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Walt Disney Studios: Help wanted to manage films and egos

Few in Hollywood seem interested in heading Disney Studios, a tough job requiring working with outside partners and guiding the company into the digital age.

April 26, 2012|By Ben Fritz, Los Angeles Times
  • Rich Ross had never worked in the movie business before getting the studio chief job.
Rich Ross had never worked in the movie business before getting the studio… (PAUL BUCK, EPA )

Once considered one of the most powerful and sought-after positions in Hollywood, running Walt Disney Studios — the 89-year-old Burbank institution behind "Snow White," "Mary Poppins" and "Pirates of the Caribbean" — now seems about as desirable as playing Goofy on a hot day at Disneyland.

But since Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Iger fired his studio head Rich Ross last week, the buzz in Hollywood has been less about who's angling for the studio chairman job and more about who would want it.

The reason: Iger's strategy of turning Disney into a collection of brands means that most of the films it releases are not overseen or greenlighted by the movie studio chief, as they are at rival companies. Next year, for example, Disney will release five movies, including two 3-D re-releases, from its Pixar and Disney animation units, both headed by John Lasseter and Ed Catmull; two superhero films from Marvel, a subsidiary run by Chief Executive Ike Perlmutter and President Kevin Feige; and at least one from DreamWorks, the independent studio run by Steven Spielberg and Stacey Snider that has a distribution deal with Disney.

Ross' successor must be someone all of those partners trust and with whom they are willing to work. And a big part of the job will be managing their egos.

Only two films on Disney's 2013 slate were approved and overseen by Ross: "Oz: The Great and Powerful," based on the classic book series and movie, and a new version of "The Lone Ranger" starring Johnny Depp. And both have powerful producers who are themselves forces to be reckoned with: Jerry Bruckheimer on "The Lone Ranger" and former Disney studio Chairman Joe Roth on "Oz."

The studio is responsible, however, for advertising and releasing the movies from all of its brands and partners, meaning Ross' successor would be an easy target for blame if those pictures didn't work. People close to Disney but not authorized to speak publicly say Lasseter, Feige and Snider are all intimately involved in marketing plans and were bitter about having their films promoted by inexperienced outsider M.T. Carney, whom Ross hired in 2010 and dismissed early this year.

Though Ross' departure came soon after the failure of "John Carter," for which Disney is taking a $200-million write-down, people close to the studio said it had more to do with his inability to win the support of allies inside and outside Disney. Lasseter, Perlmutter, Snider and Spielberg were said to have been unhappy with his leadership, and numerous lower-level employees at the studio, plus agents and producers around Hollywood, complained that Ross did not clearly articulate the types of projects he wanted or his vision to transform the studio.

In addition, Ross replaced nearly all of the seasoned movie executives at Disney with less experienced hands. Some newcomers, such as production president Sean Bailey, are well liked, but others, such as Carney, were spectacular failures. (So far, Carney's successor, Ricky Strauss, is winning higher marks.)

Thus, less than three years after Iger stunned Hollywood by replacing veteran Dick Cook with Ross, who had a successful tenure running Disney Channels Worldwide but had never worked in the movie business, the Disney CEO must go back to the drawing board — again.

He is faced with the humbling task of finding a chairman capable of endearing himself or herself to colleagues and Hollywood's creative community and who also possesses the skills to update the studio for the digital age — one of the ostensible reasons Cook was fired.

"All of this drama shows the changes at the studio are very much a work in progress," said Tony Wible, a media analyst at Janney Montgomery Scott. "But it's important they figure it out because the studio is a launching pad for the brands that make money in theme parks, in consumer products and on television."

Walt Disney Studios is now being run by several executives previously under Ross who now report directly to Iger, including Bailey and President Alan Bergman, who oversees distribution and business operations. It's an unusual situation in Hollywood, where top executives usually aren't fired without a replacement lined up to prevent the kind of instability and uncertainty now present on the Disney lot.

Already, many of the names that first popped up as potential successors for Ross have quietly made clear that they're not interested or are unavailable.

Feige, who has produced Marvel's string of hits including two "Iron Man" films, "Thor" and "Captain America: The First Avenger," along with next week's hugely anticipated "The Avengers," is telling associates that he'd prefer to stay in his current job, according to two people familiar with the executive's thinking.

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