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Walt Disney Studios chief Rich Ross makes the rounds at Sundance Film Festival

Ross' presence shows how Sundance has evolved from a showcase for independent filmmakers into a magnet for Hollywood bigwigs.

January 25, 2011|By Steve Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Rich Ross, named chairman of Walt Disney Studios in October 2009, was given the task of reengineering the studio.
Rich Ross, named chairman of Walt Disney Studios in October 2009, was given… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

Reporting from Park City, Utah — The late-night parties at the Sundance Film Festival are full of regulars, darlings of the independent-movie world who circulate in a small and clubby circle.

Stalwart Sundance attendees like director Jason Reitman, executives such as Harvey Weinstein and actors including Zooey Deschanel and Paul Giamatti were again on the scene, popping into dinners feting various films, showing up at premiere parties, and congregating in the hotels and screening rooms that dot this crowded Utah town.

Among them was a less likely figure: Rich Ross, the head of Walt Disney Pictures — one of the world's largest, most corporate film studios.

It was a sight more arresting than a moose on upscale Main Street. But there was Ross, making the rounds to screenings and parties through the festival's hectic first weekend. He even turned up at a celebration thrown by the specialty distributor Fox Searchlight, whose movies ("Black Swan" and "127 Hours") have about as much in common with Disney films as "Die Fledermaus" has with Mickey Mouse.

Sean Bailey, Disney's president of production, who has put into motion projects such as a new Muppets movie since he was hired about a year ago, also attended the festivities.

Ross' presence shows how Sundance has expanded and changed over its three decades. Once the province of unknown actors and scrappy directors financing movies on credit cards, the festival evolved into a magnet for Hollywood A-listers and heavyweights looking to peddle films and find promising talent.

Although the independent and corporate film worlds remain separate, they occasionally mix. At the Searchlight party, for instance, agents from powerhouse talent agency Creative Artists Agency and other Hollywood bigwigs mingled with auteur filmmakers.

To some in Park City, Ross' presence was ironic given that he helped to dismantle and then sell Disney's specialty film division, Miramax, on the belief that the art-house business was no longer part of the studio's core mission. Miramax, after all, is credited with creating the modern-day independent movie business before its corporate marriage to Disney turned sour.

Ross' professional background may be one of the reasons he's so eager to attend Sundance events.

Unlike other film executives who have worked their way up the studio ladder, Ross comes from the Disney Channel, where he helped shepherd hits like "High School Musical." His presence at film festivals — he also attended Toronto — is seen by many in the industry as an attempt to give himself a crash course on all aspects of the movie business.

Ross was named chairman of Walt Disney Studios in October 2009 and given the task of reengineering the studio that his boss, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Robert Iger, thought was mired in the past.

At the time, Disney's movie studio ended fiscal 2009 with modest operating income of $175 million on revenue of $6.1 billion — with the unit posting its first operating loss in years in the third quarter.

In Ross' first year, the studio's bottom line rose significantly, thanks to the strong theatrical performance of Pixar Animation's "Toy Story 3," Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" and Marvel Entertainment's "Iron Man 2." Operating income rose to $693 million on revenue of $6.7 billion. Those moves were developed by the executive team that preceded the arrival of Ross and his team.

Although Disney is invested in big-budget, "brand-driven" movies like "Tron: Legacy" that feed into merchandising, theme parks and other parts of the entertainment giant, it also aims to work with acclaimed filmmakers with signature visions. In recent months, for instance, it has signed up Guillermo del Toro and David Fincher, two directors who began on the fringes of Hollywood, for new projects.

To be sure, the Disney executives were not trudging around Park City in the hope of discovering the next filmmaker who could make movies that would appeal to the skinny jeans and hoodie set for the studio. Rather, they hope that the lure of a bigger paycheck and guaranteed distribution might persuade some independent filmmakers to bring their unique sensibilities to Disney's mainstream movies.

"We're not getting back into the business of acquiring and distributing independent films," a spokeswoman for the studio said. "But we're very interested in discovering new talent, and this is the place to do that."

Top corporate executives have been known to make brief stopovers in Park City during the festival. Tom Freston, then the chief executive of Viacom Inc., came to Sundance in 2005 to get a look at Craig Brewer's street drama "Hustle & Flow" (Viacom's Paramount Pictures wound up acquiring the film). But those appearances are few and far between, and tend to happen for a specific film, with the executive on the next flight back to Los Angeles or New York after the screening.

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