A Warm Reception

by Mark Goldhaber, staff writer

In what was the most sparsely attended shareholder meeting of the Walt Disney Company since a blizzard blanketed Denver in 2003, about 400 to 500 shareholders mostly filled a portion of the auditorium at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in New Orleans yesterday. While no major news was broken that had not been leaking through the rumor mill, the crowd was entertained by previews of coming animated features and special guest appearances.

Donald and Goofy share the lighthearted feeling in the lounge-like atmosphere of the pre-meeting waiting area. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Where previous shareholder meetings had a lengthy queuing area and people lined up hours before the doors opened, when the doors opened finally this year, fewer than a hundred had gathered, standing around in almost a lounge-like atmosphere with refreshments, a balcony and an information table for Disney Worldwide Outreach. After the estimated 4,000 attendees last year in Anaheim, it was almost shocking to see the size of the crowd.

As the meeting starts, the auditorium still has many vacant seats. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Corporate gadfly Evelyn Y. Davis raised shareholder ire by interrupting a presentation by John Lasseter to complain that it was taking too long to get to the business portion of the meeting and asking that business be taken care of before the "entertainment portion" of the meeting. Not as forgiving as the polite crowds in Minneapolis two years ago, the crowd was vocal in their dislike for her refusal to yield the floor. When she interrupted Lasseter, one person in the audience yelled for her to "shut up and sit down."

Disney CEO Bob Iger and Evelyn Y. Davis before the shareholder meeting. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

For the business portion of the meeting itself, it was largely pro forma. The 11 continuing directors were all re-elected with at least 98 percent of the shares voted. (Father Leo J. O'Donovan stepped down after the meeting, having reaching the mandatory retirement age.) The firm of PricewaterhouseCoopers was retained as the company's independent accountants for the current fiscal year by a similar number.

Measures increasing the number of shares available under the company's amended and restated 2005 stock incentive plan and the renewal of the company's 2002 executive performance plan were approved with 89 and 94 percent of shares voted, respectively.

John Lasseter explains upcoming animated features to the shareholders. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The shareholder proposals garnered the most attention, with Evelyn Davis' third annual proposal of an anti-greenmail measure gaining only 15 percent of the vote and an "anti-poison pill" shareholder rights plan gained 43 percent of outstanding shares. The shareholder rights plan actually gained over 57 percent of shares actually voted on the measure, but since it was a proposed change to the company's bylaws it required a two-thirds majority of shares outstanding and so it was not adopted.

In her remarks during the presentation of her proposal, Davis noted that she would not submit this proposal again, as she was now comfortable that the company had addressed her concerns in its adoption of a less stringent anti-greenmail measure. Davis had requested that the protections against the company paying a premium to buy out any selected shareholder take effect at the 10,000-share level, while Disney's measure kicks in at 2 percent of outstanding shares.

John Lasseter talks about The Frog Princess in front of concept art for Maddy, Disney's first African-American princess. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

The mood of those shareholders in attendance was one of gratitude for the company bringing the meeting to New Orleans as it continues to rebuild in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Early in the presentation, Good Morning America's Robin Roberts, an area native, joined Disney CEO Bob Iger on stage to talk about all of the assistance that Disney has provided to the area since the storm swept through. She then announced that 50 members of the executive team at Disney Media Networks, ABC and ESPN will head to New Orleans next month to build a playground, refurbish a basketball court and donate sports equipment for the Slidell Boys & Girls Club, and that Live with Regis & Kelly will broadcast from New Orleans later this spring.

The warm feelings were magnified toward the end of the meeting, when officials announced its next feature in development at Walt Disney Animation Studios. Targeted for a 2009 release, The Frog Princess would feature New Orleans culture and music, as well as Disney's first African-American princess, a girl named Maddy who lives in the French Quarter. The music will be written by Randy Newman, who performed a song from the film with New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band for the crowd. The traditionally-animated movie is targeted for release in 2009.

Randy Newman and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band perform a song from the upcoming The Frog Princess.

Noticeably absent from the presentations were mentions of what's new or coming soon in Disney live-action films, Disney Consumer Products, and even the theme parks. The concentration here was all on animation, including a 12-minute segment of completed animation from Ratatouille featuring the scenes that set the plot for the rest of the film, and an extended sequence from Meet the Robinsons. As always, Disney walk-around characters greeted the shareholders before the meeting, including Wilbur, Lewis and the Bowler Hat Guy from Meet the Robinsons.

Bowler Hat Guy, Lewis and Wilbur from Meet the Robinsons meet and greet the shareholders. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

During the question-and-answer session following the business portion of the meeting, some recurrent topics again surfaced. MousePlanet reader Carol Koster of the Disney Echo Web site asked about the possibility of releasing Song of the South in the future, and was pleased to hear that Disney is reconsidering its position on the film. Walt Disney World cast member Paul Vega, who happened to be home on vacation for the meeting, asked about raising the level of cast member wages, and received a similar answer as in the past, which was basically that the processes in place for determining salaries were not likely to change in the current market.

Disney CEO Bob Iger laughs at a comment during the Q&A portion of the meeting. Photo by Mark Goldhaber.

Rich Koster, Carol's husband, asked about the possibility of holding the world premiere of The Frog Princess in New Orleans and was pleased to hear that it was quite likely to take place. Disney was lauded for the family friendliness of its programming and asked to consider taking a stronger stance against smoking in its films.

All in all, though, while few in number, those in attendance were very happy to have the company come to New Orleans post-Katrina, and very pleased to hear that The Frog Princess will be set in New Orleans and will likely premiere in New Orleans. As to the possibility of controversial issues? That'll have to wait for another shareholder meeting.

For more on the shareholder meeting, be sure to check out next Thursday's MouseStation podcast.