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Rich Ross named chief of Walt Disney Studios

Disney Channel, under Ross' lead, has been a hothouse for talent and ideas that could be packaged and franchised. Now Ross turns his attention to the flagging movie studio.

October 06, 2009|Dawn C. Chmielewski and Claudia Eller

Rich Ross, the television executive who helped revive the moribund Disney Channel, now has to prove he can work movie magic at Walt Disney Studios.

The 47-year-old former talent department head has been tapped by Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert A. Iger to fill the post formerly held by Dick Cook, who was ousted as chairman of the studio Sept. 18 after clashing with his boss and failing to deliver enough hits over the last year.

Iger will look to Ross to reinvigorate Disney's flagging box-office fortunes and develop film franchises that can be sold across the entertainment giant's lines of businesses -- including theme parks, consumer products and television -- as well as grapple with a host of technological issues that are quickly reshaping Hollywood. In his new role, which begins immediately, Ross will oversee worldwide production, distribution and marketing for the company's live-action and animated film labels, including Walt Disney, Touchstone, Miramax and Disney/Pixar. He will also head Disney's theatrical and music groups.

"Rich has an outstanding record of creating high-quality family entertainment that delights audiences around the world," Iger said in a prepared statement. "With his success in building the Disney brand across many of our businesses, his astute marketing sensibility, his proven ability in working effectively with talent and his skill at navigating complex global markets, I'm confident he's the perfect leader for our studio group."

By picking an executive from outside the clubby precincts of the movie business, Iger is signaling that he wants Ross to shake up a studio that the Disney chief views as entrenched in the past, with its reliance on high-priced, aging stars to open films and extravagant spending on marketing.

To achieve this, Ross may be borrowing liberally from the playbook he followed to turn around Disney Channel, which has eclipsed the movie studio in recent years as a hothouse for talent and ideas that could be packaged and resold across the company's various platforms. Ross has proved himself adept at turning entertainment into brands -- high-profile examples include "Hannah Montana," which launched pop star Miley Cyrus' career, and "High School Musical," which was created for television but quickly found life -- and revenue -- in recorded music, a big-screen blockbuster and a stage show.

At a company that stresses team playing among executives, Ross may be the ultimate team player.

"I am very excited to play a key role in continuing the storytelling legacy of the Walt Disney Studios. There has never been a better time to entertain our global audiences with high-quality and compelling content and introduce new characters that will become family favorites. I look forward to working with Bob, the team at the studios and all of our Disney family toward that goal," Ross said.

Even as Ross' promotion was being announced, Iger introduced Ross to Cook's former studio lieutenants. The CEO assured senior staff that everyone's job was secure and there would be no restructuring.

Since his arrival at Disney Channel in 1996, Ross worked closely with other divisions of the Burbank company. For example, when the channel cast Cyrus as Hannah Montana in 2005, Ross ordered an internal "road show" to introduce the program to other parts of Disney. Within six months of the show's debut, the consumer products group was shipping Hannah Montana clothing to stores -- shaving a year off the time required for new TV-linked merchandise to reach retail outlets.

Such cross-division collaboration is a priority for Iger and something he felt was lacking at the movie studio. Moreover, Disney Channel, under Ross, has become a model for Iger's oft-touted franchise strategy, in which entertainment properties can feed other parts of the Disney empire.

A prime example is 2006's "High School Musical" -- an update of "West Side Story" set in a high school, where rival cliques strive to keep the young couple apart. Ross revved up the Disney marketing machine, leading to the release of a soundtrack that was a top-selling CD, a sold-out 42-date concert tour in North and South America, a show at Disney's theme parks and a slew of merchandise.

The 2007 sequel, "High School Musical 2," became the highest-rated telecast in cable history at the time, and the third installment in 2008, "High School Musical 3: Senior Year," raked in more than $250 million in worldwide box-office sales. Merchandise based on "High School Musical" and other Disney Channel movies and television series accounted for $3.6 billion in retail sales worldwide last year -- not including DVDs and CDs.

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