABC.com, viewers will be able to see complete episodes of ABC shows with commercials inserted into them. Ad-free versions will be available for purchase.
Disney CEO and President Bob Iger addresses the meeting. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
"Being at the forefront of technological change will allow us to stay connected to our consumers, but it may also require a departure from old rules and practices and the development of new business models," said Iger. "The riskiest thing we can do as a company is to maintain the status quo. We have to experiment strategically; we also have to invest wisely. And while we may not always bat 1.000 with these new initiatives, our company's future depends on them."
It was refreshing to hear such candor and a commitment to risk, as the company was extremely risk-averse for the last few years under Michael Eisner.
Iger next introduced the Pixar acquisition (link) and John Lasseter bounded onto the stage, wearing his trademark Hawaiian shirt and jeans. Lasseter began by noting that, "for the Disney stockholders' meeting, my wife said, 'you've got to dress up, John,' so I wore black tennis shoes and I put a jacket on. Look at it, baby, this is as dressed as I get."
Lasseter drew tremendous applause when he noted that at Pixar, "all of us believe in one simple thing: quality is a great business plan. Period."
Pixar's John Lasseter got dressed up for the meeting. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
Further supporting Disney's new CEO, Lasseter spoke about Disney's acquisition of Pixar. "I was worried, until I got to know Bob Iger. Ladies and gentlemen, you are led by a great man. He is amazing. That's why we're here. That's why Pixar joined up with Disney."
On his plans for Disney animation, Lasseter added,"I promise you, we will make films that will entertain you from the moment the lights dim until the moment they come up. I give you my word on that."
He won further applause when stating, "I promise you, not only are we going to make great motion pictures we're going to make theme park rides that as soon as you get off that ride, you want to get back in that line, no matter how long it is, to ride that ride again."
Lasseter also showed three clips. The first was a new trailer for Pixar's upcoming feature, Cars. After noting that the subject and story of Cars was very close to his heart, Lasseter then showed a short completed segment of the movie, which had the audience roaring with laughter. He then thanked Iger and began leaving the stage.
Iger told Lasseter that he thought that he was holding something back, at which point Lasseter used Steve Jobs' trademark phrase, noting that he had "just one more thing." Lasseter then introduced the first trailer for Pixar's feature film for summer 2007, Ratataouille.
While none went overboard, Disney paraphernalia was readily apparent on many shareholders. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
Disney's Chief Financial Officer Tom Staggs, who is reportedly one of the leading candidates to eventually become company President, had one interesting point in his presentation reviewing the company's financial outlook. Apparently, the SEC antitrust review period has ended, and therefore Pixar is now free to distribute proxies to their shareholders, and the deal is expected to close sometime in late April or May.
In the business portion of the meeting, all 13 directors were reelected to an additional year, with each director getting at least 94 percent of votes in favor. Price-Waterhouse was again approved as Disney's official accounting firm. Both shareholder proposals were voted down.
Never one to miss a marketing opportunity, Disney set up a special tent outside The Pond, selling merchandise at a 10 percent discounts to those attending the meeting. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.
Notable by its absence was any mention of Michael Eisner. Most likely wanting to avoid pressing the hot button with shareholders, Eisner's name was not mentioned once during the formal presentations, not even to thank him for his efforts in 20 years at the helm. His name only came up briefly when mentioned by a shareholder during the question-and-answer period at the end of the meeting.
While John Lasseter gave a rousing presentation, the breakout star of the show this year was arguably Bob Iger. Whether he was explaining why Song of the South would not be released on DVD or explaining that Disney believes that it is dealing fairly with the unions representing Disneyland cast members (who are threatening to strike next week), Iger spoke with refreshing candor and personal accountability. That's a new and welcome change for a leader of the Walt Disney Company.
All in all, it seemed that everybody at the meeting went home happy. That's a big change from the last shareholder meeting at The Pond.
The audio from the shareholder meeting is available in streaming and MP3 formats at the Disney Investor Relations site (link). For additional commentary on the shareholder meeting, check out the podcast that I did with Chuck Oberleitner and Jim Hill (the three of us are the only web-based Disney-focused media writers to cover the last three shareholder meetings in person) that's available at O-Meon.com (link). And please disregard the joke that Hill makes after the closing music on Oberleitner's podcast.