TALES FROM TINSELTOWN: Disney needs to make a wish on a PR star to repair its image

Until a few months ago, Walt Disney Co. was humming along in typically indestructible fashion. Then, out of the blue, it began to bump into one roadblock after another.

Until a few months ago, Walt Disney Co. was humming along in typically indestructible fashion. Then, out of the blue, it began to bump into one roadblock after another.

First, the studio got bogged down in a costly and damaging lawsuit with its former head of production, Jeffrey Katzenberg (now a principal at DreamWorks). Then it released its worst set of financial results in years.

Finally, its 1999 summer season kicked off with a resounding dud, the Anthony Hopkins/Cuba Gooding Jr. gorilla thriller Instinct.

Normally, the dutiful Disney PR machine would have mounted a counter-campaign to quell skepticism and remind pundits of its gems (i.e. Tarzan and the forthcoming Inspector Gadget). But even the company's PR minions have remained uncharacteristically quiet.

This is because Disney PR has been undergoing its own mini-upheaval.

A power vacuum was created in March when Terry Curtin, the competent SVP of publicity at Buena Vista Pictures marketing, departed the Mouse House to join rival Universal.

Curtin had overseen all publicity for films released under the studio's Walt Disney, Touchstone and Hollywood Pictures banners. She had also dealt with the trade press and handled a certain number of corporate announcements.

Following her departure, Buena Vista Pictures Marketing execs Geoffrey Ammer and Elizabeth Wolfe appeared to split Curtin's duties. Whether this was a temporary solution or intended as an experiment, Disney didn't say.

It might have been connected to the studio-wide hiring freeze that was imposed several months earlier.

While nobody doubts the ability of Ammer or Wolfe, the studio has missed Curtin's focus and clarity at this rather crucial time. Both Ammer and Wolfe were drafted in from other areas of the company and several journalists have complained that their areas of responsibility remain unclear.

What Disney really needs is a high-level strategist similar to Curtin who can oversee a broad range of studio activities. Insiders say that top Disney management (including marketing chief Chris Pula and motion picture group president Dick Cook) have realized this. The problem is that they need to agree on a replacement, the job specification and who he or she will report to.

Whatever happens, the most senior corporate appointments at Walt Disney are likely to continue to be handled by John Dreyer. Wolfe would refocus on film-release publicity and Ammer on advertising and marketing.

While the new job may be too big for one person, it is a step in the right direction. Disney needs somebody to help sharpen its battered image in the media. But if the top brass can't agree on how to divide up the turf, they'll probably end up hiring nobody.

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